INTERVIEW | Joshua Walsh, Ritual Artist

Photo and Art Credit: Joshua Walsh (Photo submitted to True Detective producers for interview)
Photo and Art Credit: Joshua Walsh
(Photo submitted to HBO for True Detective interview)

Before watching Season 1 of True Detective, I thought I knew what to expect from Joshua Walsh, the show’s Ritual Artist. He’s a friend, and I own a few of his pieces. Trained as a classical painter, Josh’s works evoke those by the masters that a western art history student studies. Then, I watched the eight episodes.

A few months later, I remain in awe of his sculptures. They exude so much culture, emotion, and literature. Indeed, the show received an Emmy nomination for art direction. I wanted to know how Josh engaged with the script.

 

 

Vipra Ghimire: How did you become involved with True Detective? You’ve been working as an independent artist for about 20 years now. Why get involved with Hollywood?

Joshua Walsh: For the challenge…well, let’s back up a bit.

Alex [DiGerlando] saw a hummingbird I’d made for my friend Cindy [Slagter]. It was on her desk. I had made it while I was living in the mountains of New Mexico. I’d used stones and different dried up plants, and wrapped the creation in twine. It had a thorn for its beak. She’d kept it on her desk at work, and when Alex saw it, he asked for my contact information.

The producers wanted only one artist for the show. Typically, the artists from the network’s Paint Department would contribute. Except, this wasn’t what the show’s creators wanted.

As part of my interview, the producers asked me to create a crown made of deer antlers. I was asked to make a few drawings and send it to them. Being a deer hunter, I have a lot of antlers around in my studio. Actually, and when they asked, I was out in the woods and I was hunting. I started looking around, and where I hunt, there are these incredible vines throughout…vines that have gone up over the woods and trees and so, are very flexible. I pulled a bunch of these vines out and I went home and took one of my deer antlers and started wrapping the vines around it to create thorns. I sent them a photo of that piece. I went directly into the crown, as opposed to drawing different ideas. Why waste my time and their time? I wanted to show them my vision. So, I sent them pictures of the crown and when they saw the pictures, I got the job, right then. They wanted one artist, and had interviewed about 20 before they settled on me.

They ended up using that original crown, too. We went with a larger one based on that concept for Dora Lange’s character. The other crown became part of an evidence photograph — it’s that picture of a bound woman hung off the bridge…she is wearing that crown.

Also, before deciding on me, the producers saw that I had already been working with different found objects, such as driftwood. I was able to send them to a large monument in New Orleans that I had created as part of Prospect I. It was a driftwood boat that was 25 feet high by 27 feet long. The producers could drive by it and get inside that sculpture and see that I was working with organic material.

VG: How typical is it for independent artists such as yourself to be part of television?

JW: Very atypical. It was a big deal to have me listed in the credits as a Ritual Artist — a big deal for my bosses and for me.

And, I got a chance to act! In the opening scene in Episode 1, I’m the guy in the dark, walking through the swamp, carrying a bundle. I only had to shoot that scene twice! I got a chance to light the sugar canes on fire. There are scenes that show a pair of blue-gloved hands…those are my hands.

VG: Did you relate to the script right away?

JW: I was disturbed by the script. I had to remind myself that the script was just fiction. Still, what’s depicted in the movie can happen in real life. And it was this reality that was both disturbing and at the same time very compelling. A phrase that stuck with me throughout the filming was: I am real. That summer, there was news about those three women locked up in a basement in Ohio. This is real, I thought. So, I wanted to create pieces that would look real so that people could understand that the serial killer in the show can exist, that there are people who do what this killer does.

VG: How much did your artistic vision influence the show’s narrative?

JW: There was only one writer for the show, and he controlled all writing. But, everyone had a different idea for the art, and I had to show each of them my vision, and they all embraced it.

