Sculptor, painter and printmaker Fran Bull with some of her art from her exhibit “The Art Life,” on display at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts through Oct. 15.
Victoria Chertok/The Commons
Sculptor, painter and printmaker Fran Bull with some of her art from her exhibit “The Art Life,” on display at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts through Oct. 15.

Invite to a planetary-wide party

Vermont artist Fran Bull brings together archetypal characters using unconventional materials to show ‘creativity and her passion for all that humanity has to offer’

BRATTLEBORO — At Gallery Walk this Friday, Oct. 6, visitors will be greeted by a giant 8-foot-tall fluorescent-blue David Bowie sculpture displayed prominently in the window of Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts.

This sculpture, part of an installation "We're at a Party Called Life on Earth," is part of Fran Bull's exhibit "The Art Life," which includes sculptures, etchings, prints, and paintings on display until Sunday, Oct. 15.

"In this work, I bring together stock characters of commedia dell'arte, circus, carnival, literature, theater, and history - they are archetypal figures," explains Bull on a recent afternoon at the gallery. "They come from my great love for the Roman busts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Bull, 85, is an award-winning sculptor, painter, printmaker, performance artist, and poet. She moved to Vermont 24 years ago and works at her studio in Brandon, as well as at a studio in Barcelona, Spain.

Her art has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Guilin Art Museum, the largest museum in southwest China.

Bull, who grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, says she already "had a rich life as an artist" for many years when she arrived at Bennington College.

There, she took some courses with Paul Feeley, who chaired the art department, but "by the time I got to Bennington College, I had decided to major in music. I love to sing opera and art songs," she says.

Graduating in 1960, Bull continued voice studies in New York and got two more degrees: one in textile design, and a master's degree from New York University in art and art education.

Themes 'bubble to the surface' with imperatives

"This sculpture, a homage to David Bowie - he was Everyman," Bull says.

"I am saying: We are all Everyman, we are all one. That is the party to which we are all invited - a planetary-wide party that encompasses all of life," she adds with a laugh.

She explains that the English singer-songwriter and musician wore a costume like the one in her sculpture when he assumed the persona of Pierrot, the sad clown.

"He thought he was Everyman, so the show itself is very much about earth consciousness," Bull says. "We are all one being on the planet. And so I'm using these diverse characters to make the point."

She hopes her art will inspire and inform viewers about the urgency of global awareness, which she calls "unity consciousness."

"If we don't have global awareness and we don't care for each and every one of us, and all the creatures, then we're doomed," she says.

Bull points to "And We Shall Live This Life," a painting that includes an image of her grandmother's housedress.

"In that one I'm evoking the spirit of my grandmother and the housedress that she wore," says Bull, who remembers her grandmother as "nurturing, with her food, her cooking, her kindness."

"The grandmother is one who dispenses unconditional love," she says. "I frequently say she saved my life."

Bull describes herself as "feeling very liberated that I could do something improvisational on the canvas and keep making it work. I wanted that sense of coming from the interior and moving to the subconscious."

When asked how she decides what to paint, she observes that "at different times there are different themes. They bubble to the surface."

And when they do, "they are imperatives," telling her, "You must investigate this."

"I work through series, and I'm calling this my novel," Bull says.

When asked where her inspiration for a sculpture in this show, "Hallelujah Chorus," came from, she says, "I created this in 2008. Two of my dogs are in it. There is my partner Robert. These characters are all singing. That's the idea."

Pointing to another painting, "Older Than Geography," she identifies "a garment, a slip, and this one is a white dress in my mind, and that's a dog."

Bull uses gold paint and gold powders and India ink in her work, as well as many unusual materials. "In my other etchings, I painted on the copper plates with this gloppy stuff which is actually piña colada mix!"

She also uses Rustoleum, cotton mops for hair, Crayola model magic, wood, wire, Venetian plaster, and Styrofoam for her sculptures.

Of her etchings, she says, "They are not classical etchings, as they are not made from metal plates. These are made from plexiglass plates."

"These accidents were the things I really liked when I threw paint at the canvas," she says.

Asking big questions

"In the 1980s, I enjoyed New York gallery representation working within the Photorealist movement," Bull says. "My art evolved away from this constrained, exacting way of working and veered in a more personal direction - I needed to tell other stories through art."

She says she needed to address "other persistent questions."

"Who are we human beings? What is our purpose in the universe? Why have we made such a mess of things? What is art's purpose - can it heal? Can art illuminate and thus transform?" she says.

In her "Season of Bones" series, the viewer will see skeletons in Italy who were captured in a tight embrace about 5,000 years ago. She wanted to know, "How did they get to be there?"

"I was very interested in the theme of the love that survives death. It's from Wagnerian opera. Timeless love. This one is autumn, and this one is summer," notes Bull, as she points to the series.

When asked how Vermont inspires her art, Bull says, "I wanted to get away from the city, so I came to Vermont and my partner built me a gallery/studio in Brandon. It's just so beautiful every single day. To have that kind of light and space, is amazing!"

'I am in love with this woman's work'

"The first visit I made to Fran's studio was an absolute mind blower for me," says artist and show curator Petria (Petey) Mitchell, co-owner of Mitchell-Giddings Fine Art. She saw her work in a show five years ago, and "I instantly gravitated towards it," she says.

"I am in love with this woman's work because of her creativity and her passion for all that humanity has to offer - the good, the bad, and the ugly," she adds.

"The completeness of each image by itself is what stands out," Gallery co-owner, artist Jim Giddings, says. "They stand so strongly by themselves. It's a testament to her professionalism. But when you put it together, it is the zinc plate prints and her 'Suite: Sweet' prints are like fine paintings."

Bull sums it up.

"I invite viewers to meditate on this [show] as they regard the characters and scenarios before them," she says, urging "viewers to regard our lives as guests at this party, which has been in progress since the beginning of life on Earth."

"To notice the beauty all around, given freely to us, to live in wonder and respect and to celebrate the astounding privilege of having been born," Bull says. "To understand as David Bowie did, that this life is both sad and glorious."

Fran Bull's "The Art Life" is on display until Sunday, Oct. 15 at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts, 181–183 Main St., Brattleboro. For more information, visit and

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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