Johnny Cash relaxes at his San Antonio ranch, leaning against a wooden fence, his eyes set to the horizon.
He’s off duty, trading his black suit for a checked flannel, his guitar for a worn chisel. Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols strut down a busy London street while Kurt Cobain stares quietly backs at me. These timeless images of rock n’ roll greats look down from the walls of the East Austin gallery Modern Rocks, curated by owner Steve Walker, a former member of the popular British band Modern English. Yet, this isn’t just another gallery. Steve combines his two loves, rock and roll and precious rocks, under one roof. The iconic images on the wall are refracted into hundreds of pieces in the jutting facets of the crystals that line the walls. These beautiful rocks are all shapes and sizes, as varied as the performers that surround them.
The journey from rock to rocks was a natural one for Steve. Before moving to Austin just over a year ago, Steve was living in London, working at a renowned mineral and fossil gallery in Chelsea. Before that he spent his time on stage and on the road as a musician, which fostered his love of photography. “For me, music’s always been a very visual thing.” Steve tells me. “Growing up, the bands I really liked as a kid had a really strong identity, a strong look… I’ve always been into classic rock photography – seeing backstage stuff, seeing studio stuff. It fascinates me.”
“For me, music’s always been a very visual thing.”Steve Walker
During Steve’s time with Modern English, he was introduced to his other passion in life – rocks – and that love for rocks led him to his stint working in a gallery renowned for its minerals. “It’s a really weird story,” Steve laughs. “I was touring with the band… and the singer had a best friend – a guy called Dale Rogers – this crazy guy in London who’s got the most incredible collection of rocks and stones and minerals. We started hanging out, and we went from running a small market stall in London on Portobello Road to, in a few years, having one of the best fossil and mineral galleries in the world.”
After a decade of working at the Chelsea gallery, Steve was ready for a change. “I’ve got a three-year-old, and we wanted to bring him somewhere fun, somewhere fresh, somewhere funky that’s nice and hot. Austin checked all the boxes.” So, Steve took what he had learned in London and transplanted it to Texas, bringing both his knowledge of minerals and photographs from London’s famous Rock Archive collection. Modern Rocks is the only gallery in Austin to feature work from the Archive, and Steve carefully hand picks each image to fit the space. The images span decades and genres, yet by virtue of their composition and predominately black and white palette, they feel timeless; classic works of art that transcend generational bounds.
“I used to walk to work every day, and I used to walk past the Rock Archive in London. It had this incredible rock photography – I was mesmerised by it.” One image in particular captured Steve’s attention. “I had to apologize,” Steve says, “there was one picture that was in the window, of Tom Waits, and its my favorite image ever. Rain or shine, I would look at this picture through the window.” Steve laughs, holding his hand at nose-level. “I said to them, ‘there’s probably a nose print on the window every morning from about so-high and its mine; it’s from adoring your gallery for a long time.” The picture now resides in Steve’s family home, along with some of his other favorite mineral and fossil pieces.
Since opening a year ago, Modern Rocks has been maturing and receiving more accolades, thanks largely to Austin’s independent vibe and celebration of music and art. To boot, it was just named Best Art Gallery by voters of the Austin A-List this month. “London’s a tough market because it’s saturated. There so much going on with so many people.” Steve admits. Taking the plunge and moving to Austin was a risk that paid off. “Austin was an unknown for me, but it’s incredible. It’s the warmest, friendliest place on the planet. To come here to try and set up a business without knowing anyone in town is a terrifying thing to do, but Austin’s probably the best place on the planet to do it. Everyone’s so welcoming, so friendly, so accepting and supportive.”
These two triptychs are both available in a signed limited edition of five.
Unseen Hendrix runs from Nov.7 – Dec. 20 at Modern Rocks gallery.
Austin was so supportive, in fact, that after only one month of opening a career-defining opportunity walked through Steve’s door. He was presented with never-before-seen negatives of Jimi Hendrix, kept since 1969 and probably the last unseen images of the artist that will ever surface. Austin photographer Robert Hewgley took the photos. He kept these images in storage for 45 years, and releasing these photographs was his retirement present to himself.
“Robert came in – really lovely, lovely guy, we hit it off straight away. He was showing me these pictures; he’d sat on them since 1969,” Steve tells me. “He said, ‘there’s one roll of color film and nobody’s seen these.’” Steve was in shock. “I’m thinking surely someone must have seen these before? He said ‘no, it’s just me and you.’”
This was a moment Steve wouldn’t forget. “My knees nearly went – I couldn’t believe it. This is unseen Jimmy Hendrix photographs, potentially the last unseen live photographs to surface – and we were doing it in my little gallery that had only been open a month. It was mad, it was incredible.”
“I think art comes with a story, and I love the story of where this stuff came from.”Steve Walker
In a digital age where content is more disposable than ever, having the photos presented as negatives made the experience much more special. “Robert pulled this book out of his bag and opened it really slowly, and you could see these images. That, for me, was a ‘wow’ moment that you just can’t beat. It wasn’t downloaded, it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t immediate.” This long-abandoned mode of capturing images brought back a wave of nostalgia for Steve. “Moments like that are few and far between nowadays, so it took me back to being a kid again.”
Steve and Robert organized a show at Modern Rocks to exhibit these photographs, offering Austinites a rare chance to view never-before seen images of Hendrix. For most, the show “Unseen Hendrix” will be the first and last time they’ll ever see these incredibly rare images. The exhibition opened November 7 and runs through December 20, but that’s not all that lies in the future for Modern Rocks. Steve wants to expand the gallery’s selection of work, bringing in more local photographers from around Austin.
“I want to constantly go out there and find incredible photography, find incredible rocks, bring in things that are fresh and keep the gallery vibrant and different.” Steve’s gallery space is simple yet inviting; the perfect canvas for his works, and a lovely place to spend an afternoon chatting and admiring the rocks and photography. “I think art comes with a story, and I love the story of where this stuff came from.”
916 Springdale Road Canopy Building 3, Unit 103
By Angela Castles; Photos by Daniel Brock
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