For example, Nic [Pizzolatto] never wanted the viewer to know where the killer was creating his art. That was bothering me a little bit, and when it came time to doing Carcosa and the final episode, I presented an idea: I wanted a room where the killer is making the artwork. But, it was logistically separated from the labyrinth where the Carcosa filming would occur. Still, the producers liked the idea of the studio, and I was able to create this entire room that had piles of clothing. I took my desk where I created all of the sculptures — and it had a build up of six-months of wax — and I brought the tabletop into that room. My studio became the serial killer’s studio, and on that table, I even put a couple of unfinished pieces that I was working on…pieces that the killer might have been working on. It worked!

VG: How much say did you have in the pieces you created?

JW: I had complete autonomy. The crazier I went with my pieces, the more the producers loved it. They used everything. I don’t think there was one thing that they said was not appropriate.

The artwork I did — like the spiral and the crown — inspired so many different artists. If you go search for “True Detective art” in Google image, you’ll get several pages of pictures, and not all of them are mine. There’s even an image of Homer Simpson wearing the antler crown!

VG: And, how does that make you feel — artistically and intellectually — to have your work modified that way and without your consent?

JW: You know it’s successful when it inspires all this different art. Isn’t that what it is all about?

VG: But, your other works aren’t mimicked — or emulated — this way. In these, you’re not given direct credit.

JW: HBO owns the art, because when I signed my contract with them, I signed my rights to the pieces away.

VG: What were your deadlines?

JW: I had seven months to make the pieces for each scene, and I created for all of those seven months. I was so worried about not meeting a deadline that I would ask my art directors to let me know if I was falling behind. I didn’t [fall behind], even though I did need to create additional pieces for added scenes.

VG: How did you sustain your creativity during the filming?

JW: Through the pure challenge of working with different materials and the encouragement that came from knowing that everyone was happy [with what I was creating].

During a brief part of the filming, I was at home in Michigan for my sister’s 40th birthday party. I noticed some bushes that her neighbor had taken out of his yard. I was so taken by the root structure of those bushes that I cut them out, boxed them up, and took them back to Louisiana with me to use for the show. I couldn’t drive by a pile of sticks without looking for their potential!

VG: Were the pieces you created consistent with your artistic expression?

JW: I love spending time in the woods, and have since I was a little kid and I was hanging out in trees. Even when I was a kid, I was stacking wood together out in the woods where people would never even see them if they came upon it. Sallie Ann Glassman — a Hoodoo practitioner in Orleans — loved the driftwood boat that I’d built for Prospect I. So, she asked me to build alters out of driftwood for her personal use. I built one such that when the river rises, it would take the wood back into the river.

With my paintings, I am very focused with what I want portrayed. When I am working organically with the wood, the wood tells me what it wants to be. I don’t necessarily say I want to build a boat, but I look at the wood and I find pieces that tell me what they want me to do. I look at the texture, the shape.

VG: What makes you gravitate towards wood versus metal or another material?

JW: It’s free. I’ve had this connection with the Mississippi River going all the way back to when I was 19 years old and living in Minnesota. I have visited the headwaters of the Mississippi and have been to New Orleans where it dumps out. That river just speaks to me, and I am always coming across driftwood. I love driftwood — it’s been floating and it is weathered. It has warmth to it. I was really inspired by Deborah Butterfield’s work. She creates driftwood horses. It’s probably some of the most beautiful work I’ve ever seen. Her early works were all with driftwood and mud, along the lines of the stuff I make.

So, the pieces I created for True Detective is a continuation of what I have been doing. I am a self-taught sculptor, and that is freeing, because I don’t feel I have to follow rules. I happen to pull the right weed that day. I love those moments when it all comes together.

VG: Which True Detective pieces are you proud of, or which ones do you like especially well?

JW: The Void. Also, the Carcosa was the largest conceptual sculpture I’ve ever done in my life. It was so large that it needed to be taken apart so that it could be stored. I needed help with Carcosa. I managed a crew of six who helped me transport over 3000 pieces of driftwood, each of which I selected. I’d identify the piece and my crew would go out in waders in the swamp. They’d carry the driftwood to the truck and transport it for miles to the filming location.

