Walburg almost immediately switched his major to Art, retaining a minor in Industrial Design, although he kept it secret from the I.D. professors who would have otherwise restricted his access to their shops and facilities. During that semester his class took a field trip to see an exhibition of Arneson’s Trophy sculptures in San Francisco, and he “was just blown out.” He decided he would make a true commitment to the field and go on to graduate school, in order to obtain a degree that would prepare him to teach at a four-year college or university. Wishing to study with Arneson, he applied to graduate school at the University of California-Davis in the fall of 1964.
The university at Davis was at that time just reaching its stride as it moved towards becoming one of the leading art departments in the country. New hires included Wayne Thiebaud, William Wiley, Ralph Johnson, and Tio Giambruni. Soon the decorative art department was absorbed into the art department, so Bob Arneson and Ruth Horsting became part of the scene as well.
Entering UCD the spring semester 1965 he was instantly energized by the vigor evidenced by both the students and the faculty. Entering with a class that included Bruce Nauman, Frank Owen, and Steve Kaltenbach, the newbies joined second-year students Peter VandenBerge and Ed Higgins, among others; David Gilhooly entered a year later. It was a time of exploration, of searching, of seminars that often seemed to evolve into parties. He was introduced to the work of other artists that affected him both attitudinally—such as Marcel Duchamp—and aesthetically—such as Constantin Brancusi—with such force that their influence remained with him throughout his career.
His early ceramics, generally of low fire earthenware, tended towards the funkiness then popular in northern California ceramics. Arneson, Wiley, and the other teachers always encouraged their first-year students to look to their own individual backgrounds and produce work based on where they were “from” and what their early interests had been; Walburg, therefore, began with two-dimensional work using basic drafting graphics to solve aesthetic problems. At the same time, Walburg began working with it in the same mindset with which he tackled his “drafting problems.” This ceramic work was completely different from anything else going on in the department at that time. When Arneson saw Walburg’s clay work, he asked him if he had ever considered working in metal, rather than trying to make his ceramics look like metal. Arneson’s comment changed his life. As early as the fall of 1965, therefore, Walburg started working with steel, “bending things” in the shops at the same time that he continued with his ceramics and with smaller metal and mixed media pieces as well.
It took Walburg two decades more to break away from his precise preliminary processes and shift towards a more intuitive way of working—although he has never moved as far as Nauman’s conceptualism, Wiley’s playfulness, or Arneson’s funkiness. Nevertheless, these compounding series of experiences and impressions challenged his tight approach to media and ultimately led to a series of large steel pieces featuring loop forms, in which he attempted to manipulate the material in a more organic way. Concurrently Walburg produced a series of rather austere wall-mounted works, first using cardboard painted to look like metal and then moving towards clear and tinted Plexiglas, fabricating shapes that would introduce a hint of color without revealing the source of that color.
By his second year of graduate school he started teaching: one sculpture class at the University of California Extension-Davis and several classes in the engineering department at Sacramento City College. Working part time, he taught Three-Dimensional Design, Materials and Methods, Architectural History, Architectural Delineation,19 and Perspective. His Materials and Methods class enabled him to attend trade fairs with his students, exciting opportunities to see the latest and trendiest materials and techniques used in construction, architecture, and design. At the 1965 San Francisco fair, he discovered “Corrosive Tensile” or Cor-ten steel, a proprietary alloy touted as being twice as strong as regular sheet metal of comparable thickness. Walburg examined the samples that he picked up at the fair, ordered some, and began to make sculpture with it.
The summer of 1966 he traveled with his wife Jean to see her folks in a small town near Carbondale, Illinois, and they combined this visit with an excursion to Chicago. He learned enough from the work he saw on this trip that he knew where he needed to focus:
I looked at what my background was, what my capabilities were, and what was being done, and I wasn’t seeing anybody working that way. I had all this shop background. I knew how to draw things, how to plan them, and how to construct them; how to weld, and how to fabricate. So I went for it.