Perhaps more than any other Highwaymen artist, Charles Walker carefully studies the landscape as part of his creative process. Charles is not, nor has he ever been, a fast painter. Rather, he carefully considers every aspect of his paintings, most often incorporating animals into his scenes. A large and gentle man, he says he’s had a good life because God has looked out for him and so many good people taught him well.
Charles Walker was born in Fort Pierce, one of three children, to a strong and resilient couple. His Cherokee mother was from Rosewood, Florida, the site of the 1923 mass killings of African Americans. She and her family left the small town just before the massacre. A hard worker, his father was a man of great physical strength, although he weighed only about 130 pounds. Before he found work on the railroad, he cut down huge trees and brought them to the sawmill. Father and son enjoyed hunting and fishing together. Charles happily reports that his father once caught a 500-pound Jewfish that he shared with everyone in the neighborhood. His father never complained, a trait that was passed on to his son.
The landscape around Fort Pierce was different when Charles was growing up. He explains that it was wild and allowed for more interaction. There was no air conditioning so everyone was outside most of the time. His family had dogs, chickens and rabbits, a vegetable garden, mangoes and other fruit trees. The family canned their fruit and vegetables. His mother, who was a good cook, was always making biscuits and frying various kinds of fish. They had regular fishing spots, places he now wants to share with his grandchildren.
Charles claims that his love for nature is in his blood, passed down from his much loved parents who both lived long lives and were married for 60 years.Charles had a pleasant childhood. He says, “It was good growing up in Lincoln Park. We had everything we needed in black town, right there on Avenue D.” On days when he wasn’t in school, he’d get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to catch the bus to pick fruit and vegetables. With the money he earned, he would buy tennis shoes (the name for sneakers at the time) and school clothes. He also spent a lot of time on the basketball court and played on the high school team. His nickname was ‘Hawk’ because he could stay in the air for so long.
Charles and his future wife, Gertrude, were both students in Zanobia Jefferson’s art class at Lincoln Park Academy, but they didn’t formally meet until Gertrude witnessed Charles working in the fields. She was picking tomatoes and he was bagging them. She says that he was so big and strong that he could handle three to four bags in each hand. Each bag could be 40 pounds. She was most impressed. You could only get 10 cents for picking a bag of tomatoes, but you could get 5 cents for hauling one. If he carried eight bags at a time, he was making good money. Due to his athleticism, Walker later got a job working as a Youth Supervisor at the Lincoln Park Recreation Center in Fort Pierce. He taught various sports as well as art. After thirteen years, he left this position to care for his aging parents and to spend time painting.
Gertrude started painting landscapes before Charles, in the late 1960s. At that time, he was more interested in drawing. Livingston Roberts, Gertrude’s brother and one of the early Highwaymen artists, got Gertrude started. After she and Charles became a couple, they painted together at the Arcade Building in the early mornings. Al Black sold Gertrude’s paintings on the road in the early 1970s, about the same time Charles started his own painting. He didn’t hang out with the other painters, as he had a full time job and was more of a loner.
Increasingly, Charles found that painting gave him a sense of peace. He was always studious about his work, the approach he takes with most things. He rarely does anything fast maintaining, “You need to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s about taking things seriously.” His focus is on painting well and depicting animals in the landscape.
Early in his painting career, a local sheriff lent him a taxidermy turkey to study, helping him understand the texture and form of the bird. Bud Adams, the owner of Adam’s Ranch, allowed him to experience nature on his land whenever he wanted. Bean Backus also wandered Adams Ranch for inspiration, and Charles is quick to acknowledge that being outdoors is artistically exciting. He often takes photographs when he’s out at the ranch. Encounters, such as one with wild turkeys, often end up in his landscapes. He prefers visiting Adams Ranch in the early morning when you can see the Florida mist. This is a special place for Charles, as it reminds him of the landscape of his youth. There is a photo book on the ranch that he likes to look at over and over again.
Charles also spends time at the ocean. Being outdoors “refreshes you,” he explains. “The quiet moments help. I used to look at the waves for hours.” His face lights up as he describes how the snook chase mullet through the waves.
Charles also gets ideas from his wife, Gertrude, such as the loggerhead turtles he now regularly paint. He also depicts childhood memories, such as a cabin in the woods that he remembers from visiting relatives in Tallahassee.
Although Gertrude began painting earlier than Charles, he became known as the painter in the family. She became the St. Lucie Supervisor of Elections in 1980 and continues with her demanding career. The couple has four children and several grandchildren.
There is a calm sweetness to Charles Walker’s character. Nature settles him and gives him pleasure. His paintings are like him, tranquil and accepting. This quiet acceptance comes from his parents’ strength, a community that nurtured him, and a deep abiding love for what nature has to offer. He’s quick to say that he’s been blessed.
Charles Walker taught himself to paint and never stops his educational process. He says his “mind is always open to learning.” He studies the work of other artists to become a better painter, and recognizes that the natural environment can be a teacher. Like many other nature artists, he’s an observer. There is an oak tree in a park that he has studied for years. He often paints it with different animals in and around this tree, thinking about the beauty around him and the ecological balance in the world. Charles understands that everything is always changing, and he mourns the loss of Florida’s wilderness.
Charles normally works on two or three paintings at a time at his home studio. Photographs help him depict his subject matter in a realistic fashion. He uses natural colors in an effort to duplicate nature. Sometimes he sketches, sometimes working directly on canvas. It often takes a month and a half to finish one piece. As Charles Walker paints, he knows that he attends to his work carefully. Hard work, he understands, has to do with the mind, as well as the body.