story by Alison Reeger Cook • photos by David Cook
Sometimes, the story begins in the least expected place — even on a knee.
What began as adorable pictures of small, gnomish creatures that local artist and author Jan Walker would face-paint on children’s knees at the Chattahoochee Mountain Fair, became an entire race of creatures called Neeps that live in their own magical, miniature kingdom. Their exciting exploits are told through her children’s books titled “The Kingdom of Neep,” “Gloomy” and “Christmas Tea at Harvest Hall.” Written in a Seussian style of bouncy rhyming couplets, the books are immensely popular with children and parents, and Walker has sold 4,000 copies of her books to date.
“I’ve been an artist all my life, since I was three years old,” Walker says. “In 1984, John Kollock — a well-known artist up here — saw a coloring book I made and said that I should write a book. I had never dreamt of writing a book. He said, ‘go to the schools and tell your stories.’ All my friends were teachers, so I asked them if I could speak in their students. I would make up stories on the way to class. I don’t have any blocks. I just flow.”
In many ways, Walker is a present-day Beatrix Potter: a self-taught artist, a children’s storyteller, a lover of nature and animals which feature prominently in her stories, and a businesswoman who has immortalized her characters for generations to come. Coincidentally, Walker’s mother was pregnant with her when Potter passed away in 1943, so she says that she has “a little bit of Beatrix in me.” Walker’s Prisma colored pencil drawings reflect the beauty and gentleness of nature similarly found in Potter’s watercolor illustrations.
Walker’s greatest joy in sharing her talents with others, particularly young children. In 1979, she founded The Children’s Gallery in her Cornelia home, and is celebrating 40 years of teaching art classes to children, teenagers and adults. The classroom in Walker’s house is a wonderland of art, with stained glass windows, displays of student sketches, and an entire wall of shelves for paints, markers, pencils, craft pieces, and collage supplies. It’s an aspiring art student’s dream come true. Many of her students have gone on to pursue art as college students or as art teachers, and she points out how proud she is to see that her own students surpass her in certain artistic skills.
“With all my talents of writing and drawing, my greatest gift is teaching,” she says. “All you need to have to be a good teacher is two things: know your subject well, and be able to make it simple.”
Her current work-in-progress is a 92-page chapter book, featuring 50 of Walker’s soft, dreamlike illustrations. She plans to release her new book this August, and plans to celebrate the book launch with students and friends. The story centers around four Neeps from different world cultures — North America, South America, Africa and Asia — coming together to go on a grand adventure.
Walker is well-versed in world cultures, as among the many titles she holds — artist, writer, teacher — is also globetrotter. Originally from New Hampshire, she attended Hesser Business College for two years and at age 21 saved up enough money to travel to Australia, where she met her husband Peter in Tasmania. Coincidentally, she and Peter were both of Scottish descent, which one can see reflected in the many Scottish plates and keepsakes that decorate Walker’s home. After working in Australia for two years, she went on to travel across Europe, Asia and Africa. After returning to the U.S., the Walkers moved to Georgia and were together for 25 years until Peter passed away in 1990.
Many of Walker’s drawings feature the landscape around Lake Russell, about an hour from Cornelia, where she has taken her Children’s Gallery students every summer for swimming and cookouts. Her depictions of birds, reptiles, and woodland mammals are done with great attention to detail, every pencil-stroke for feather or fur placed with care. She has even drawn pictures in painstaking pointillism. Some animals she draws as Neeps with cherub-chubby faces and soulful eyes. One of her murals, painted on the walls of a Cornelia dentist’s office, depicts the Kingdom of Neep in vibrant, warm colors, a perfect playroom for any child.
“I think the key to my success with teaching art for 40 years is that I have as much fun as the children,” Walker says. “I want them to have fun, and to be children. I talk to them about the world a lot, and how we’re all the same. That’s why this new book is important to me, because I have my four Neeps from different countries, and it’s a story about how we’re all alike.” For parents who want to learn more about signing up their children, or themselves, for weekly summer workshops in creative drawing at The Children’s Gallery, you can contact Ms. Walker at 706-778-1646 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.