Morgan Bulkeley’s Wild Wild World
A retrospective of one of the Berkshire’s most accomplished artists
Photos by Scott Barrow
Poking around Morgan Bulkeley’s compact, charmingly cluttered studio on Railroad Street in Great Barrington, you get an immediate impression for the inspirations behind his work. A large antique bookshelf is stuffed with field guides to birds, flowers, trees, reptiles, and amphibians. The walls are covered with photographs of Bulkeley’s home, friends, and family. Household items are scattered about: soup cans, cigarette packs, boxes of laundry detergent, a can of insect repellant, candy bars, and a few copies of the National Enquirer. Varied as they are, all of these elements come together in Bulkeley’s wild, chaotic, and stunning creations.
Unlike many artists who move here only after they become established elsewhere, Bulkeley is a genuine product of the Berkshires. He was born in Pittsfield and can trace his ancestry in the Berkshires to the late 1600s. He grew up on a small farm in Mount Washington, in a house built by his father, who was a columnist for The Berkshire Eagle. Following college at Yale University and stints in New Jersey and Boston, he returned to Mount Washington for good in 1985—back, in fact, to the family homestead on which he was raised.
He lives there now with his wife, Eleanor Tillinghast, on a property that is filled just as eclectically with his artwork as his Great Barrington studio is. Bulkeley is such an iconic figure within the Berkshires that he was one of the six artists whose work was chosen to adorn the different denominations of BerkShares, the Berkshire’s local currency.
Given the considerable breadth of his approach to art—which includes drawings, watercolors, oils, gouaches, sculptures, figurines, low-relief panels, masks, and walking sticks—it’s a significant challenge to say to what Bulkeley’s work “looks like.” You would be tempted to say that it is too diverse, and created over too long a time (five decades),for it to conform to categorization.
A little inspection, however, reveals themes common to all of his creations: No matter the medium he employs, no matter the era, there is always humor, surrealism, mystery, contemplation, and a detailed investigation of the delicate balance between wild nature and the ravenous consumer culture we all live in.
In spite of his bucolic roots and his disinterest in the machinery of the contemporary-art world, Bulkeley’s stature as an artist has grown steadily through the years. His work is now part of the permanent collections of several museums, including the deCordova Museum and the Fuller Museum of Art, and has appeared in dozens of galleries around the country. “Few American artists of his generation have anything like his command over such a wide range of media or deliver as much inventive pleasure as Bulkeley does,” says Geoffrey Young, a gallery owner in Great Barrington.
From September 29 until February 4, a career retrospective entitled “Morgan Bulkeley: Nature Culture Clash” is being shown at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Curated by Young, the show includes over 150 pieces of Bulkeley’s work, spread across 5,000 square feet of the museum’s second-floor gallery space. It encompasses the full range of
Bulkeley’s five decades of creativity— from simple drawings created in the mid-1960s right up until his most recent work, a series of gouache paintings depicting a vivid array of American birds. The exhibition also includes many examples of Bulkeley’s sculpture and even a stop-action animated video featuring his hand-carved characters. A comprehensive and striking catalogue of the retrospective, created by renowned print designer Hans Teensma, accompanies the exhibition.
“Morgan’s work is a completely fresh take on the intersection of culture and nature,” says Van Shields, Berkshire Museum’s executive director. “His exuberance and use of color, mixed with references to popular culture projects a playfulness that makes his work accessible without masking its cultural criticism. Make no mistake that he is deadly serious when he takes on consumerism, pollution, habitat loss, and a host of other issues that threaten the living systems that sustain all life, including ours.”
Viewers who move through the four large rooms of Bulkeley’s work will experience the artist’s evolution unfolding before their eyes. The earliest drawings and watercolors in the exhibition were created in the mid- to late-1960s, when Bulkeley lived in Newark, New Jersey.
The drawings and watercolors he created during this time—when he worked as a community organizer and was surrounded by civil-rights and antiwar protests—reflect both his environment and his early artistic instincts: They are simple, monochromatic, and ominous. In the early 1970s, he moved to Boston and threw himself into that city’s art world; his paintings of the next decade become more colorful, more skilled, and begin to demonstrate Bulkeley’s trademark juxtaposition of beauty and bleakness.
It was also during this time that his work begins to break out into sculpture, especially the creation of wooden masks. Finally, the works that Bulkeley created after returning to the Berkshires become— unsurprisingly but satisfyingly—grounded in landscape and nature. Images of birds— warblers, sandpipers, spoonbills, swallows, kingfishers, and finches—not only dominate these paintings, but seem to rule over them. His birds, it should be added, are as scientifically accurate and life-like as any painted by Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, or David Sibley. It is at this stage that Bulkeley’s sculptures begin to branch out into whittled eggs, carved-wooden panels, whimsical human figurines, and highly fashioned walking sticks.
“I try to make paintings that are beautiful, frightening, and funny all at once, which assumes things are so bad that you can only laugh,” Bulkeley says. “I see in nature and in the best of humanity an incredible beauty, but I also see in our technology and aggression a will and ability to destroy that beauty, either actively or inadvertently. I paint to try to make people think of the fragility in which we exist.”
Sitting in his studio in Great Barrington, Bulkeley is typically humble and reserved when I ask him how he feels about the Berkshire Museum retrospective. “You know,” he says, “when I was little, Mom and Dad took us to the Berkshire Museum to see the Bierstadt and Cole paintings. What a delight to have my work shared. And shared with kids, some of whom may one day pick up a paintbrush.”
An opening reception of “Morgan Bulkeley: Nature Culture Clash” will take place on Saturday, October 7, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Free, open to the community; R.S.V.P. to 413-443-7171, ext. 314.