Book showcases Bulman's 'happy' art
Sunday, October 08, 2006
By Sylvia Krissoff
The Grand Rapids Press

"I am surrounded by Picassos, Renoirs and Van Goghs," a Sotheby's representative said recently, "but it's the Orville Bulmans that make me happy. People always smile when they see them."

That's the essence of the coffee table book by Deborah Pollack introduced last week to an admiring crowd at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

Pollack's lecture on Bulman was a brief and amusing recap of her book that contains 350 illustrations with 190 in color by the Grand Rapids and Palm Beach artist who captured national and international recognition with his fantasy paintings of the South Sea Islands and South American ambiences and people.

This is the only monograph of Bulman's life and work that has been published.

"It is a true story of his life," Pollack writes, "and of the fabulous world known as 'Bulman's Island' where graceful islanders live in harmony with wild animals and with each other."

Pollack has succeeded in creating a volume that expresses Bulman's goal: "To bring more color and happiness to more patrons than any artist before me."

Bulman (1904-1978) was born in Grand Rapids, the second son of E.O. Bulman, who established a thriving business with paper cutters. Bulman attended Central High School and was featured in the yearbook as the "Class Cartoonist." This successful businessman who became president of his company essentially was a self-taught artist who went far beyond cartooning to create paintings that are delightfully imaginative and fanciful.

Bulman had his first one-man show in 1950 at the Shepard Gallery in Palm Beach, Fla., where 19 of his 20 paintings were sold. It was the beginning of a consistent success where Bulman's paintings were always almost sold out before opening receptions. Early on, Bulman's artist friends encouraged him not to take formal art courses as his "use of fresh, imaginative colors might have been compromised."

The book traces the Bulman's development from early work of isolated and single poor African-American figures placed against shadowed and quaintly drawn houses against stretches of blue waters to his dense Henri Rousseau-inspired jungle paintings filled with happy and smiling animals.

He was fascinated with Southern and Victorian houses with their gingerbread trim, and these buildings, which he filigree embellished, were a consistent element in his work.

From three-dimensional objects they became flat decorative backgrounds for the lilting, rhythmic black figures that are whimsical and animated keynotes of his paintings.

"Le Voyage Marvellieux," which adorns the outside covering of the book exemplifies Bulman's many "barque" paintings. (He always used French titles, a gesture of respect to the French-speaking Haitians that inspired his work.) The pink boat riding the waves is peopled with a woman sporting an 18th-century-styled hat while her companion lounges on a gold leaf and green cushioned "recamier" reminiscent of David's "Madame Recamier." With ribbons, umbrellas, oranges and a decorated fish, it is difficult to imagine what could be more cheerful.

By 1977 Bulman had exhibited in 41 one-man shows, and sold more than 2,000 paintings. (President Gerald Ford received one as a Christmas gift.) The Grand Rapids Art Museum acquired four for its permanent collection.

The book may be purchased at the Grand Rapids Library gift shop ($85).

Copyright: The Grand Rapids Press
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