Portrayals of Crowds Brought this Painter to the Foreground

A face in the crowd: Ursula Gullow.
Portrait by Amos Moses

Ursula Gullow is thinking big. One wall of the small studio in her home is covered with canvas; a step stool set nearby allows her to reach the top. It’s a new perspective on a favorite subject: crowds.

Gullow’s first solo show at an artists’ collective in Seattle nearly 20 years ago was titled “Crowd Control,” and it’s a theme she’s been drawn to her entire career. “I’ve always painted crowds, always been interested in that. Rather than thinking of it as many people, I think of it as a mass, a swarm, a singular entity. Visually, conceptually, politically and socially, crowds are interesting to me.”

Indeed, while the number of individuals in her crowd paintings include as few as a dozen up to hundreds, the faces are without features, the figures themselves are painted just enough, she says, “… to catch the essential gesture, character, and movement.” Her color wheel is vast. “I mostly paint in oils — you can layer, blend them, and smear them in fun ways.”

Singers With Strings

Gullow primarily works from photographs, snapped in public gathering spaces — e.g. in New York City at Grand Central Station, The High Line, the Rockefeller Center ice rink, and The Cloisters; on a busy street in Toronto; and at Charleston’s Folly Beach, the setting for the canvas now on her wall. “I’m experimenting with larger pieces. My studio is small so it’s a challenge.”

The space is ideally suited for a daily discipline she began in July 2013, an old-school interpretation of the digital selfie. “I was teaching a portrait-painting class and decided we would all work from a mirror and do self portraits. It felt weird at first to look in the mirror and paint myself. But at the time, I didn’t have a lot of time to work in my studio, so I gave myself the challenge to do one every day. I enjoyed experimenting with the process, and it was a fun way to try out different things, so I kept doing them. 

Grand Central Station
Turning Weeds into Buildings

“I usually use acrylics [for the self portraits], but when I travel, I use markers, or a pencil and pen. My challenge is to do one within the 24 hours of a day, so from 12:01 am to 11:59 pm.”

The self portraits — more than 2,000 and counting — are placed in plastic sleeves, then in black leather binders which fill the bottom shelf of a large bookcase. Each has the date and a start and end time. More than 1,000 were used for “Self-Exam,” a 2016 solo show at the Asheville Area Arts Council, and in 2017, her practice inspired an ambitious collaborative project at Artspace in Raleigh. For the month of July, she assisted nearly 250 adults and children in creating self portraits for the group exhibit “One is a Crowd.” 

Gullow is looking forward to spending April at Jentel Artist Residency in Banner, Wyoming. Gazing out her studio window at the gray winter landscape of bare trees and distant mountains, she says, “I came to Asheville in 2003 and knew I would stay from the very first day I was here. It was summer, it was hot, there were thunderstorms and kudzu everywhere, it felt very wild and romantic — it still does. 

“But I love the experience of doing residencies, being somewhere else and having a different view. It’s good to get out and make art in places so different from where you live. I’ll be driving there so I can bring all my things. It’s a bigger studio, and I’ll be painting big things. I’m very excited to have the space to do that.”

Gullow’s self portraits are part of a comprehensive, self-assigned project — almost an obsession. She does one every day, using magic markers or another portable medium when she’s traveling. To date, there are more than 2,000 of them.

Ursula Gullow, East Asheville. Gullow’s paintings of crowds are exhibited at The Haen Gallery (52 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, and 200 King St., Brevard, thehaengallery.com). She’ll take part in the Kenilworth Artists Association Memorial Day Weekend Tour (May 25 and 26, 10am-5pm, kenilworthartists.org) and will also show work at the newly reopened Asheville Art Museum’s Appalachia Now! exhibit this summer (see ashevilleart.org for updates). For more information, see ursulagullow.com.

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