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RI Archives: Arts

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Bart Gulley: The Making of a Painter

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Photographs taken at the home and studio of Bart Gulley and Sally Helgesen.

“Artists can’t help but be influenced by where they work,” says the abstract painter Bart Gulley.  “Particularly if they feel wedded to the place.”  Gulley is wedded to both Chatham, NY, where he has lived full-time with his wife, the writer Sally Helgesen, since 2002, and to the beautiful 19th-century barn on their property that he converted into a spacious studio.

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Untitled Red I, 2001, oil on canvas
The third of four boys born to a sometime painter mother and an architect father, Gulley’s childhood was divided between a New York City apartment and a modern, weekend-and-summer house in Garrison, NY.  He loved both and, to this day, one sees evidence of a struggle between the rural and the urban in his work—suggestions of landscape painting, graphic design, and architectural drawing within the collages and the abstract brushwork.  Gulley calls his style “rational expressionism,” because “it’s cooler, slower, more analytical—less about sensation more about intention.”

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Equivalent, 2010, collage on board
“I think most artists are artists from the age of about 3 or 4,”  he says.  “Somebody throws you a box of crayons, and your fate is sealed.” 

Fortunately, Gulley’s efforts were taken seriously at home.  “My father would bring me magic markers by the fistful from his office at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill,” he says.  In public elementary school, he fell in with a couple of talented classmates.  They competed every day in “draw-offs—wars drawings, battle scenes, boy stuff. We worked like demons.”  Each appeared to be sincerely convinced that the other two were much better artists—and said so often—a mutual encouragement society that broke up only when Gulley transferred to Collegiate, a private boys day school that, in those days, groomed its students for the Ivys followed by clean-hands careers in law or on Wall Street.  “There was no art education to speak of,” Gulley says.  Nor were there fellow student artists to compete with.  Gulley’s father once took him to the office of Ivan Chermayeff, the eminent graphic designer, who “looked at my juvenalia and talked very seriously to me about it.”  Still, momentum might have been lost had an English teacher, sensing an awkward fit, not encouraged Gulley to make posters for the film club (“elaborate psychedelic things”) and had a classmate’s mother who painted not taken an interest in the boy. 

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Shot Red, 2001, oil on canvas
“That was Felicia Bernstein,” Gulley says.  The wife of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was “quite a painter.” Gulley remained close to her for the remainder of her life.  “She had learned all her tricks from Jane Wilson, then a Columbia professor, who is a terrific artist and a wonderful person who really encouraged me.” 

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2011, XIV, collage on board
On Thursday, February 17, a solo show of Gulley’s recent paintings and collages debuts at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY.  “It was not my intention to do 35 collages,” he says.  “But I was cleaning my barn last fall to begin anew, and I had these piles of cast-off materials.”  Gulley, intrigued by the possibilities, began cutting shapes, which found their way onto board, almost as if pulled there and arranged by magnetic force. “Collage is done just as landscapes are, from back to front.  I wanted to continue the process so I could see what would happen next.”
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Screen, 2001, oil on canvas
Bart Gulley From Image to Object: Painting to Collage
Hartwick College
Anderson Center for the Arts
Oneonta, NY
February 17 - March 19; opening reception February 17, 4:30 - 6:30 p.m.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 02/15/11 at 12:36 PM • Permalink