Born in Russia in 1991, Richmond artist Nickolai Walko wonders if his fascination with the complex systems of life started on the initial flight that brought him to the United States with his adopted parents at two years of age.
“I looked at airplanes almost as metal birds of the sky, so when I was young, I would love to capture these metal birds on [a] piece of paper,” he said. As a young child, he wanted to be have that which seemed out of reach right in front of him.
His fascination with life, and the systems that hold it together, would quickly expand beyond the sheets of paper he sketched on in his youth. In high school, Walko was accepted to governor’s school, where he was introduced to the most influential educator in his life during his freshman year.
“I took a sculpture class with Virginia VanHorn, who is one of my favorite teachers of all time because she’s the reason why I do what I do,” he said. “I had never worked with chicken wire, or Spanish moss before or anything like that, so I just jumped into it [and] she was a great teacher in helping me pick up these new materials and just run with it.”
Walko’s sculpture classes opened his eyes to an array of mediums with one of his favorites initially being welding and metal work. “At this young age, as just kids, we were able to pick up welding and all these crazy metalworking techniques, so that really sparked a love for working with metal,” he said.
He took up a particular fascination with creating a copper suit of armor, after finding himself adorned in one in a dream. It was no small task for a high schooler, but as it turned out the dream was to be realized sooner than expected.
“At the time, I had a friend who was taking apart her copper roof. It was like this copper flashing that was 70 or 80 years old. She was about to just throw it away, but I asked her about it and she asked, ‘do you wanna make something out of it?’ And I was like ‘yeah totally.’”
Walko didn’t waste any time fashioning this body armor to bring his love of ancient medieval armor into the contemporary. His copper armor suit now sits comfortably in his studio alongside a more recent suit of armor, both appearing about his size, ready for the day that dream becomes a reality.
This would be the beginning of Walko’s desire to bring historic elements to life using contemporary materials. “I picked up the black masking tape when I was doing a mixed media sculpture class with Virginia VanHorn. I was just doing fun designs, but after that class, the material literally stuck to me and I was really fascinated by this new medium, where it kind of became more subtractive,” he said.
The process is meticulous and requires hours and hours of work. Walko will sit hunched over what could be referred to as his operating table as he uses his X-Acto knife to cut away layers upon layers of tape. “I’ll cover it all with black tape, then I’ll go in with the X-Acto blade. I kind of call it my scalpel. I look at it almost as a surgical procedure where I’m going in and hand cutting the skin then pulling up every little piece and showing to the viewer the anatomy and different style so fourth in the work,” he said. “I’m really fascinated with the process and just I’ll be going hours and hours and hours into a piece and I’ll just lose track of time and I’ll get sucked into it, I love doing it.”
The surgical metaphor goes a step further when Walko reignited his interest in complex living systems focusing his craft on the literal subject of anatomy. “[In high school] I had all of these anatomy books laying around and I was so fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci, [so] I really wanted to bring these [anatomical] diagrams to life with the tape, so just like clockwork it fell into place.”
To put in perspective the labor of love that must go into each work, Walko recently sold a five-foot-five piece titled “Galatea,” based off the piece Triumph of Galatea by Raphael and said, “I must’ve gone through a hundred razor blades…I [also] brought in my love for copper as the border and then I used anatomy and stylized the dress. This one took about a year to do,” he said.
While “Galatea” is an impressive example of Walko’s monumental feat in this craft, his studio is covered wall to wall with his works, each more intricate and mesmerizing than the last.
Walko’s unique mix of scientific history and contemporary art give his work crossover appeal, drawing attention within both the arts and science community. He’s travelled all over Virginia, presenting his work to artists and scientists alike.
Last year, Walko collaborated with fellow Richmond artist Francis Scott Horner for their exhibit, Cut by Cut at Anne’s Visual Art Studio, in which he created his tape drawings on painted panel, then cuts designs with an X-Acto blade to reveal images.
He says he’s passionate about learning, even though he says “I would never do an anatomy class.” His goal is to create the most holistic and accurate representation of the biological forms he creates. This makes Richmond an ideal place for Walko, with easy access to his alma mater, VCU, and the medical campus.
Walko wasn’t sure what his next big project would be, but he’s hoping to find inspiration on a tentatively planned flight back to Russia with members of his family. If he goes, it will be his first time in Russia since the initial flight that inspired his artistic career.