Inez Nathaniel Walker American, 1911-1990


Born into poverty in Sumter, South Carolina, Inez Nathaniel Walker (née Stedman) had been orphaned as a young child. At sixteen she married and had four children. To escape the harsh world of farm labor, in the 1930s she joined the Great Migration and moved to Philadelphia and then in the 1940s to New York state, where she lived in a number of different towns over the years, working menial jobs.

In 1971 Inez Nathaniel (Walker, after she remarried in 1975) began making art at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York, where she was incarcerated for two years for killing a man who had abused her. When a remedial English teacher in the penitentiary, Elizabeth Bayley, found a stack of nearly eighty unsigned drawings left in her classroom, she discovered they were made by her student Inez Nathaniel. Bayley asked to buy the drawings, encouraged her to continue drawing, and soon the art teacher of the prison gave her paper and drawing supplies. By the time Walker was released from prison in 1972, she had become enormously prolific and had caught the attention of a local folk art dealer, Pat Parsons, who began to bring her better art supplies and organized her first exhibition that same year.

Her early drawings were made on the back of prison newsletters, evaluation forms, and the like, using graphite, pens, and crayons; her later works are made with watercolor, ink, and felt-tip pens on high-quality paper. Her drawings are mostly portraits of women and self-portraits. Her subjects’ heads, with detailed hair and sometimes hats, are always the most detailed part of her work, along with distinctively large eyes framed with curly lashes, which always face the viewer, even in profile portraits. Even if creating a true likeness eluded her, Walker was gifted at conveying a person’s essence.

After she remarried, Walker lived in New York’s Finger Lakes region and devoted herself to making art, welcoming visitors to see her work. Almost every significant anthology and catalogue documenting the work of African American folk and self-taught artists in the United States includes her work, among them: Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists and Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collectors Guide (both by Chuck Rosenak and Jan Rosenak), Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980 (Jane Livingston, John Beardsley, and Regenia Perry), and American Folk Art of the Twentieth Century (Jay Johnson and William Ketchum). Her work is in the collections of the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the Museum of International Folk Art (Santa Fe, New Mexico), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.), and the Collection de l’Art Brut (Lausanne, Switzerland).