As the world remembers the late author Toni Morrison, who died on Monday at the age of 88, an especially fitting tribute to the celebrated writer and chronicler of the African American experience has arrived from artist Kara Walker.
A new portrait of Morrison by the artist, titled Quiet as It’s Kept, after a line from The Bluest Eye, the author’s debut novel, will grace the cover of next week’s issue of the New Yorker. The magazine unveiled a sneak peek at the cover on Twitter this morning, sharing a few thoughts from Walker about the creative process for the piece, along with some of her preparatory artworks, on its website.
Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993—the first African American woman to do so—was the author of 11 novels including Beloved (1987), Song of Solomon (1977), and A Mercy (2008). She died at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center from complications of pneumonia, according to her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
“We had for this week planned a very nice summer cover,” New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly told artnet News. Following the events of this past weekend, the magazine’s editor David Remnick considered a cover responding to the double mass shooting in Dayton and El Paso, before settling on Morrison. “We seldom do covers for writers,” Mouly added, “but Toni holds a special place in our culture. She’s really a beacon, and by her words and by her deeds was very much a force for good. It seemed right to memorialize her.”
The project with Walker came together quickly, with Mouly reaching out to the artist on Tuesday morning, shortly after news of Morrison’s death became public. Walker’s work, with its focus on the historical struggles and stories of African American people and themes of sexual violence, race, and gender, dovetailed nicely with Morrison’s literary oeuvre. The artist also already had a relationship with the magazine, which published one of her artworks in 2017 and put her work on the cover back in 2007 honoring the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Mouly reached out and caught Walker on her way back from a trip to London, where she was working on the 2019 Hyundai Commission for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. “She actually was in the midst of holding a private vigil, dealing with personally, emotionally, taking in the news [of Morrison’s death],” said Mouly.
Walker warned her that the magazine should have a backup image ready, but agreed to give it a shot. The artist got to work immediately, keeping Mouly abreast of her progress with photos throughout the day.
“I’ve worked with so many artists, but I’ve seldom experienced such an ebullient, rich, and massively productive creative process,” said Mouly, who was hired as the magazine’s art editor by Tina Brown back in 1993. “Sometimes artists are coy and shy about their sketches, but she very generously let me share them.”
By the end of the day, Walker was exhausted, but the design was finalized. After attempts in watercolor, pastel, and clay, Walker settled on her signature medium, the black cut-paper silhouette, to depict Morrison’s profile.
“The goal for both of us was not just a resemblance but something that emotionally evokes her person, because Morrison is deeply complex. [The artwork] works in a cathartic way for the artist and the viewer and the reader,” said Mouly. “I’m very grateful that Kara was willing to put herself through this process.”
In 2015, Walker reviewed Morrison’s last book, God Help the Child, for the New York Times. The novel was not without its shortcomings, to Walker’s mind, but she still waxed poetic about Morrison’s evocative writing, and the author’s use of a “paintbrush” in her masterful practice of the “slow, tender, dangerous art of storytelling.”
Though the two women only met once, in passing at the opera at New York’s Lincoln Center, the author and her work was a source of inspiration for the artist. “Through her work and words,” Walker told the New Yorker, “[Morrison] became something like a muse, teacher, mother, clairvoyant, and judge.”
The artist’s respect and admiration comes across clearly in the cut paper portrait. “It’s an ode,” said Mouly, “to the spirit of two very strong women who are very inspiring each in their own way.”
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