Merissa Walker at Graphic Station

by Monty DiPietro

A wary brown eye peers out from behind the wire-reinforced window. Slowly, two dead bolts are pulled back and the heavy steel door opens. I slip into Merissa Walkerís live-in atelier in Tokyoís posh Minami Aoyama as the door slams behind me and the dead bolts are thrown.

"Itís the last straw," sighs Walker of the harassment she is receiving from her buildingís new owner. She holds up an eviction notice that was plastered over her mailbox that morning. "Itís a sign that I should be moving on."

Which is a shame for two reasons: Firstly, Walker has a great, airy studio space in a city where they are nearly impossible to find. And secondly, her departure from Tokyo and Japan, planned for sometime this winter, will rob the city of one of its most talented and independently successful artists - and a heck of a nice person as well.

"Inkslinger," as Walker is also known, is one of the very few foreign artists here who has found a way to support herself with her work - which she calls "alphabet shodou," or alphabet calligraphy. At the core of Walkerís medium is a simple but brilliant idea - brush black sumi ink onto washi paper using traditional Japanese strokes and lines, but instead of describing kanji and kana, create a surrealistic font for the Roman alphabet and paint phrases - such as the Yeats quote, "Thereís more enterprise in walking naked."

The resulting collages of phrases on multi-layered paper and gold and silver leaf are expertly crafted and wonderfully fun. They are also good art. Viewed from a distance, the mindís eye sees them as Chinese characters. Up close, the squiggles morph into letters and words. Deciphering the tangled phrases is a bit like cracking a code - it takes imagination and patience to piece things together. "Sacred Cows Make Great Hamburgers" is a show of 15 new works, now on at graphic station, a small gallery and print shop tucked behind the French Cafe "Aux Bacchanales" in Tokyoís Harajuku.

Prices for the artistís 73x52cm pieces range from 40,000-110,000 yen, and graphic stationís Megumi Tashiro says sales are good. "Our customers are mostly designers and students," she explains "and Walkerís combination of old and new into work that is both beautiful and funny appeals to them." One hour into the packed opening party, two works are already sold. Also moving are the artistís postcards and 1998 calenders.

"We sold out 1,500 calenders two years ago - this year Iím doing 2,000. People and businesses also commission me to do New Yearís cards, but mostly my customers are friends," says Walker, "people who meet me and talk to me and like my ideas and see my stuff and they want a piece - they want a piece of me."

Market-wise, twenty-nine year-old Walker aims to please.

"What I do is serious, although it might not always seem that way," explains the artist as a shoulder-length lock of greasy brown hair falls across her forehead.

"I practice all the time with kanji to get the shapes and strokes," she says "Iíve books and all that." Walker briefly experimented with exhibiting actual kanji, but found the pursuit energy-consuming and artistically limiting.

At Gallery Ku, a tiny space in rural Odawara, a trio of elderly calligraphers took Walker aside to point out a grave mistake the artist had made. One of her pieces depicted the kanji for "snow." The kanji was laying on a mountain. "They told me in a very serious voice that snow must always be falling, it should never just lay there," recalls Walker. "I politely explained that I had not been taught this, and after some consideration they told me that I could be excused for not having learned about snow since I didnít have a proper teacher."

"Traditional Japanese calligraphy is a sacred cow," says Walker, "But Iím better suited to making hamburgers."

A noise from the stairway and Walkerís eyes dart toward the door, then she is back at work gluing stretched washi to backing paper for "Tokyo Love," a work in progress that may be the artistís Tokyo swan song.

Walker plans to continue making, showing and selling her "alphabet shodou" when she repatriates. She says a recent show at Sydneyís Michael Nagy Gallery went "amazingly well." When she isnít making hamburgers from sacred cows, the artist reckons on taking up a new pastime - tending the "Moos," a herd of cattle she recently bought and keeps on the Walker family farm down under.

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