Allison Walker came to the shores of Martha’s Vineyard as a blank canvas.
Almost a year and a half ago, Ms. Walker moved from Washington, D.C., where she was working at the Smithsonian, to this little Island she had never heard of before. After spending time in Falmouth with a friend, she heard about an opening at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and decided to take a leap of faith.
“My friend said, ‘Hey, see that land mass over there? That’s Martha’s Vineyard.’ I had never thought about Martha’s Vineyard once in my life,” Ms. Walker said.
Nearly 18 months later, Ms. Walker stands in her basement studio in Oak Bluffs, leaning on a 2,000-pound printing press, surrounded by hundreds of monotype prints.
Many artists flock to the shores of the Vineyard looking for inspiration, solitude, excitement, or whatever creative panacea they may need. For Ms. Walker, the Island provided much more than that — a year-round living space equipped with a studio, an artistic mentor, a friend with a pickup truck, a one-ton printing press, a trip to Spain to study Picasso, and a friend with a gallery space, all of which coalesced into a debut exhibit titled “Levites” at 51art gallery in Vineyard Haven.
Drawing from Ms. Walker’s extensive religious art history education, the series of prints was inspired by the story of the Levitical priesthood from the Old Testament. The show followed a very loose timeline, interposing the reign of Pharaoh with the Tribe of Levi.
“When people hear you do religious art, their first reaction is, ‘I don’t like religious art,’ and I’m like, listen, me neither, if you’re talking about Precious Moments,” Ms. Walker said. “I wouldn’t call myself a religious artist. This happens to be the mythology I tackle. It’s just themes people can relate to.”
Ms. Walker chooses to look at her artistic perspective as the study of belief and how that belief — or lack of belief —has affected art over the centuries. She has studied nearly every religion, and also atheism. “It’s basically in-depth art history through the lens of religion,” she said.
Ms. Walker often pondered the responsibility of spiritual leadership and limitations of political power while putting together this show. “How are you a spiritual leader in your community? How can you rise to that?” she asks.
Ms. Walker attributes some of her recent artistic success to the mentorship of someone she deems a leader in the Martha’s Vineyard community. Her job at the museum put Ms. Walker in close proximity to Island printer and all-around Renaissance man Dan Waters, who jumped at the opportunity to tutor a young artist.
“Dan Waters pushed me very hard; his encouragement was great,” Ms. Walker said.
Having decided to take up printing again after a two-year hiatus, Ms. Walker set out in search of a press. She quickly found an ad on Craigslist — Long Island–based printmaker Dan Welden was selling his press. Now, she just had to get that 2,000-pound press to Martha’s Vineyard.
Ms. Walker headed down to New London in a truck borrowed from Ray Bilodeau, a friend she made on the Vineyard who owns a building and contracting business. After two hours of tedious work, inching the press from one truck bed to another, the job was complete.
“People were bleeding,” Ms. Walker recalls. “We thought it would break through the tailgate.”
When she made it back to Mr. Bilodeau’s office, it was already dark. She sheepishly approached and told him about the situation — the press was stuck in the truck, and would have to remain there overnight, or for eternity if they couldn’t find a way to lift it.
“Ray stares at it for a minute and says, I’ll get back to you,” she said. She went home that night hoping someone would attempt to steal the press off the truck, just to rid herself of this logistical problem. “I would have been relieved at this point if someone stole it,” she said.
When Ms. Walker awoke the next day, she thought the walls were coming down. And in reality, they were.
“I woke up Saturday morning at 8 am to power tools,” Ms. Walker said. “I run downstairs and there are a bunch of men cutting through the door. I see my press come down on a crane — my press is flying. Men were hanging down, it looked like some mining accident. They asked, Is this where you want it? ’Cause it’s never moving.”
Mr. Bilodeau came up with a plan to hoist the press into Ms. Walker’s basement studio with a crane and roll it into place against the wall, where it has stood ever since.
Despite this harrowing ordeal, Ms. Walker did not immediately start printing. She contemplated a few projects, but felt uninspired. A few weeks later, a friend offered to take her to Spain to study Picasso.
“Studying Picasso changed my life,” Ms. Walker said. “After a few months of psyching myself out, after seeing Picasso, I was like, you can do whatever you want. You look at a Michelangelo and you think, I should work on my shading. You look at Picasso and you think, I should trust myself.”
Up to this point, her record for prints completed in a single evening was four. After returning from Spain, Ms. Walker printed 23 pieces in one night. “And I did that every night for a week,” she said.
Elsewhere on the Island, Teresa Kruszewski, owner of 51art gallery in Vineyard Haven and also an employee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, was looking for an artist to feature on her walls for the month of May.
“My mom had this saying stuck on her mirror: ‘Luck is when opportunity meets hard work,’” Ms. Walker said. “I was up until 3 in the morning every night working on these prints, and when Teresa asked, Do you have a show, I thought, ‘I do, I really do.’”
“I always say the Island provides,” Ms. Walker said. “If I was working in D.C., I’d be working 15-hour days and coming home and sleeping and I would have never been able to do something like this. It’s so cheesy, but the Island has somehow provided everything I needed, including a printing press and a studio and opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have.”