Marjorie Walker was an unconventional and well-to-do New York artist who left city life to live on rural San Juan Island. She'd first seen the San Juan archipelago, located between the Northwest Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island, in 1924 during a cross-country tour of the northern U.S., Canada, and Alaska. Marjorie, then just 18, swore that one day she would return. Twenty-five years later, she arrived in Friday Harbor with her young son Timmie and her sister Jean Walker (1904-2001). For the next 40 years, she supported herself as a working artist and art teacher. Her paintings and pastel drawings captured the island's pastoral vistas and seascapes from 1950 until 1980, when Parkinson's disease left her hands too unsteady to continue. From her rose-covered studio overlooking the waters of the Salish Sea, Walker produced her art and taught countless island children and adults to paint, draw, and work clay on the potter's wheel. She is considered the first professionally trained resident artist on San Juan Island, with pieces in private collections throughout the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast. This account of Marjorie Walker's life is by Town of Friday Harbor Historic Preservation Coordinator Sandy Strehlou.
The Walkers of Brooklyn, New York
Marjorie Walker was born on April 5, 1906, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the second of four children born to New York industrialist Randall Oakley Walker (1871-1959) and Mabel Condit Walker (1877-1974). The Walkers of Brooklyn, New York, and the Condits of East Orange, New Jersey, were affluent, well-connected families.
As a young medical student, Marjorie's paternal grandfather, Dr. Jerome Walker (1846-1924), enlisted in the Civil War, working with the U.S. Sanitary Commission treating sick and injured Union and Confederate soldiers. After the war, he practiced medicine in Brooklyn and helped found a hospital for the poor. He was also instrumental in the development of Crystal Brook Park in Mount Sinai, Long Island, a 100-acre summer camp for inner-city children.
Marjorie's father was an executive with the Thibaut and Walker Company, an early innovator and manufacturer of paints, varnishes, and other coating products, based in Long Island City, New York. Her mother was college-educated, loved the opera, and raised her children in the family's comfortable Brooklyn home. Marjorie Walker's niece Cathy Walker remembered Mabel as one who preferred to live outside the public eye:
"She left that to my grandfather. She was quiet and somewhat of a homebody. My grandmother was very involved in her children's and grandchildren's lives. I suspect that Mabel was not that impressed with material things. She was a very warm, loving grandmother" (Cathy Walker email to Sandy Strehlou).
Randall and Mabel Walker had three other children. Jean Walker became an avid dog breeder who established kennels and showed dogs at major shows throughout the nation. Like Marjorie, Jean never married, but throughout her life she was a constant companion to her sister and a second mother to Marjorie's son, Timmie. Marjorie and Jean had two younger siblings, Ruth Walker (1910-1964) and Randall Oakley Walker Jr. (1918-1978).
"The Walker family ... was extraordinary. They were financially successful in their respective fields, but are also remembered for the contributions they made to their communities. The Walkers were a close-knit and loving family who valued freedom of thought, travel, and creativity" (Cathy Walker email to Sandy Strehlou).
New York City Education
Randall's success in industry provided the family with many comforts and opportunities: equestrian sports, opera, and summers in the family vacation home at Crystal Brook on Long Island. The Walkers provided their children with the best education possible, sending them to prestigious New York schools. Jean and Marjorie attended the exclusive Brooklyn Female Academy, now known as the Packer Collegiate Institute.
The academy was one of the first secondary schools for girls when established in 1845 by forward-thinking landowners and merchants who desired formal education for their daughters. The academy was considered the preeminent school for girls for much of the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was housed in a spectacular grand hall designed by noted architect Minard Lafever (1798-1854); that Gothic Revival chapel hall with nine Tiffany windows still stood in the twenty-first century on the grounds of the now-coed school.
Years later, Jean Walker recalled that her sister had shown promise as an artist from an early age: "By the time she was three years old Marjorie was drawing pictures with chalk on the blackboard of our nursery" (Walker, notes). Marjorie's nascent talent was also noticed by art faculty at the academy, who advised her parents to send her to art school.
After graduating from Brooklyn Female Academy, Marjorie Walker enrolled in studio classes at the Art Students League of New York. The league was founded in 1875 by a group of artists -- most of them students at the National Academy of Design in New York City. The league appealed to serious young artists in post-Civil War New York who saw the National Academy of Design as unsympathetic to contemporary artistic influences coming out of Europe.
The league was membership-based, modeled after the French atelier studio system of art instruction. It offered emerging artists like Walker classes with instructors and students who would become some of the nation's most influential artists. She studied anatomy and figure drawing, primarily in charcoal, with artist and longtime instructor George Brandt Bridgman (1864-1943). There were no grades, no set courses, and no degrees offered.