VG: Where can the public view your art?

JW: The True Detective pieces are at a warehouse somewhere in California. But, my other works can be seen on my website (soon to be live) and at the Vaudeville Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas.

VG: What are you working on these days?

JW: I’ve returned to painting, doing charcoal sketches. I’m putting together a website of my works, including a video that does a seven-minute walkthrough of each room in Carcosa.

VG: So, do you want to work with Hollywood again?

JW: Absolutely. Although my Paint Department friends caution me that working for the industry has its benefits (steady pay), but it also has its disadvantages — the hours are long and the work repetitive, which can leave you too tired to work on your own art.

 


Joshua Walsh

Joshua Aaron Walsh was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1969, and currently lives and works in Fraser, Michigan. He began an early art education at the Center for Creative studies in Detroit. After graduating high school, Walsh headed to Nebraska on multiple scholarships to further his art education, and studied intensely under artist and professor Reinhold Marxhausen. He traveled to Europe with a group of artists that changed his artistic vision forever. Studying throughout France, Holland, Germany and England, Walsh was introduced to the masters first hand and discovered the effectiveness of “light”. Walsh was commissioned to create two monumental sculptures for the children’s section of the cemetery in Rochester, MI, by the Mount Elliot Cemetery association. Walsh has created several outdoor monuments for the city of New Orleans, the bienialle-prospect one international exhibit, and has been featured in several publications. Walsh’s work can be found in private, corporate, and museum collections throughout the world.

 

Vipra Ghimire is a student of writing at the Johns Hopkins University. She has an MPH, and her interests in writing and health care range in topics from animal rights to civil liberties to disease. Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, she’s lived in the US since 1980. The vast world sometimes frightens her. However, she laughs easily and has been known to say and do many nonsensical things.


 

 

Waterless

Credit: Premu Ghimire
Credit: Premu Ghimire

I.

It is 2014. Blue, flowing water glides into my memory. The Bagmati River is healthy and calm behind my brother and me. It was perhaps 1977, when my brother was about four or five and I was five or six years old. We stand arm in arm in our thick crepe polyester outfits (me in a red and white top with matching red pants; my brother in a blue and white top with matching blue pants), smiling at the camera, our mother. In this picture, we’re standing next to each other on a roadside. Slightly hidden behind my brother is a white milepost that rises from the earthy bluff by the river somewhere between our home in Kirtipur, and where a tributary of the Bagmati River—the Balkhu River—flowed circuitously in Sanepa. Behind the river is a lushly verdant, pastoral landscape that is now overrun with concrete buildings. We look so innocent, so young, so nestled in the scenery around us. We belonged and we look it – it’s in our smiles and in the way we stood: my brother leans against me, bamboo stick in his hand as my left arm drapes around him, securely holding him close to me, so close that there is barely any space between our bodies. He stands, smiling but looking away from our mother. Where he is looking is off to my right, to some place that exists past the picture’s edge. And while we are standing, posed, his glance to that other direction makes him look as if he is about to run off and play with his bamboo stick, with whatever is competing for his attention. And yet, even with a good number of distractions that surround us and that we want to adventurously leap towards, in the picture, we look shy. We are posing, after all, and it is possible our mother even instructed us to look sincere and not goofy or solemn as we are in many of our pictures. Whatever it was, it worked. We look cherubic.

Some thirty years later, I hold that photo in my hands and am jarred by its stark reminder: there was a time when I was once taller than my brother; there was a time when the full Bagmati occasionally rose even higher. I am no longer taller than my brother. The Bagmati does not flow. Instead of a swollen river, now there’s a long and winding sand lot where trash gathers, animals and people defecate, and encroaching concrete houses claim a part of the earth that at one time only ever saw fish.  Like the two innocents who posed in front of the Bagmati, the river has aged, its young waters also a memory. When I last visited this section of Kathmandu, I couldn’t locate the scene in that picture. It no longer exists.

