by Sabina Clarke
Germantown artist Barbara Bullock, who shares a spacious, sunny, brightly decorated loft/studio living and work space in the Greene Street Artists Co-Op with her black cat Mali and her Maine Coon cat Kush, is one of the few living artists in the current “Women and Biography” exhibit of paintings and works on paper from Woodmere’s collection (now through June 1).
Bullock, a diminutive, shy, self-effacing woman, says she is still surprised whenever she gets an award, although she has received so many. But she admits loving it when people react positively to her work.
Bullock, who says she was born in 1938, was named New Jersey State Council on the Arts Distinguished Teaching Artist in 1997 and 2001 and was the recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and numerous other honors.
In Philadelphia, she is part of the Seraphin Gallery, 11th and Pine Streets, and in New York City, the Essie Green Gallery in Harlem and the ACA Gallery in Chelsea as well as universities such as Lafayette College in Easton, PA, Rutgers State University in New Jersey and major institutions including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and numerous private collections across the country.
For Bullock, her art is her language. She feels strongly about what she does, and this is apparent in the themes represented in her work, such as her dramatic piece at Woodmere titled “Trayvon — Most Precious Blood” consisting of acrylic, matte medium and watercolor paper. I was attracted to this work immediately with its striking design and vibrant colors.
The piece was inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida high-school student who was shot down in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer — a case that sparked international outrage and had global repercussions.
Trayvon Martin’s death had a profound impact on Bullock and stirred old memories of the senseless deaths of young boys to gun violence in the North Philadelphia neighborhood in which she grew up. And she incorporated “Most Precious Blood” into the title of her work from the Church of the Most Precious Blood that she attended as a child.
Another real life event that spoke to Bullock was the Hurricane Katrina flood in Louisiana in 2005. She remembers turning on the TV and seeing things that she found hard to comprehend. “I remember I woke up, turned on the TV and saw the people and thought that this cannot be happening in America.” Her feelings of shock and outrage prompted her to undertake her “Katrina Series.”
Bullock started working on her art at a very young age. She remembers being in the School Art League, a program in all public elementary schools, all through elementary school and high school. She grew up in North Philadelphia and moved to Germantown as a teenager. She attended Roosevelt Junior High School on Washington Lane and then Germantown High School.
“There was so much art in school when I was growing up. After school, we would go to the Wissahickon and draw from nature, so it never stopped. Now in schools, it is the first thing to go, which is a shame because it really rounds children out and encourages them to read and do creative writing.”
After high school, Barbara worked at various jobs while attending Fleisher Art Memorial, the Hussian School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she met artists she admires like Charles Searles, Ellen Powell Tiberino and Moe Booker.
As Bullock continued to pursue her career as an artist, she developed an impressive career as a teacher; teaching art in schools, prisons and museums. She particularly enjoyed her experience with Arts Horizon, a project that was funded by the New Jersey Council on the Arts where artists would go into the schools and teach children as well as teachers at Rutgers University in Camden. She did this for 10 years until the funding ceased.
Bullock recalls her first exhibition in 1969 at a gallery in Philadelphia and remembers how difficult it was for African-American artists. “There were not many outlets, so many African-American artists organized shows of their own and became stronger.”
In the past 10 years, Bullock feels that the art world has finally begun to take notice of her work. And she likes being recognized at this point in her life but aspires to be in more galleries outside of Philadelphia. For now, she is looking forward to her next exhibition, “Straight Water Blues” at La Salle University which opens on June 12. (The title was taken from the line in a blues song.) Bullock has a fascination with the mystical properties of water.
Woodmere Art Museum is at 9201 Germantown Ave. More information at 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.