Meet Robert Gulley: Veteran, Construction Worker, Peorian, Artist
There aren't many people who can say they've been living and creating artwork in the same Lower East Side apartment for 30 years, but we found one and his name is Robert Gulley. During December and January we exhibited Mr. Gulley's recent paintings and sculpture in our main reading room. You can see photos of the exhibit in this post and higher quality photos of his work at petermuscato.com. One day I sat down with Mr. Gulley to get the story behind his artwork.
How did you get started?
I got out of the army in 1970. I took a year off, wandered around, and went to a small state school in Illinois just to investigate art and see if I liked it, and I did.
Where is your studio?
On Stanton Street a couple blocks from here. Been there since 1980.
So you’re a New Yorker.
I’m from Peoria, Illinois. I stayed five years in university and then I got an assistantship in a master’s program, finished that, and went to Chicago and got very lucky. I worked for a steel sculptor by the name of Richard Hunt. He is very well known. He’s a black artist. Wonderful person, wonderful artist. He had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art when he was 21 years old. Then, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was selected to design a memorial in Memphis for Martin Luther King. And then his career really took off on a large scale.
You worked with Richard Hunt and became influenced by him?
For two years, full time. After the Martin Luther King commission I was still in school but things started to really pick up for him and there were a lot of commissions. He needed help. I got to learn how to weld. From there I got an assistantship to go to the University of New York in Buffalo, to the MFA program there. After two years there I moved to NYC. Hunt was a great influence on me. I watched him draw and he demystified it for me.
Some of your work has architectural lines and notes.
There are a couple reasons. Mr. Hunt was the greatest influence on me, but when I got to New York City I worked for 30 years in the construction business.
Did you continue making art throughout your 30 years in construction?
So you’ve made art for most of your adult life?
Yes. I’ve been very consistent. Getting older, my energy level has dropped down a little, but it has been the one thing that sustains me.
I noticed a lot of scissors in your work too...
That might come right from Richard Hunt. When I said I worked for him two years full time, it was six or seven days a week and we would travel. Even though his pieces were real big and made out of sheet bronze, he had piles of large pieces of cardboard and beautiful scissors, and he’d draw with a magic marker and cut with the scissors. And if he liked that shape, he’d add on to it, and then an assistant would cut it out of the steel. But he always had scissors around. It occurred to me years and years later that it was a nice shape. It’s figurative in a way.
What do you like about showing your artwork in a library?
I like to read, and this place has a very nice feel about it. The people are nice. The whole concept is nice. And I like seeing who comes here. It makes me feel good if I can contribute just a little bit.