II.

It is 1980. My brother and I leave with my father for the United States. My mother is already there, studying for her PhD in Anthropology. My brother and I don’t want to leave; we have friends and relatives in Kathmandu and throughout Nepal and now we won’t be seeing them so often. But, my parents need us elsewhere, need us with them.

We stay in my mother’s one-room apartment for a month. She lives in a graduate student dormitory. We have to share the kitchen and bathroom with her fellow students. My brother and I take the month to acculturate to the United States, while my father looks for work. He seeks out the help of a headhunter and my mother goes to class. My brother and I spend the days learning English from soap operas. We drink a glass of cold milk. Then we drink glass after glass after glass of cold milk. We’ve never tasted it before. I take long hot showers. I learn that I don’t like taking baths: the water just slowly cools, and my body finds no comfort in that. Hot water that flows freely from the showerhead is a luxury. In Kathmandu, we had to first boil the water and then bring the hot pot of it to the tub so we could bathe.

There is an outdoor pool on my mother’s dormitory grounds. It’s open to graduate students and their families. My father enjoys swimming and commits himself to teaching us that same love. I’m twelve when I learn how to swim. My brother is ten. Maybe it’s because we were so late in our youth when we learned to swim that my brother will grow up with distaste for swimming, for just being in the water, actually. But he will take his future daughter to frolic in the ocean near where they will live. For many years, I too will dislike swimming. It will be something about vanity, something about feeling shy while wearing a bathing suit. But mostly, it will be about feeling uneasy in the water, that it could consume me whole.

III.

It is the summer of 1991. I’ve just finished my first year of college and my brother is about to become a senior in high school. We travel to Kathmandu. We are without our parents and are visiting Nepal for the first time since our departure. I’m 19, which makes my brother 17. We are a decade older than when we left. I know some Nepali, more than my brother. But we both understand our mother tongue when we hear it. We stay about a month.

In that month, we connect with grandparents, with old and new aunts and uncles, with nieces and nephews. But in that month, we are cherished as a novelty. People ask my brother about his origins when he walks around Kathmandu in shorts and a t-shirt. They don’t believe he’s from here. And so he feels alienated from his own countrymen. I am no help to my brother. I cry wherever I go, mourn the loss of what was and what will never be again. My brother and I are strangers. We are strangers in our own family. And our homeland is a stranger to us. It has changed. We were heartbroken.

Bagmati is nearly dry. The water that should be flowing is competing with mounds of human waste and people trying to take ownership of any land, even if it belongs to the river. What little water that does flow, especially after a rainfall, is compromised for drinking and bathing and rituals. Yet, in a city like Kathmandu where the water table is also drying, residents who rely on the river hold their faith in it, even as it continues to disappear because the carpet industry keeps recklessly tapping it. So, my brother and I also put our faith in the river, though it no longer flows. We want our homeland as we knew it. We want to be a part of our family as we knew it. We leave with pictures of dear family members and phone numbers and promises to return. On the tarmac, I hold my brother while he cries with more pain than I have or will ever see him express. And then, our plane takes us away from Kathmandu. 

IV.

It is the summer of 2010. I join a gym for its pool. I’m not quite sure what’s motivating me. For about the next year, I try but cannot completely quench my inexplicable longing to be submerged in the water. Submerged as if I am trying to get somewhere spiritually in that blue depth. It is my habit to not rise early, but here I find myself waking up at 6 a.m. to go swimming. I feel euphoric and at ease with my body, all because I’m moving through water. The silence under water is so peaceful. And, I will return to that pool again and again, getting that spiritual sense each time. But then I will throw my back out. And then a few months of healing will go by. And then I will go back to the pool, but will suddenly be afraid of its depth. I could drown. This one thought will completely overwhelm me. I do not try to swim again. I stay on the ground, gazing at what scares me.

V.

