Bellarmine graduate bridges career divide between social work, art

July 25, 2019

Roland Kulla Manhattan IV
When Roland Kulla graduated from Bellarmine in 1970 with a liberal arts degree, he had no intention of pursuing a career in art. The St. Louis native, who had been drawn to Louisville by the Passionist Congregation on Newburg Road, spent a decade in seminary and then, after earning a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago, worked another 35 years as a caseworker, administrator, researcher, teacher and consultant in that city.  
During this time, artistic pursuits were a hobby. Kulla was a choral singer and designed sets and costumes for many Gilbert and Sullivan productions; restored an 1890 Victorian house and his 1907 apartment, both in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood; and began doing watercolors in collage.
In 1989, the University of Chicago offered 10 free oil painting classes to alumni. “I thought, ‘I’ve always been afraid of oil; I’m going to do that,’” Kulla said by phone as he weeded his garden. “That’s the extent of my formal training.”
Roland Kulla
He is now a full-time artist, represented by galleries in Winnetka, Ill., New York, Pittsburgh and Berlin. He is known for his photo-realistic paintings of bridges. “In 1998, one of the galleries that represented me was changing format, to conceptual art. I was going across one of the Chicago bridges and saw how the light hit the bolts. I thought, What if I did just a chunk of the bridge and focused on that?”
He has subsequently expanded to other noted “bridge” cities, such as New York, New Jersey, Boston, Pittsburgh and Berlin, and has completed nearly 300 paintings. “It’s a wonderful form. I’ll kind of take a different town or a different aspect and work up a series.” He typically takes 20 to 30 photographs before starting a new painting to find the angle he wants—more than 100 photographs for a series.
An exhibition featuring six of his paintings of New York City bridges is open to the public through Nov. 27 at 527 Madison Avenue, a boutique commercial office building at the corner of 54th Street in New York City. The show is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Kulla’s show is the 16th exhibition in 527 Madison’s ongoing program showcasing noteworthy emerging and mid-career artists that began in 2014.
So far, Kulla hasn’t painted the bridges of Louisville, but he said he’s been thinking about it. “I also want to come to Cincinnati and do the Roebling Bridge. I like the late 19th century bridges.”
He does paint other subjects, but they all tend to be industrial in nature. “I’m not very good at figures,” he said. “If you look like a bridge, I could probably paint you.”

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