Antiques & Art Around Florida - 2016

Orville Bulman: Florida's Popular Mid-Twentieth-Century Modern Artist

Deborah C. Pollack 2015-09-18 23:19:28

Self-taught artist Orville Bulman was born in 1904 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A year later his father, Elvah O. Bulman (known as E. O.), began inventing dispensers and cutters for virtually all rolled up goods. Before long, the Bulman paper cutter became de rigueur for any self-respecting grocery or dry goods establishment and Orville entered the hugely successful family business. His true artistic calling, however, became too compelling to ignore. He exhibited at New York’s Society of Independent Artists in 1937 and for a short time around 1948 painted with the Woodstock Art Colony. Around 1946, Bulman began to spend winters in Palm Beach, Florida, after sustaining recurring injuries to his neck. He built a home and studio there and traveled extensively throughout the state to paint African-American inspired genre scenes. In 1950, artist J. Clinton Shepherd gave Bulman his Florida debut in Shepherd’s Palm Beach gallery on Royal Poinciana Way. Bulman, unsure of himself as an artist, exclaimed, “I can’t believe I am actually to have a show; I’m almost embarrassed.” After the first of his paintings sold at the opening night party, the astonished Bulman took a bottle of scotch from the gallery’s bar, chased the buyer down the street, and gave it to him in gratitude. The exhibition sold out quickly and Bulman began his magical rise to phenomenal success. Palm Beach art dealer Mary Benson asked Bulman to exhibit at her renowned Worth Avenue Gallery in 1952. The paintings sold out on opening night. Bulman quipped “I don’t understand what is going on... I’m really way over my head in this business. Critics tell me I have a style of my own. I don’t even know what style is. I’m fascinated with color and form and like to paint, and people like what I paint.” During the early 1950’s Bulman saw photographs of Haiti, admired its style, verve and trimmed houses with lacy appliqué carved wood. He visited the island for the first time in March 1952, fell in love with its people, and thought they were the best inspiration for further work. Sleeping on a straw mat on the floor of a hut, he lived with the islanders, who loved and encouraged his art. When schoolchildren saw Bulman they would chant gleefully, “Artiste, artiste, artiste,” and run to greet him. Feeling like a part of their village and deeply experiencing their religion and humor, he depicted lively scenes as an American regionalist would; yet respected islanders’ way of life far better than other Americans. He compared Haitian women to royalty, writing to his wife Jean, “Their erect haughty and even queenly posture, their clothes, and the way they stand and walk and move. It’s not just grace of posture; it is an art, beautiful, practiced, effortless.” He added, “It certainly does pay to be understanding and to accept people of whatever creed or nationality with sympathy and a genuine desire to know them and to understand them and their country... I hope I’m not dreaming. Being an artist not only opens doors, but minds as well.” Bulman’s fanciful Caribbean work and poignant paintings of segregated Florida brought national attention to his art. Newsweek called his work, “charming” and illustrated Big Booksie, one of Bulman’s Florida scenes. Bulman explained, “I started sketching Little Booksie, Big Booksie’s brother. But Big Booksie lounged, watching, relaxed and thin, so I sketched him instead. The rest is what I imagined he should be with.” In 1952, the prestigious Madison Art Association invited him to exhibit and in 1953, Life Magazine featured his work. In 1955, New York’s Grand Central Art Galleries gave Bulman a one-man show which received rave reviews and led to another exhibition in 1957. He introduced his popular barque (small boat) paintings and included a Florida alligator in one of them. He also continued to exhibit works of Florida African American neighborhoods, such as Waiting for Ben West. Soon Bulman’s work became more colorful and outrageously fantastical, filled with serene women dressed in chic styles amid playful elves, children, and docile “wild” animals. Calling his world “Bulman’s Island,” his imagination soared, as did his popularity, burgeoning throughout Palm Beach, New York, California, the Midwest, and Europe. His 1959 solo show in Paris was a sellout. La Revue Moderne enthused, “A luminous and poetic joy is in the work of Orville Bulman.” By 1961 Bulman had became the darling of society and Hollywood, and this adulation continued. Actor/art dealer Raymond Burr, who gave Bulman his first Hollywood exhibition, described “Bulman’s Island” as one of “humor and color, laughter and love.” Stars Henry Fonda, Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine, and George Hamilton collected his art. In Palm Beach, the Duchess of Windsor waited in line for Bulman’s preview parties and she and Marjorie Merriweather Post became avid collectors. Robert F. Kennedy and President Gerald Ford also owned Bulman’s art, as did countless corporation presidents. Ravenous buyers often scooped up Bulman’s works before his shows opened publicly. Florida art critic Lawrence Dame remarked, “Hardly ever have there been so many people who exclaimed, ‘What! All sold! But, I came here to get one.’” Amid this heady success, Bulman remained modest and fought to keep his prices low so that people from all walks of life could afford them. Henri Rousseau, old master paintings, and the lush foliage of Bulman’s Manalapan, Florida, home inspired his critically acclaimed “jungle paintings” of the 1960s and ‘70s. His islanders became princesses, duchesses, generals, kings, and queens. A critic for Art Gallery Digest wrote “I predict in the future that museums will scramble to collect his work. I also predict that his jungle scenes in future times will command astronomical prices. Bulman is a great artist—one of the greats of this century.” Bulman and Jean established a foundation devoted to helping other artists and art museums. Proceeds from his art sales went back to galleries, artists, or museums. Bulman also purchased artists’ works and donated them to museums. Because of the couple’s generosity, the Grand Rapids Art Museum was able to acquire a painting by Picasso. By 1977, Bulman had exhibited in 41 one-man shows and sold over 2,000 works. When he died on January 4, 1978, the Palm Beach Daily News called him “one of the world’s leading painters.” The vibrancy and humor in Bulman’s art has remained universally appealing and his expression and genius has transcended color barriers. Most people unaware of Bulman’s ethnicity assume he was African- American or Haitian because he Painted images of people who were a different color than he, not as an outsider would, but with empathy and grace. In fact, few other mid-twentieth century modern American painters depicted black royalty and angels. Bulman said he created his art because, “When I first started to paint years ago, there was so much sadness, strife, and outright mayhem in work back then that I decided to bring, if I could, some laughter into painting.” Today we are sorely in need of Bulman’s fabulous realm once again. In our stressful and sometimes brutal world, his paintings raise our spirits, and the true ambition of the artist remains wholly realized: “To bring more color and happiness to more patrons than any artist before me.” Deborah C. Pollack is an author, speaker, and art dealer in Palm Beach, Florida, where she and her husband own Edward and Deborah Pollack Fine Art. She is the author of Orville Bulman: An Enchanted Life and Fantastic Legacy (Blue Heron Press); the award-winning Laura Woodward: The Artist Behind the Innovator Who Developed Palm Beach (Blue Heron Press with the Historical Society of Palm Beach County), Visual Art and the Urban Evolution of the New South (University of South Carolina Press); and Felix de Crano: Forgotten Artist of the Flagler Colony (Lightner Museum). She is a contributor to the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi). Journal and magazine articles include the American Art Review and Tequesta, the scholarly journal of History Miami.

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