It is 2014. Here we are. We never received letters from our family overseas, though we wrote. We haven’t returned to Kathmandu together. Nor has the water to the Bagmati. And yet I drown. I drown in the dream of never knowing what it’s like to leave home, to leave family.

Now, I am holding that picture and I see three extinct innocents looking up at me: two siblings at ease in their homeland, and a river behind them, blue and fulfilling in its flow. 

 


Vipra Ghimire is a student of writing at the Johns Hopkins University. She has an MPH, and her interests in writing and health care range in topics from animal rights to civil liberties to disease. Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, she’s lived in the US since 1980. The vast world sometimes frightens her. However, she laughs easily and has been known to say and do many nonsensical things. 


 

Deep-Fried Diversity

SwayambhunathOn Thursday, my family and I will (thankfully) have a festive Nepali meal. We’ll gather around my parents’ 1980s country style dining table with its white legs and blond wood top. There will be an awfully white, bright light above us spotlighting our non-traditional meal. And seven people will be squeezing in around the table, making the best of an American holiday.

For much of the 1980s, the first decade my family and I spent in the US, we spent a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a family friend. This family lived in rural Bucks County, about forty-five minutes away from where my parents and I lived in a town outside of Philadelphia. There were over twenty people at the dinner table, including children. There was turkey, duck, ham, several sides, and so many types of pies. The women cooked, with the mashed potatoes being made closest to the dinner. Those not cooking would be in the basement, either watching a football game or chatting by the warm fireplace. There was a refrigerator in the basement, and my brother and I enjoyed many a cold coke bottle during those hours waiting for dinner. While waiting, we’d chat shyly with the other adults there. At least once, the host would take us out for a ride on his farm tractor. We’d pass the other hours playing billiards. There was a formal pool table too, and I formed my first schoolgirl crush on the man who taught me how to play pool one year. These gatherings shaped my family’s fond anticipation of this holiday.

In the 1990s, each member of my family left the nest for one pursuit or another. For a few years, my mother taught in Upstate New York, and family gatherings usually consisted of just us four. Then, I went to college and so did my brother. I went to graduate school. My mother went to Nepal to find employment. And my father moved to Virginia. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when we found time to gather again, consistently, as a family during Thanksgiving. But by then, our palates had changed.

This year on the dinner table there will be: puri (a fist-sized round flat bread rolled from chapatti flour and then deep-fried), two vegetable dishes (one a curry, the other a sautéed green), homemade yogurt (which I won’t eat because I’m vegan and the yogurt is not, but the vegetarians in my family will enjoy eating it with the puri), and cilantro chutney. When I first shared this menu with my parents, there was general satisfaction but my mother was hesitant.

What about mashed potatoes, she asked? Oh my. I became anxious.

The story of the mashed potatoes:

In 2002, many years before the idea of making our Thanksgiving meal align with our taste buds that are accustomed to Nepali food, I started the tradition of making vegetarian and vegan lasagnas a standard main courses at our holiday dinner. Sometimes the rice cheese either didn’t melt or if it did, tasted odd, musty. I managed to get down each cruelty-free bite with the help of a heaping forkful of cranberry sauce. Fortunately, there were also mashed potatoes at the table. All I did was add water to the boxed mixture. I was the only one who liked it.

In 2003, I tried to make mashed potatoes from scratch. It would be vegan and easy to make. No recipe needed. What else was there to mashed potatoes then just, well, mashing? But the word glue comes to mind with this memory. At first, I dug into the process of making mashed potatoes using my hands. It was, to say the least, hard to do. I persisted. But soon I switched to crushing the cooked potatoes with a big fork. Then I tried adding milk, which only made the potatoes more viscous. There was no fluffy quality to them. Like I said, glue. I eventually discovered the reason behind the congealed quality of the taters was that I didn’t use the masher tool that could transform potatoes into clouds. It’s quite an essential element.

