Karen Walker is an American artist, born November 26, 1969 in in Stockton, California. She is known for her conceptual artwork, as well as multimedia style artwork, paintings and collages. But one of her best and most interesting pieces of artwork was the Subtlety done in honor of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York right before it was demolished.
She is also well known for topics that explore things like race and gender, sexuality, identity and violence. She also has served five years as a Tepper Chair in the Visual Arts department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, as well as was elected in 2018 to be a part of the American Philosophical Society.
The Domino Sugar Refinery was the original place where sugar was refined by the American Sugar Refining Company, and was once the largest of its kind in the world. It stated in 1881 and stopped refining sugar in 2004. However, as of 2017 the refinery site was to undergo new development and get turned into offices, apartments and other structures, but a few of the complex’s building got landmark status and were saved.
Kara Walker was chosen to pay homage to the refinery and its massive amount of history in refining of sugar. Creative Time commissioned the work and it was entitled A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. It paid tribute to unpaid and overworked artisans, as well as the people who worked in the sugar cane fields, i.e. unpaid workers, slaves and even children.
Subtlety is marzipan artwork made of sugar paste, which was a kind of fondant used in medieval times to create sculptures of royalty and served at banquets. Only the royalty, nobility and clergy were allowed to eat these creations. They usually represented some sort of power as a theme.
The factory was to be demolished at the end of her show. She says she thought hard on what to display and how to feature the past history of the factory as well as the picking of sugar cane and the use of it at the refinery plant. Walker said she wanted to go from ruins to sugar subtlety, and had to determine the kind of sculpture figure to create, as well as how to position it. Her final idea was to create a Sphinx type figure.
From May through July 2014 she exhibited a huge 80-feet long by 40-feet high African American female type figure designed like a Sphinx, as well as a few child sized figures who were called its attendants. She and several others worked via computer and robotic cutting tools, as well as manual labor, to produce these statues, which were made by coating a core made of polystyrene with blocks of white sugar and sugar slurry mix.
The sugar amounted to 80 tons and was donated by Domino Foods. The process began with clay models, which were scanned into a computer program and then digitized and made into a file so carving robots could then cut it out. They also used bow wires to help get the initial curves, before smoothing it out and finishing the pieces out by hand.
The smaller creations were made of a mix of corn syrup, sugar, and water, then boiled and mixed to between 265 and 290 F, poured into rubber molds, and allowed to harden, then covered in a sugar and water mixture.
All in all, Walker says she had fun with the project and it was good therapy for her. She added it was a privilege to work in the factory space since they could have chosen any one of 1000s of other artists.