The artists who studied and taught at the Art Students League significantly influenced twentieth-century American art. They included Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O'Keefe, Barnett Newman, Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Man Ray, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Reginald Marsh, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, and more. In notes about their days in New York during Marjorie's league years, Jean describes an idyllic life:
"At the end of the school day, I would meet her [Marjorie], we would go to Child's restaurant for buckwheat pancakes and Vermont maple syrup and coffee, then to opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera. [Later,] we would go home on the subway and walk the [several] blocks to our house. Sometimes our father would come for us in the car and when we got home we would find the dining room table loaded with goodies. Big rounds of cheese and crackers and fruit, and dark pumpernickel bread. Then someone would say, let's go to the farm,' and we would pile in the car and go on the five-hour trip to our 400-acre farm in West Stockbridge, arriving in time for breakfast" (Walker, notes).
Walker's Art Students League years, from 1923 to 1929, were ideal for her curiosity about the world beyond her life in New York. The league's atelier studio classes allowed her to interrupt her studio work with extensive foreign and domestic travel. A local newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, sponsored nationally celebrated tours and provided the logistical planning for its reader-participants' travels. The Daily Eagle tours helped shape the way the affluent traveled and, ultimately, the way they understood the breadth of America and the world abroad. Now touring meant more than making the rounds in Europe, and Marjorie and Jean Walker were keen to see it all.
In 1924, the sisters took part in a six-week cross-country tour through Canada, Alaska, and the western United States. They traveled by special rail cars on multiple railroads, by auto coach and by ship, and sometimes on horseback, visiting national parks, towns, cities, and other destinations along the way. Jean was 20 and Marjorie just 18. Daily Eagle tour participants garnered near-celebrity status through from-the-road radio and newspaper reports broadcast and printed nationwide. The group enjoyed invitations from mayors, governors, and other dignitaries for special dinners, dedications of national parks and public infrastructure, and photo-ops at stops along the way.
All told, the Walker sisters would participate in four Daily Eagle tours, several that included Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. However, it was on the trip across the U.S., Canada, and Alaska that Marjorie and Jean first saw the San Juan Islands. Despite the many wonderful places they visited on their journey, both fell in love with the islands and vowed to return someday. Almost 30 years would pass before they made good on this promise.
Although the family had homes in Brooklyn and on Long Island, Randall Walker Sr., now in his fifties, sought a vacation and weekend retreat for the family that would eventually be a place to retire. Randall and Mabel Walker purchased a 350-acre rural property outside West Stockbridge in western Massachusetts. The family named the retreat Faraway Farm. It consisted of a house built as a stagecoach inn around 1800, a barn, and other farm buildings.
By 1935, Marjorie and Jean Walker were living at Faraway Farm full time, though trips home to New York and dog shows throughout the region were frequent during the years leading up to World War II. On the farm, Jean built kennels and showed poodles, corgis, and Afghan hounds at national competitions, including the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Marjorie had an art studio and miles of rural landscape to draw and paint. Jean and Marjorie lived on the farm until 1949. It was during that time that Marjorie Walker began to cultivate a following as an animal portraitist and a sculptor. Years later she told a reporter on San Juan Island:
"I used to do children's portraits, but I found them very tiring and nerve-wracking. The parents all wanted the same toothless grin. It was somewhat easier to paint dogs without the awful strain of a fond parent" (Smith).
The War Years
In the summer of 1941, the British appealed to Americans to conserve food as a means of supporting Britain's military and civilian commitment to fighting the Axis forces in World War II. American food and other material aid shipped abroad led to the start of rationing in the United States and the conversion of factories to military production. Congress implemented rationing of food, rubber, gasoline, and other essential materials after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought the U.S. into the fighting.
Civilian volunteers managed local ration boards throughout the country, but nowhere more strictly than in the states along the East Coast. The work of issuing ration books was given to more than 5,000 local ration boards nationwide. Since travel and gasoline and other material goods were limited, and attending dog shows was difficult, Marjorie Walker managed a ration board in Massachusetts, probably in Berkshire County, where West Stockbridge is located, along the New York state border. During this time, a short-lived relationship brought Marjorie's son Timothy Condit Walker (1946-2002) into the world and the lives of Marjorie and Jean.
A Post-war Dream
Following the war's end in 1945, the sisters purchased a travel trailer and began traversing the country in the stylish new model that the manufacturer affectionately named the Alma Silvermoon for the location of its factory in Alma, Michigan. Soon after, the sisters and three-year-old Timmie set out to cross the country while attending significant dog shows along the way. With all the amenities of home, the Alma was perfect as Walker's traveling studio.
Before leaving, Jean and Marjorie threw a surprise party to introduce the travel trailer Alma to their friends and neighbors in West Stockbridge. With the sense of humor and inventiveness that characterized Marjorie throughout her life, they sent invitations billing the event as a shower given in honor of Miss Alma Silvermoon. Guests were encouraged to bring kitchen utensils in cream or green and to pack a picnic supper for themselves. According to the local Berkshire Courier newspaper, the village was abuzz wondering who this Alma could be. Quite a crowd of friends and others came that day, contributing significantly to Alma's collection of new culinary equipment. Amused picnickers took tours of the Alma, and the newspaper reported, as small-town papers often did, that "a good time was had by all" (Rawstron).
