April 5, 2013
Text by Kris Wilton
His own art took a back seat while he attended to a teaching career and family. These days, Rex Prescott Walden is back on track, following the muse he detoured from so long ago.
Rex Prescott Walden is the first to admit that he lives an enviable life. He awakes each morning in a house overlooking Long Island Sound. “I get up and figure out what I can do in the studio or what I can do outside to make the place even better,” he says. There’s plenty to keep him busy on the Guilford property his grandfather once owned, but he’s just as likely to spend the day in his light-filled second-floor studio, looking up from his painting now and then to take in the view westward across the vast blue of the Sound toward the Thimble Islands. “It’s a real charmed life,” Walden says. “But I’m not taking it for granted.”
For one thing, it was a long time coming, a dream deferred for decades while family and career took precedence. “I remember in elementary school I was told by the math teacher to write ‘I will not draw in math class’ a hundred times,” Walden says. “I just couldn’t stop myself.”
No matter how he loved it, though, art didn’t seem the practical path for a man who wanted to be able to support a family. Instead Walden became an art teacher at Valley Regional High School in Deep River. Over the years, he earned two masters degrees and rose to the position of chairman of the school’s fine arts department.
Teaching left little energy for his own creative work. “I was pretty blown out at the end of the day,” he says. “Plus, I had kids. And kids have to go to soccer.”
In 2002, after thirty-one years of teaching and with the children grown, Walden retired from his first career and plunged right into his second as an artist. A decade later, his work has been shown at galleries across the state and hangs in the collections of the Florence Griswold Museum, New Haven Paint and Clay and the Smilow Cancer Center at Yale–New Haven Hospital.
Shortly before he retired, Walden found a stash of old nautical charts the science department had discarded. “I thought, ‘Wow, these things are really handsome,’” he recalls. “I was taken by their graphic mystery—no routes, no roads—the viewer commanded the journey.”
The charts have become a constant in his abstract, collage-inspired pieces. “They begin the journey people can take when they look at my work,” he says.
Narrative and journey are integral to the collages, which combine painterly sections with more structural elements such as measuring devices and other found objects. “I’ll use things like rulers to mark the viewer’s steps through this journey they’re taking,” he explains.
As for other objects—pencils, old postage stamps, buttons—he says, “They establish some kind of a conversation that the audience has with the piece. People make a very personal connection: they see that object in a way they knew at a certain time in their life and add that to this little journey that’s taking place.”
Walden thinks of many of his abstract pieces as seascapes, though not of the storm-tossed variety. “They’re more about serenity and calm and a sense of order,” he says.
This peaceful representation of the sea also prevails in the work of one of his heroes, Richard Diebenkorn. “I just fell in love with him the second I saw the ‘Ocean Park’ series,” says Walden. Attending a 1997 show of Diebenkorn’s work at the Whitney, “was like going to church for me,” he adds. He counts Robert Rauschenberg’s use of found objects and Mark Rothko’s distinctive approach to color as other inspirations, as well as the postal imagery in author Nick Bantock’s epistolary Griffin and Sabine series. “I got into doing a lot of postal pieces because I thought that was part of the journey, too: the mystery of sending you from one place to another,” Walden says.
Walden, of course, has been on quite an unpredictable journey himself. To cap off his last year as a teacher, he gave the graduation speech at school. The next day, he says, “I barely remembered teaching. I went right into my work.” •
EDITOR’S NOTE Rex Prescott Walden is represented by the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery, Stamford, (888) 861-6791, flalvarezgallery.com.