It’s difficult to imagine a beach guy like artist Les Walker being content without wet sand curling over his toes or giant waves crashing at his feet, but boy is he. Prior to becoming a mountain man, Walker was famous in the surfing world as the senior photographer for Surfing Magazine, a position he achieved after years of working as a surfing photographer and winning the prestigious K2 Big Wave Challenge in 1998, the first-ever professional surfing contest that rewarded both the photographer and surfer, Taylor Knox, riding a 60-foot wave. Walker was and is considered by many to be one of surfing’s elite photographers. But nowadays he is content to have his feet on terra firma and his hands covered in clay.
Walker slaps a large mound of clay onto his work table in his Idyllwild studio and begins kneading it to remove air bubbles. While pottery making is a big departure from photographing giant waves and skilled surf riders, Walker seems happy to work the clay while Tom Petty plays in the background (Walker always listens to classic rock while he works). Within minutes, the clay is on his pottery wheel and he begins shaping it into a large bowl. The speed and skill he employs belies the relatively short time Walker has been engaged in the pottery business. “About a year, year-and-a-half ago, I was cruising the Internet and I saw somebody throwing a piece of ceramic and something called to me and I thought, ‘I have to try this.’ I didn’t take a single lesson; I just bought everything and taught myself, just by reading and watching videos,” he said.
For Walker, the digital age signaled the waning of his passion for photography. “Photography for me lost its art. I wanted to be able to touch something, something physical. Like wood workers, or like Dore [Capitani, a local metal artist] or like any of the painters, they actually touch something. With photography, you don’t really touch it because it’s on a screen now. Not to insult any photographers, it is still an art, but not the art it used to be.”
A motorcycle ride to Idyllwild would change the course of Walker and wife Cheri’s lives. “My wife and I came up on our motorcycle one day and I remembered coming to Idyllwild as a child. We just drove through on our motorcycle and we came across Garner Valley and it was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know this was up here.’ It is incredibly beautiful,” Walker said. “We drove into town and we walked right into a realty office, met with Jackie Wagner and asked her to show us around. So she showed us around and we just fell in love with the town.”
Walker adapted quickly to his new mountain home joining the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and the Art Alliance of Idyllwild. “There was never anybody going, ‘Where are you from?’” Walker said frowning, “No, they were like, ‘Where do you live?’ All it takes is about a month before everybody realizes, ‘Oh hey, he’s a local. He lives here.’”
John Stonitsch and Bryan Tallent, owners of The Spruce Moose, a local gift store, were the first to sell Walker’s pottery and sell it did. “I gave them a lot of pieces and I went like three or four months and I decided I’d really wean back from doing ceramics. I had some other things going. So I went in one day to see John and Brian and they were like, ‘Dude, where have you been? We need more things. We sold out,’” Walker said. Rather than scale back from ceramics, Walker, with encouragement from wife, Cheri, jumped in with both feet. His plan is to become a full-time potter in 2014.
In Palm Springs, Walker participates in VillageFest, a weekly Thursday-evening street fair featuring a diverse array of artists, artisans, entertainers, fresh fruits and veggies stands, flowers, jewelry, snacks and sweets. “[VillageFest] has turned out to be a great thing. I now know what people like and what kind of art forms or ceramic pieces they like. I have to work all week to catch up from all the stuff I sold, which is a good problem,” Walker said.
Work space appears to be the only problem Walker currently has and he has come up with a plan to expand his work area. “I’ve started a project on Kickstarter,” said Walker. [Kickstarter is a platform for artists to obtain crowd funding for a variety of projects.] “If you donate $500 or more you get to come and stay the weekend with me here, and I will teach you from beginning to end. We’ll make as much stuff together as we can, and we’ll glaze it and you can keep it all. You walk away knowing how to do it. You might go home and do your own wheel or maybe you already have your own wheel but you need to know how to do things,” explained Walker. For more information, visit www.kickstarter.com and search “pottery Walker.”
According to Walker, tourists love being able to bring home an authentic Idyllwild souvenir. “They can get something that’s handmade from a local artist and they are not spending hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most of the time they don’t just buy a mug that says ‘Idyllwild’ and on the bottom it says ‘Made in China,’ they get something like this [he holds up a large coffee mug] with my stamp on it and it was made right here in Idyllwild with my hands,” Walker smiles.
Category: On The Town