The sisters did not return to live at Faraway Farm after their travels. While still living in Massachusetts, they had subscribed to the Friday Harbor Journal, then San Juan Island's only local newspaper. In its pages they saw an advertisement for a remote cabin and, sight unseen, made arrangements to live there, probably as renters. Thus, in 1949, some 25 years after the two sisters had sailed through the San Juan Archipelago, Marjorie, Jean, Timmie, and the Alma moved to San Juan Island, where they knew not a soul.
According to Jean, the cabin turned out to be small, windowless, and difficult to access. Sometime later, they purchased a two-story farmhouse on Blair Avenue in Friday Harbor, the island's only town. It was in this turn-of-the-century house that Marjorie Walker began teaching art classes -- perhaps the first professional artist to do so on the island. As an adult, Walker had always made a living as an artist, but compared to her upper-crust childhood and life in Massachusetts, her life on the island was now one of frugality and rustic living.
In 1957, the senior Walkers purchased land for their daughters on False Bay on San Juan Island. Now the Walker sisters collectively owned a large holding of undeveloped timbered shoreline on the southwest side of the island. It was here they chose to live the second half of their lives. They shared a small house, an art studio, and the Alma Silvermoon, Marjorie's off-and-on residence. Born into New York society and now largely unemployed, they found themselves land rich and cash poor. Yet by all accounts they seemed to have found the place they were meant to be.
The Little Different Studio
The high-bank shore of False Bay was a wonderful place to live and an incredible place for an artist. The view was amazing, and the light sublime. Using five-foot-tall wood-framed windows and lumber salvaged from an old Friday Harbor school, Walker built a rose-draped building she called the Little Different Studio. She exchanged art classes for the construction work that she was unable to do herself.
Here she taught small classes to children, and adults, and continued to create art in a variety of media, many self-taught. A few steps away from the studio, Walker built a kiln shed and dug island clay from the banks above the shore.
Almost immediately upon setting foot on San Juan Island, Walker began receiving commissions to create art. Along with eager local buyers for her paintings, drawings, and ceramics, she found plenty of students for art classes. For a time, island tourist maps listed the Little Different Studio as a destination, which called for inexpensive art to sell alongside her more substantial work. To meet this need, Walker produced cookie presses with images of ferry boats, owls, and other motifs. In later years, she wrote, illustrated, and self-published a book about the ferry Klickitat, which was an immediate success with islanders. (The Klickitat plied the waters of Puget Sound from 1940 until 2007, including many years of service carrying passengers between the San Juan Islands and Anacortes on the mainland.)
Walker had many island art students over the years, from school groups and retirees to gaggles of island children who would arrive unannounced to hang out after a day of bike riding or swimming at False Bay. According to Jean, most of Marjorie's students came from the University of Washington marine biology laboratories in Friday Harbor, and her studio was lively at all hours of the day and night. Classes included oil and watercolor painting, sculpting, drawing, pottery, and silk-screening. Walker also took up weaving, using wool from sheep she owned.
During her life on the island, Walker's major source of income was art commissioned by residents and neighbors and island businesses and organizations. One commission was a large panorama painting of fishing boats off the island's South Beach, commissioned to commemorate the opening of the new American Legion Hall in Friday Harbor. Walker, newly arrived on the island, was given two scant weeks to complete the commission.
"Marjorie arrived at the Legion Hall and was shocked to see that they had already mounted the painting surface with a frame on the wall. Undaunted, having already given herself a crash course on the style of local fishing boats, she decided to give herself a crash course on painting on Michelangelo-style scaffolding" (Smith).
Although Walker was known to spend most of her time in her studio making art, teaching classes, or entertaining unexpected guests, she was also involved in community life. She participated in local art shows with other island artists, was a popular Cub Scout leader and volunteered at Gray Top Inn Senior Center.
Friends remember her as a complex individual who was generous and non-judgmental, with a passion for art and a wonderful sense of humor. Parkinson's disease, diagnosed in the late 1980s, ultimately made it impossible for Walker to create the art that had defined her life. She continued to teach in her studio but at a slower pace.
Toward the end Marjorie and Jean found contentment taking long rides in their station wagon, looking over the island that had allowed them an independent lifestyle. Marjorie Walker died on July 17, 1992, at the age of 86, just three weeks after entering the Islands Convalescent Center on San Juan Island. Her sister Jean passed away in 2001, three days shy of her 97th birthday, and her son Tim died in Edmonds, Snohomish County, in 2002.
During her life on the island and through her art, Marjorie Walker captured the places she came to love, leaving behind a snapshot in time of the island as it was then. In 1987, five years before she died, Walker held an art sale of most of her personal collection. In her last known interview, given at that time, she looked back on her life and travels:
"Our first summer [on the Daily Eagle tour] we went to Alaska on a ship. We came through this area at sunset. The mountains were pink, Victoria's lights were just coming on, and it was absolutely enchanting. We decided we had to live here someday ... We loved to do everything -- and we did" (Cummings).