By Mikael Krummel

It took David Walker a while to acknowledge that, at some point, he had morphed into an artist, a realization that only first occurred to him about 10 years ago. Until then, he hadn’t taken any radical career turns through his several decades of tradecraft. He had long been a carpenter, and he had logged time as furniture maker. So yes, he could properly be considered a skilled craftsman. But an artist? Not to him.

However, that was before Walker started gaining attention for his very unusual approach to women’s fashion design. It started 17 years ago in Alaska when he adopted a new hobby that gained notice in a Juneau art show. The hobby was challenging but fun, so he stuck with it. Yet he never quite fully grasped that, to most observers, his fashion creations were not only surprisingly elaborate, they were wholly unique pieces of art.

That bigger realization began to take hold about half a dozen years in, when he entered one of his designs in an international art competition in New Zealand. And he walked away with a Grand Award worth $25 thousand.

Turns out, not only were his garments stunningly artistic, but, perhaps more noteworthy, his fashions were crafted from neither cotton nor silk, nor satin, gabardine, polyester, or any other fabric–they were made from wood.

Chip off the old block

Walker’s emergence as an artist, he says, is partly rooted in his tendency to challenge himself. This compelled him to create his first fashion piece, “Skirt and Top From the Workshop,”back in 2001. “The challenge was taking wood and making it into something it wasn’t meant to be,” he recalls. “I’m not one to follow a blueprint; I never follow a plan to a T. I always mess with the creative process.”

In the case of “Skirt and Top,” Walker shaved dozens of long wood ribbons from a 12-foot piece of pine. He then soaked and straightened the ribbons so they could be woven into a fabric of sorts, from which he could cut and shape a blouse and skirt. It worked well for the Juneau show, but within a month, the wood started getting increasingly fragile until the ribbons eventually crumbled. He no longer uses the woven ribbon technique.

“Most of my designs have been trial and error,” Walker says. “Something out of nothing. There are no patterns. No go-to videos. Until I bought my first mannequin, it was really hard.”

Which is not to say that there weren’t some early influencers along Walker’s path to wearable wood art. He has five younger sisters and “every one of them has always sewed,” he says. He often consults with his youngest sister, a costume designer in theater arts. And though Walker jokes, “I was always out back banging nails with my dad,” he confesses he’s had plenty of family exposure to clothing and fashion.

Can you say WOW?

WOW is the acronym for World of WearableArt, New Zealand’s dazzling annual international competition and celebration of, well, wearable art. The 2018 WOW competition will likely attract 60 thousand spectators and participants through its 11-day run this September. WOW features more than a hundred competing artists and designers, plus live concerts, runway shows, supermodels, light shows, Cirque du Soleil performances, and plenty of other grand revelry.

Walker is a WOW VIP. Like most of the VIP artists in the competition, Walker’s fashion pieces each have their own team of models, dressers, and production workers to coordinate details when the art pieces go live. WOW has also promoted, toured, and encouraged financial backing for Walker’s art.

“I’m having fun with all this at the moment,” Walker says. But he also says he doesn’t really know where it might take him. Maybe a few more WOW competitions, maybe a little more exposure, but fame? Clearly that’s not a part of his plan. He’s quick to admit he’s not a stage personality. “The interviews? The press? The public presentations?” he says. “That’s not my space.”

Inspiration or idea?

Walker has created a dozen wood fashion pieces since his first venture into the wearable art world, including dresses, skirts, bodices, bustiers, hats, helmets, shoes, and even jewelry. It’s fair to say that the style and artistic impact of each piece has been unique unto itself.

  • His WOW Grand Award winner, “Lady of the Wood,” is a near replica of a classic, 18th-century ballroom gown. The gown materials move and flow, much like the original gowns of the period.
  • “Stella Nova,”with it’s striking layered and hard-curved skirt, shoulder forms, and matching skull cap, conjures up a strange sense of ’50’s modernism and perhaps sci-fi futurism.
  • “Beast and the Beauty” is Walker’s most personal design. It is both an artistic punctuation of breast cancer awareness and an homage to his first wife, who fell victim to the cancer.
  • “Ajaw Eamonom,” his newest creation, features an elaborate winged headpiece and sectioned skirt similar to ancient Aztec ceremonial costumes. It is a 2018 WOW entry.

Most designs, Walker says, don’t originate in a moment of inspiration. More often, they reflect his intent to answer technical and conceptual challenges imposed by the nature of different woods: hardness, durability, stiffness, colors, and grain patterns.

“Some of my designs key into definite ideas,” Walker says. “They’re meant to look like or copy certain ideas. Other designs have been about the materials I used and how they kind of ruled the direction that the design went.”

He adds, “The longer I’ve worked on these pieces, the more my goal is to create something that’s not so much an exhibit but a living, moving thing worn by somebody.”