When Leila Walker was a young girl growing up in Kentucky, she not only enjoyed playing with her collection of dolls. She also liked making her own dolls.
As an adult, Walker still enjoys the process of creating figures from materials that aren't prefabricated or come from plastic molds. Today, the "dolls" that she creates are small-scale and life-sized works of art, sculptures that the emerging artist is currently showing at Watson MacRae Gallery's "People & Places" exhibit.
"I liked making dolls as a kid. I bought my own fabric and stuffed them with paper, then sewed it all together," said Walker, who moved to the island when she was 16. "My nana was always making stuff out of fabric — dolls, ornaments and other little things. So I began making dolls for my mom and my sister. To me, they felt more personal."
Following high school, Walker attended Edison State College and Florida International University in Miami, where she focused her studies on Fine Arts. She recalled taking a three -dimensional sculpture class at Edison, where she constructed a buffalo using only wire and cement. As a result of that project, Walker went on to display some of her creations at the Robert Rauschenberg Gallery, where she took first place honors at a student showcase in 2006.
"I'm not good at drawing. I'm much better at using my hands," admits Walker, who created her first figurative sculpture — entitled "Telephone" — using chicken wire and plaster. "At that point, my artistic process was still evolving. But it seemed like a direction I wanted to go in."
Simultaneously, Walker began writing a lot of introspective poetry.
"I was all about my writing, so the sculptures I was making were a direct reflection on how I was feeling about myself," she added.
Eventually, Walker created a second "themed" sculpture, entitled "Telephone 2." The artist described the piece as one figure talking on a telephone, with a second figure also listening to the receiver. A third figure, standing a short distance away from the others, eavesdrops on the conversation.
While Walker's small-scale sculptures received a lot of praise from her professors and fellow students, she decided to start making larger figures, a decision that was met with some disapproval... at first.
"Some of my professors thought I was crazy to move in that direction," said Walker. "But one professor — Ralph Buckley — told me to ignore what they said. He told me, 'Keep working on it. You'll find your way.'"
Her piece, entitled "Microcosm Of A Paradigm," featuring four life-sized figures, was featured as her final student review exhibit at FIU.
"Since this was gonna be my last show, I wanted to make a bang. I wanted to make a statement," said Walker. "But at the same time, I was very nervous."
"Microcosm Of A Paradigm" captured high praise at FIU's Spring 2009 BFA showcase. And Walker has gone on to success at other exhibitions, taking top honors at the 2009 BIG Arts Juried Sculpture Show and at her first exhibit as a professional artist, at Watson MacRae's "Women's Stories: Love, Life & Dreams" exhibit in February 2010.
"I'm glad that I stuck with my idea," Walker said with a bit of a grin. "I feel very validated."
Her current exhibit features on life-sized figure and several smaller (about 20-24 inches) figures, created out of bent lengths of wire, coarse string, hemp and natural rope, canvas, steel wool, dried flowers, fur as well as Walker's own hair.
But in which direction does Walker see herself moving in these days?
"I'm sort of happy working in life-sized figures," she said. "I want my art to be approachable. I want people to be able to relate to my work."
Gallery owner Maureen Watson has no doubt that Walker will be a success in whichever direction she chooses.
"Consciously or unconsciously, people really connect with Leila's artwork," said Watson. "It's her originality. Sculptures that are filled with odd bits of things that make us think. That's what a good artist's work makes us do."
Artist Leila Walker, a resident of Sanibel, is showing several pieces — including the life-sized 'Lost Shadow' — at Watson MacRae Gallery's 'People & Places' exhibit.
Fact BoxTo Go
"People & Places" exhibit
Monday through Saturday
10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Through May 7
Watson MacRae Gallery
2340 Periwinkle Way, Unit B3
For more information