In 2004, my dad wanted to spice up my mashed potatoes with mustard oil and salt. Mashed potatoes are to be eaten with gravy, not mustard oil, obviously. And while I was still no expert at the art of mashing potatoes, I at least new that gravy provided that complete feeling to the mashed potatoes. My father added the mustard oil and salt anyway, trying to make the best out of cold and gooey potatoes, trying to salvage my version of mash into a Nepali dish.

In 2005, I got into a fight with my brother, because I told him that he couldn’t mash potatoes with a plastic masher, which my father had proudly bought at the Food Lion. I’d forgotten to bring my stainless steel masher — which I owned by then — and I was beside myself with fear of eating lumpy mashed potatoes. That year, my American boyfriend from Michigan joined our dinner and created magic with the masher and the potatoes. We ate silently, but thankfully.

In 2012, my parents insisted on boiling potatoes and getting them ready for my boyfriend to mash. We ate them, but the consistency, according to my mother, wasn’t as good as in the previous years. My boyfriend investigated. It turns out that I’d erroneously guided my father on what type of potatoes to buy.

What about mashed potatoes? My mother asked this year, knowing they would be the cloud kind made by my boyfriend, not me, and so they are now a desirable dish. And she knew that he wouldn’t make the same mistake as last year. Still, I had to stop myself from asking her why she wanted mashed potatoes when lately she was against eating white starch. In the last two years, she’d even convinced my father, who grew up with a rice paddy as his backyard and who needed white rice at the table even when there was bread, to substitute quinoa for rice. She seldom cooks with potatoes. It’s safe to say that my mother and I have tension when it comes to potatoes, my go-to vegetable.

In the space of the last eight years, we have attempted and then given up on some of the more traditional American Thanksgiving dishes—mainly disregarding the thought of lasagna altogether. One year, I tried to serve soup in a bread bowl. My parents couldn’t figure out how to eat the bread, especially with soup in it. Honestly, I didn’t know either. That year, I fed much of the bread carcass to the birds. Another year, I cooked Tofurky. The boxed quantity of it was too big for us, partly because of how filling even just one bite of it was. Everyone said it wasn’t a bad dish, just “interesting.” By this time, my boyfriend’s delicious mashed potatoes were a staple at the table. So we didn’t go hungry. I’ve been asked not to cook “that tofu” dish again.

As you can imagine, preparing delicious yet vegetarian and vegan-friendly Thanksgiving dinners is a challenge. Another year I offended my brother, again, insisting that no turkey be cooked in my presence. I have to admit that while I am proud and thankful that no turkey has since been cooked in my parents’ home, that demand once made, has created an uncomfortable social environment. Which brings us to this year and how I wanted the menu to be simple and uncontroversial.

A few weeks ago, I declared to my parents that this Thanksgiving we eat Nepali dishes for dinner. Thankfully, they obliged. My mother and I usually discuss the dinner menu about a month or so out. Typically, these conversations are dissatisfying because every year, we’re trying to find that dish that is a perfect substitute for the turkey. Yet, we haven’t even eaten a turkey at Thanksgiving in over ten years. I figured we could make dinner this year to be simple, since it will just be my parents, my boyfriend, and a few family friends. The family friends are of South Indian and Nepali ethnicities. And then there’s my white American boyfriend from Michigan who, thankfully, likes Nepali food.

The 2013 menu: puri, two vegetable dishes, the homemade yogurt, and cilantro chutney. We’re also including mashed potatoes and gravy (no mustard oil and salt), cranberry sauce (of course), apple pie (I make it and my parents love it), and pecan pie (because my mother has been craving it). Sigh. The intentions for a simple dinner are already becoming complicated again. Like us, like my family consisting of Nepalis, a mid-western white American, and people with both vegetarian and vegan diets. Regardless of the success (or failure) of the meal, we will all be thankful for each other. We can, after all, be a family as complicated as our meals, yet still love sitting a bit squished next to one another around the Thanksgiving table, enjoy our diverse meal and diverse selves all under bright lights.

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