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 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.