“My Soul Looks Back: A Reflection of Art” comes from my life experiences and the people I have known and been inspired by over the years.

Some of my artwork is influenced by The Black Arts Movement (or BAM), which was an African American-led art movement, active during the 1960s and 1970s. During this time, I was an art student at North Carolina Central University. BAM conveyed the message of having or depicting black pride in your own artwork. Because of the history of slavery and the persistence of racial discrimination in America, BAM found new ways to present the black experiences and to maintain African American culture and traditions.

Join Shirley Walker Whitesides for a Celebration of Heritage through Art, Culture & Music at Soul on Fire, held Saturday, November 16, 2019.

My artwork also tells the story of some of the experiences that influenced my life growing up with four sisters and three brothers in Rocky Mount, NC. My parents stressed the importance of family unity, education, church, respect, and helping others. My first art lessons came from my family, especially my parents, who both used their artistic talents to inspire and motivate us to use our abilities. My mother designed and made clothes for my four sisters and me to wear to church on Sundays. She created her patterns for our clothes, and she taught us how to sew by hand as well as the sewing machine. We helped her make quilts and other crafts.

My mother was a very spiritual woman who shouted in church, often reminding me of African dancing. My father could draw anything. He loved listening to music, especially blues by W.C. Handy and jazz by musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. We also grew up listening to blues and jazz music early in the mornings while getting ready for school or helping mama hang the clothes on the clothesline before she went to work. I observed my older sister and two brothers and created along with them while they were drawing and painting at home. Art was not taught in schools on a daily or even weekly basis when we were growing up. The art teacher would come to our classrooms once a month to teach art for 30 minutes. My siblings and I won most of the contests and awards for creativity in school. With encouragement from our parents for us to achieve in school and continue our education by going to college, my four sisters and I received BA’s in Arts Education. Even though he loved to draw, my oldest brother, James “Junior” Walker, Jr. took another direction and was the first African American amateur golfer to receive his PGA card.

On November 27, 1962, while in the ninth grade at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, NC, I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. in the school’s gymnasium deliver his famous speech “I Have a Dream.”  His speech motivated me to spend over 50 years of my life, since high school, working in the community, helping to eliminate racism and racial inequity; and helping to improve education, health, and poverty. Over 34 years I taught art education to more than 20,000 students in the Asheville City School System. I strived to teach my art students a multicultural art curriculum, highlighting cultural diversity, and learning to appreciate their cultural heritage through art. Many of my students, especially African Americans, had low self-esteem. Even at a young age, many had experienced racism, poverty, and violence. Many felt their lives were meaningless, and therefore lacked an appreciation their cultural heritage. Years later, several of my former students told me that the arts saved their lives.

My inspiration, growth, meaning, and purpose for my artwork came from my African American culture, family traditions, and African heritage. My artistic influences throughout the years have been the art of Lois Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, and Jacob Lawrence, because of their focus on the Harlem Renaissance and the impact of the Underground Railroad. Alan “Big Al” Carter, Bing Davis, and college art-mates Ivey Hayes and James “Jim” Biggers focused their artwork on everyday life and used bold colors to emphasize their message through art. As a contemporary artist, I incorporate digital art and photography into my painting, design mixed media collages, and use quilt making to tell my stories.