By Shannon Gallagher
The road to fulfilling one’s aspirations is often a long and winding path. Roland Kulla, primarily a self-taught painter, veered down multiple career tracks before pursuing his artistic endeavors. He first studied theology and worked in the seminary, and then got into social work, where he stayed for several decades before making the switch to full-time painter. In the mid 90s, the climate in which he worked started to feel unstable. The person he was working for had begun to think of retirement, and Kulla was afraid he’d lose his job, so he began planning the transition to painting on a full time basis. He arranged to do some independent consulting work, which allowed him the time and financial comfort necessary to paint. “In 2002, I said to myself, ‘If not now, when?’ It was then that I became a full time artist. When you really want to do your own thing, you will work to make it happen.”
Kulla, who has been drawing and painting since grade school, did not get serious about honing his skills until the late 1980s, when he took an eight-session oil painting course. “I took the class because I was intimidated by oil painting, and I wanted to figure it out. After that, I switched to acrylic. At first, some effects were easier to achieve in oil, but now I’ve figured out how to do the same things with acrylic, which dries a lot faster.” During the time that Kulla turned to acrylics, he was experimenting with a variety of themes and styles, until 1998, when he completed the first drawing from his bridge series. The first painting from this series was completed in 2000.
The artist enjoys working in a series. He chooses a theme, and paints or draws a number of subjects within that theme. “If you are only working on one painting, and you get stuck, you could be stuck for a long time. I work on multiple canvases at once, so that I can skip around and avoid getting hung up on one particular piece.”
Chicago has been extremely influential to the Hyde Park native, largely because the city houses the country’s largest collection of bascule bridges. Bascule bridges (also referred to as drawbridges) open to accommodate boat traffic, and there are 69 throughout the city. “I go ‘shopping’ for images,” Kulla said. “I go out and find bridges, compose with the camera, and take a lot of photos. I like to capture the bridge against a brilliant sky.” This has led to contacts in other ‘bridge cities’ like Pittsburgh, New York, and Boston requesting the artist to create new works based on structures there.
As he roams about in search of subject matter, Kulla has found other themes to incorporate into his work. Currently, he is working on a series of railroad bridge paintings. He is interested in the engineering of these bridges, which must be incredibly strong in order to support the weight of freight trains. “There is no requirement that these bridges look ‘pretty’. Each town paints their bridges a different color- in Chicago, they’re burgundy. In Pittsburgh, they’re yellow. Railroad bridges are usually painted black, if they are painted at all. They are substantial structures, which, if unpainted, begin to rust.” This rusting softens the rigidity of the image, and creates an interesting visual texture within the work. However, Kulla does not simply go out and shoot photographs. “What is fun is to be struck by the strength and form of the bridge. These days, I do a little more research on how it was designed and who designed it. My favorite bridges are the ones built between 1880 and 1940, because that’s when iron and steel really became prevalent. Back then, material was expensive, but labor was cheap, so the structures were built with many small parts that many people could work on. Bolts, nuts, rivets. Now, fabrication techniques are more advanced, and giant slabs of steel are the main components of many bridges. I prefer the ones made up of many smaller components, they are more visually interesting.”
After a photograph is chosen, Kulla does a basic underpainting. “I’ll look at the photo and choose an underlying tone. I paint the whole canvas with a base coat, and then use my overhead projector to scale it and project it on canvas.” From there, he creates a pencil sketch, and then cleans up any lines. He blocks in lights and darks, and then continues to build the painting. “There are usually 5-6 layers from start to finish,” he said. Kulla uses a satin varnish, because he finds that it gives a slight sheen and accentuates the colors without overpowering the piece, as some gloss varnishes do, or making the colors dull, like some matte varnishes.
Kulla paints nearly every day, beginning at 8:00 am, because he believes that a lot of the idea of painting simply revolves around showing up to the studio. He also recognizes the ebb and flow of making a living as an artist, and prepares for it. “I cannot control the pace of when and how things move, I can only paint the best work I can paint, and the dealers do the rest; however, I still have to step up and figure out new ways to get the images out there and let people know what I do. If you want to make a living as an artist, you cannot coast. You have to keep producing and showing, because, if you’re not putting yourself out there, nothing happens. The work is continuous.”