Kara Walker’s Toni Morrison
On Monday, Toni Morrison died in New York. Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children in a working-class family. She would, in time, become a renowned editor, fostering a generation of black writers. Then she took to the page herself, producing a body of work—novels, criticism, essays, speeches—that would come to be recognized as the central monument of American letters. For the cover of the August 19, 2019, issue, Kara Walker pays tribute to Morrison, and to the shadow that she leaves behind, in a piece Walker calls “Quiet As It’s Kept.”
Did you ever meet Morrison?
Briefly, at Lincoln Center, at the opening night of the opera “Margaret Garner.” I was too shy to say much. It’s a blur.
What’s your favorite memory of reading her?
When I was twenty-four and staying in an old farmhouse in the Marche region of Italy. The place was full of black scorpions and I was reading “Beloved.” Something about being in that landscape, feeling alien, tethered me to the time and setting of the narrative. Every time I pick up that novel for a reread, I feel the warm breeze of that summer.
What were you thinking as you made the early versions of this image—clay sculpture, the sketches?
No thoughts. Or, I felt urged on by an absence. Trying to fill a void.
Why did you decide, finally, to do a cutout?
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I wasn’t sure what to do, really. Like many artists, I looked up to Ms. Morrison for some kind of approval and validation that I usually didn’t seek in life. Through her work and words, she became something like a muse, teacher, mother, clairvoyant, and judge. Always a presence urging me on. After a number of false starts—pastel, clay, I even considered watercolor—I decided to keep it familiar, to use the cutout. It’s the work I do. I’m no portraitist, but I am a shadow maker.
For more of The New Yorker’s remembrances, read Doreen St. Félix on Morrison as materfamilias:
Vinson Cunningham on how Morrison taught us to read:
And Hilton Als on the moral complexity of her work:
For more covers celebrating literature, see below: