Roland Kulla’s Bridge Paintings

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.”


Zoriah Miller World Photojournalist

By Shannon Gallagher

Zoriah Miller’s career has brought him to nearly every corner of the Earth. Despite romantic notions of what his line of work entails, being a photojournalist is an incredibly difficult job that is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing.

Although his goals vary with every assignment, one objective remains the same: to tell the stories of those who have been served injustice, those who are suffering, or those that have something to tell the rest of the world. His hope is to bring awareness to desperate situations, and that the resulting knowledge will inspire change. He does not have one specific way of working, as every story is unique, and requires adaptation. “Once you’ve learned how visual storytelling works,” he said, “you know what to look for [in terms of choosing effective images]. I’m always looking for pictures that convey an accurate, but also an emotional and powerful image of the story that I’m trying to tell.” And that he does extremely well. His list of accomplishments, awards, clients, and publications in which his work is featured is vast and worldwide.

Zoriah, who tends to go by his first name for publicity purposes, had no home base for the first decade of his career, and spent a majority of that time on the road. Now, although he has planted some roots (he has studios in New York City and Paris), he still spends nearly 2/3 of the year traveling, dividing the remainder of that time between the Big Apple and the City of Lights. Although he admits that he does get tired of constantly traveling, he says that he is in it for the long haul. “Some times are harder than others,” he said. “The first couple of years were really rough. It goes in phases along with life. Certain states of mind are easier to deal with. I’ve been trying to spend more time in the United States and Europe and less time in the third world. This pattern may become more pronounced as I get older.“ The photographer finds that experimentation is necessary in order to find the right balance in life.

Zoriah is an extremely driven and disciplined individual. “When I do something, I really have to do it full on. My mom might refer to me as “obsessive,” he quipped. “When I decided to pursue photojournalism, it was because it seemed important to me on a personal level, and I was confident that it could benefit people in various difficult situations.” For the first few years of his career, he worked 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. “I was pushing, pushing, doing nothing but studying and practicing, and learning web design.”  

Due to the strenuous nature of the job, Zoriah engages in heavy physical training year round, for between 1-3 hours a day. “I must be physically able to deal with any situation I’m in. It’s crucial to have strength, be able to run, go several days without sleep, and recover quickly from ailments like dysentery or typhoid.” He describes his preparation to enter a hostile or uncomfortable environment as “second nature.”

At the start of his career in photography, he found himself in the company of several people with business backgrounds, who were willing to volunteer their time and expertise to help him out. These individuals taught him the importance of looking at his art as a business. “My job is to capture images that effect people on an emotional level and inspire change, but the pictures will not do any good unless people see them,” he said. “At first, I had a hard time using my name as a vehicle to promote the images, but what I was actually doing was using my name to get people to pay attention to and learn about the subject matter. For photographers, it is always kind of difficult to grasp the idea that we are in some way involved with that aspect of the business. Many of us want everything to be about the pictures, but in order to get people interested in the product, you need to let them know you exist.”

Of course, there are undesirable situations and places on the map that Zoriah would prefer not to be in, but he understands that in order to be a successful photojournalist, he must leave his comfort zone. “I never wanted to go to Iraq during the war,” he said, “but it was an important subject to cover. I went there during the bloodiest time of the war, yet the fewest number of journalists were covering the situation at that time.” The photographer also understands that his presence is distinguished differently in different parts of the world. “It depends a lot on whether the journalist is perceived as a benefit or a threat to whatever the cause is. Every situation is different, and requires a different approach. Various cultures have different feelings towards photographers, and it is a complex formula that cannot be easily summarized.”

As if his schedule was not busy enough, Zoriah also offers workshops around the world for aspiring photojournalists. The idea for the workshop program, which began in 2008, was born when he reflected on the route he took to achieve his goals. “My path may have been quicker, had I learned certain things directly, as opposed to learning them through trial and error. When I started to become more successful, I began lecturing at universities. At that point, I felt I had knowledge that students could benefit from,” he said. He wanted provide workshops on a 1 on 1 basis, which no other photojournalists were offering. Within 24 hours, an eager student had booked the first class. Zoriah and the student traveled to Kenya, to the home of Barack Obama’s relatives, for inauguration day in 2008. He has taken students on excursions to refugee camps, and also did two workshops in the area affected by the BP oil spill of 2010, dubbed the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ disaster. He and his students spent time on boats with scientists and the Coast Guard, seeing firsthand the response to containing the oil spill, saving wildlife, and rehabilitating areas of nature.

One of his favorite aspects of the job is coming to the realization that all humans are really just people, when it comes down to it. Although Miller has met and/or worked with many individuals who are in the spotlight, he said, “One thing you realize is that we are all just human. I’ve met a lot of ‘simple’ people that I have just as much respect for as Nobel Prize winners, actors, or models. In many ways, über famous people are the same over dinner or a cup of coffee as the people harvesting rice for fifteen hours a day. We all have fears, anxieties, aspirations, and pains. It’s a cool thing to have experienced the commonalities of human beings.”

Zoriah stays busy, with a variety of endeavors in his work. In addition to a small project about life in Detroit, Michigan, a city known for its economic troubles, he is also working on a project regarding terminally ill patients fighting for the right to die with assisted suicide. He recently finished working on a film with Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche. She will play a photojournalist in the film, and Zoriah’s photos will be used. Many of his personal experiences as a photojournalist have also been written into the storyline. The film, titled A Thousand Times Goodnight, was filmed in Morocco, but takes place in areas of Kenya and Afghanistan. Zoriah coached Binoche on playing the part of a photographer in the world of journalism and conflict coverage, and he shot all of the stills for the film. Erik Poppe, the director, was a photojournalist in the 1970s, and has been a fan of Zoriah’s work for many years. Poppe approached Zoriah about the venture several years ago, and it finally came to fruition in the past few months. The film is currently in post-production, and will be released sometime in the fall.

Next year in June, Zoriah will be front and center with a large solo show in Malta, partially sponsored by the United States Embassy. The exhibit will include eighty images, printed extremely large, and publicly displayed downtown. At ZIA Gallery, just north of Chicago, in 2013, Zoriah will be showing a powerful body of images created over the past few years. The exhibition opens June 8th and continues through July 20th. Zoriah is flying in from Rio for the reception that runs 5:00 to 7:00pm. This exhibition is not to be missed.