Ralph Walters is once again ready to believe

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Ralph Walters

For years, painter Ralph Walters struggled to come up with a succinct artist’s statement, following the advice of a colleague who informed him that the declaration, meant to surmise the bulk of his work, should be no longer than five words.

“So I put a lot of thought into it,” Walters said recently by phone, following with the synopsis on which he eventually landed. “And I realized I like to paint belief.”

This can take many forms on the canvas, with Walters exploring folklore, conspiracy theory, mysticism, religion and more, but almost always centered on the larger idea of what people choose to believe and how that shapes everything from culture at-large to commonplace interactions. “Belief shapes everything, and there’s no science to it. There is no particular reason anyone believes anything,” Walters said. “I got into an argument with a buddy of mine who is a Mormon, and he got upset that there were a number of people in this conversation who didn’t believe there was an afterlife. And at his angriest, before he got off the conversation, he said, ‘Well, I guess we all just rot in the ground. Is that what you want to believe? Is that what makes youhappy?’

“And that’s it, isn’t it? Our belief is what we want to believe. It’s what makes us happy. And I don’t mean ‘happy’ in the strictest sense, because some people are quite content believing the entire world is after them … even though it makes them depressed and paranoid and anxious. But it also gives them purpose, and that purpose overrides the bad things.”

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Walters traced the roots of this interest to his upbringing in the Southern Baptist tradition, as well as an early fascination with paranormal TV shows like “In Search of…” and “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe.” As a child growing up in Franklinton, Louisiana, Walters said he was prone to asking questions about his faith, which were often met with rebuke from those in authority. “And I thought that was such a strange response to wanting to learn more about your religion,” he said. 

So, as Walters moved into college, he would spend hours in the library researching aspects of different religions, looking for answers to those questions that had long gone unanswered. These deep dives eventually led him to other faith practices, and then on to conspiracy theories about things such as cryptids (animalistic creatures whose existence has been rumored but never proven, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster) and UFOs. In more recent years, these investigations have continued on canvas, with Walters painting fantastical creatures and various unexplained phenomena.

These unexplainable occurrences form the backbone of a new, in-progress multimedia series. In the series, each painting will be accompanied by a companion video in which Walters will discuss the depicted phenomena with a host of writers, artists and musicians. The first episode, which Walters hopes to debut via Patreon in April, centers on the Flatwoods monster, a birdlike alien creature first purported to have been spotted in 1952 by residents in the town of Flatwoods in Braxton County, West Virginia.

“I don’t even necessarily believe in it,” said Walters, who noted that the sighting has since been largely debunked, its origins traced to some combination of misunderstanding andthe unexpectedly freakish appearance of baby owls. At the same time, this folklore has spawned a pair of museumsone in Flatwoods and one in Sutton, West Virginia and become a source of income for the region, which the artist viewed as yet another example of the power of belief.

“Look at the Mothman Museum [in Point Pleasant, West Virginia], which has turned into a Mothman Festival, where thousands and thousands of people travel in,” said Walters. “The restaurants for that weekend are all booked. The hotels are packed. And the stores have customers they’ve never seen before. It’s interesting to me a story can have so much life and power.”

Up until recently, however, Walters had a significantly reduced drive to explore these transportive stories on canvas, overcome by a depression he has managed from childhood, and which had started to grow more burdensome even before the pandemic hit early in 2020, fueled by a combination of life developments, health woes and aging.

“I haven’t painted as much over the last few years as I used to, and it just made me spiral,” said Walters, who has embraced art as a form of escape from childhood, when drawing offered respite from the abuse dealt out by his stepfather. “He used to like to stab me because he thought it was funny. One time he had a two-pronged barbecue fork, and he jabbed it into my thigh, and he managed to jab it in far enough that when he let go, it didn’t fall out. It just stuck out of my leg. And he laughed the longest time about that.”

Walters said he long ago made peace with his past, describing the abuse he experienced as “a memory of a memory.” “I don’t regret that anymore, which sounds weird to say, because I can tell you some horrific stories about things that happened to me as a child,” he said. “But I feel like having experienced that, it puts me in a place to understand other people better, and what they came from and what they had to deal with, and what their subsequent behaviors and motivations are based on. It’s made me a humble person. It’s made me a more empathetic person.”

In many ways, Walters credits art for his survival. He recalled drawing his first series of cobweb-covered skulls at age 2, inspired by an early viewing of “The Skull,” a 1965 British horror film in which a man’s skull frees itself from the grave to exact vengeance on those who wronged him in life. “Painting is very much therapy for me,” he said. “There’s such a level of importance on it that if I can’t create, I feel like less of a person.”

As Walters approached his 50th birthday in December, he wasn’t painting as much, and these feelings of hopelessness intensified, further amplified by pandemic-driven isolation, which cut the painter off from usual social outlets such asthe Artists Wrestling League. Around this time, Walters realized he needed to be more proactive in dealing with his depression, hoping to avoid a similar fate as his father, whom the artist described watching “passive-aggressively kill himself for 12 years,” and expressing a desire to be a better person for his wife, Beth. 

“He had clearly just given up, and I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do,” said Walters, who long swore off antidepressants, scarred by the side effects and limited benefits he experienced taking Paxil and Depakote in the 1990s. “And I love my wife so much. I care about her enough that that’s not what I wanted to be for her.”

After considering his options, Walters decided to again try antidepressants, starting a prescription of Effexor. For the first couple of weeks, the artist slept a lot, but as his body adjusted to the medication, his energy returned and the depression started to feel more distant, more manageable. And while he’ll still have occasional bad days, the effect is more muted. “Like something is happening across the street rather than devouring me,” Walters said.

The art has also returned, with Walters now working at a faster pace than almost any time he can recall.

“I needed to stop the depression, or I just needed to stop,” said Walters. “I didn’t want to be that anymore. I didn’t want to be someone who places such a small value on his own life because of a chemical imbalance. I understand why people get suicidal. I’ve been there. I just don’t want to be there anymore. I want to be a good husband to my wife. I want to paint. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. … My whole life has been about self-amusement, really. It wasn’t about wanting to be famous or anything like that. It was just a big, fun, crazy thing to do. And I wanted it to be like that again. I wanted to feel like that again.”

The Flatwoods Monster by Ralph Walters