Cold Creativity

Local artist’s work gets inside the mind of a serial killer on HBO’s True Detective

Is a serial killer cold at heart? It’s a question of motive that artist Joshua Walsh needed to consider as he attempted to channel the mindset of a murderer for his latest job.

The result — a collection of about 100 sculptures, murals, and paintings — is featured prominently as clues in the quest to catch a killer on HBO’s newest drama True Detective.

It seemed only fitting this Fraser resident would end up discussing his foray into cold-blooded territory — not to mention a major Hollywood production — during January’s so-called polar vortex. Walsh was also sitting in his father’s Adoring Pet Funeral Home at the time, amid plaques depicting long-gone beloved pets like Pumpkin the cat. (His father is also co-owner of Fraser’s longstanding Faulmann & Walsh Golden Rule Funeral Home.) It was exactly the kind of disarming strangeness running its course through Walsh’s life that True Detective’s producers wanted in their resident artist.

“I needed someone whose thinking was a little bit unusual,” says Alex DiGerlando, production designer for True Detective. “Josh was that person.”

Those who have been watching True Detective since its premiere in January will be intimately familiar with Walsh’s artwork. They are depicted as the creations of an elusive serial killer, and detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) use them to try to get inside the suspect’s twisted mind.

Walsh says he needed to do the same thing in order to make the killer’s art believable. “I’ve had to kind of forget everything I’ve ever learned” about art, he says, describing his journey to a more primitive, self-taught kind of work.

Walsh started work on the eight-month project for the show by pulling up the roots of things like dead flowers, and then working off those images to create his creepy pieces, which the killer leaves as calling cards with his victims and are all made out of natural objects. They range from small sculptures to some of the largest conceptual pieces Walsh has ever created, including one in the show’s finale that is made out of 3,000 pieces of driftwood. There are also drawings and murals. At one point, the killer creates a mural in a burnt-out church, which Walsh says led to the charcoal theme for the others.

Walsh’s stint as the show’s resident artist is unusual by Hollywood standards — an in-house production team typically creates all of the necessary art for a show. But producers said the nature of the True Detective story arc called for a single artist to be “cast” as the serial killer in order to make the art — an integral part of the plot — authentic.

So the show’s producers met with several artists in Louisiana, where True Detective was filmed, and asked them to provide samples of the killer’s “work.” DiGerlando says none had the right energy.

Then one day in the office of set decorator Cynthia Slagter, everyone noticed one of Walsh’s sculptures — a hummingbird made out of leaves, stone, and twine — sitting on her desk. The bird was a gift from Walsh, who had become friends with Slagter while living in New Orleans, and it was a fateful moment for the look and feel of True Detective.

“We were all like, ‘Who made that thing? We need to meet that guy,’ ” DiGerlando says.

They contacted Walsh, who had just moved back to Michigan after a 20-year stint in New Orleans, and soon he was working on samples for the show. DiGerlando says Walsh’s work was “dead-on,” leading everyone to agree that he was their guy.

“We were lucky to have the luxury” to use Walsh exclusively, says Scott Stephens, the show’s executive producer. Stephens calls Walsh’s work “hauntingly beautiful” and something that permeates the series.

Born in Detroit, Walsh surprisingly describes himself as a traditional, classic painter who knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. Some of his pieces have been used in movies and other TV shows, like HBO’s Treme. That show is filmed in New Orleans, and producers had gotten to know Walsh’s work by trolling city art galleries. But Walsh says he never saw himself doing such a massive project from such a different artistic perspective for a show like True Detective.

“I feel like I got completely schooled in the world of Hollywood,” Walsh says.