Derek Walker in his art studio with “Fendi’s Ballad” (2021, oil on canvas, 58 x 36 inches) to his left, and “Late Bus” (2022, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches) to his right. Photo / Amanda Koehn

Age: 21 • Lives: Maple Heights • Creates: Cleveland • Learns: Senior painting major at Cleveland Institute of Art

By Amanda Koehn

Derek Walker’s ability to challenge himself with new painting styles – despite the success of his past works, and still being a college student – has him moving toward a promising future.

The Cleveland Institute of Art senior and Maple Heights native was a finalist for a leading U.S. student art competition in 2021, saw his first solo show this year and received several other recent accolades for his paintings. 

He pushes himself toward new genres, now experimenting with pieces where the end result is not as planned as his previous work.  

“For these types of paintings,” he says, pointing to a couple of portraits from 2021, in his art studio at CIA, “I got too comfortable with it after about three years of just doing these styles, where I knew what I was going to paint from the very beginning.”

Now working on his Bachelor of Fine Arts project, he’s combining the realism of his earlier work and the cartoonish qualities of his more recent art with new narratives and ideas.    

Walker’s first solo show, “Let The Cape Fly,” at the Art Studio Gallery at Case Western Reserve University in May comprised naturalistic portraits. In them, “The figure is kind of tricking the viewer as if they’re in the room with them,” he says. 

The show specifically explores the durag, a hair covering commonly used to protect Black hairstyles. Consistent across his work, he incorporates symbols relating to Cleveland, such as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, a hip hop group from Cleveland, and the RTA logo.

“Remain Myself” (2020). Acrylic on wood panel, 39 x 72 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Walker chose to focus on the durag because of its cultural ties to the Black Diaspora, he says, and to display it within portraits and figurative art, which historically lack representation of Black people and culture.  

“I kind of wanted to celebrate it through a naturalistic rendering, and like ideas of representation because seeing art historical portraits, I didn’t really see any figures that were Black,” he says. “I kind of wanted to do my own take on that and insert figures that are Black into these painting conventions.”

“Let The Cape Fly” was developed through CIA’s Creativity Works internship, where students organize their own project with a community partner over a semester.

“It’s an amazing program because I got to pretty much do everything from scratch and really learn the ropes,” Walker says. “Now I have under my belt the idea of organizing a show.”

For his first painting for that series, “Remain Myself,” Walker says he “kind of spent my entire quarantine (during COVID-19) painting it. That took about four or five months.” In the 2021 Student Independent Exhibition at CIA, it won both the show’s Board Grand Prize and The Gwen Cooper ’63 Award.

Another piece, “30 Wave Caps,” was a finalist for the AXA Art Prize – a leading national student art competition. Walker traveled to New York City in November 2021 to see it on view at the Wilkinson Gallery at the New York Academy of Art. He was among 40 finalists chosen from 600 submissions.

After that series, Walker began to dive into a comic book style of painting, he says, pointing to two pieces in his studio at CIA. And now working on his BFA project, the works so far are painted in a scale of black, gray and white, depicting people and symbols in scenes across Cleveland. 

While the story is not explicitly written out like in a comic book, there’s most definitely a narrative. The artwork dabbles in afrofuturism, he says, an aesthetic movement focused on the intersection of the Black Diaspora culture and science and technology.

“I’m pulling from afrofuturism, but I’m looking at it from a standpoint of Cleveland commuters,” he says, pointing to a piece titled “Late Bus” that shows two commuters waiting in the rain, and includes a Cleveland Guardians logo. It shows off his comic style but with a sense of dystopia. He jokes he got “a little festive” working on it around Halloween. 

“Faulty Printer” (2022). Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the BFA project, he’s scouted locations around Cleveland, with “Late Bus” taking place at a bus stop near E. 55th Street and Broadway Avenue. In future paintings, he’s hoping to depict more of Cleveland’s iconic buildings and dip into more experimental areas of fashion, he says.

Walker says he’s often inspired by music and narratives in songs. He will draw an idea in his sketchbook, and then considers who to photograph that will fit his vision – often family or friends. He’ll edit the photos in Photoshop to complete the scene, and then will get to work on the painting, he says.

This past year, he also had work on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in the exhibition, “Where We Overlap,” curated by Davon Brantley, who was featured in Canvas’ Who’s Next in 2020. Walker is currently showing at the Streetlight Guild in Columbus in an exhibit where Ohio artists explore their psyche and how it communicates with the world around them. The Streetlight Guild show is curated by artists Nina “9” Wells & Khamall Jahi.    

Looking to graduation in the spring, Walker says he can see himself in a creative role at a company like Marvel, balanced with freelance and selling paintings. 

Growing up, Walker played baseball in addition to making art, and thought he would pursue a career in one of them. But when it came time for high school, he chose Cleveland School of the Arts, which didn’t have a baseball team – meaning he had to decide between the two fairly early.

“I think it was a good decision,” he says.   

“(Walker’s) fearlessness plays out at every level. Some artists, student or not, get really comfortable in the work they’re making, especially if they feel like they’ve become known for it. This can mean that the work kind of shuts down, stops developing. Derek is very self-aware as an artist and he’s not afraid to try new strategies, processes or techniques. If the work isn’t doing what he wants it to, he’s not afraid to change it and he’s got the painting chops to do it. Derek’s the real deal.”

Lane Cooper, associate professor of painting, Cleveland Institute of Art

On view

• “MIND, BODY, SPIRIT & SOOOUUUL,” an exhibition featuring art by Derek Walker, is on view at the Streetlight Guild, 1367 E. Main St. in Columbus, through Nov. 26. For more information, visit