Philly writer GS Bullen turns painter, says ‘guess we’re doing this now’
Morgan Nitz stops at a free book bin and finds themselves in a back and forth with Philadelphian, GS Bullen. Morgan chats via email with Bullen about their background as a prolific writer and their love of painting.

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Stack of books, including "The Quiet Night Sleeping," "Orchids" (1-3), "The Diary of Jacob Miller," "A Few Possibilities," and more.
GS Bullen’s books stacked into a pile. Courtesy GS Bullen.

Author’s preface: It’s been a few months since I began writing this piece. It’s not been an easy time to focus, and It’s hard to think back as far as April- it feels like a lifetime ago. Here is some writing about GS Bullen, a prolific writer and painter and a fascinating person who lives here in Philadelphia. I began emailing with them because of a coincidence.


We stopped at the “FREE” bin in front of Neighborhood Books on South St. and my partner squatted over, struck by one book in particular. She weighed it in her hand, thumbed through, and marveled at the disproportionately small font housed within the textbook sized book titled “The Quiet Night Sleeping (a story about love).” When she spoke the author’s name I felt a twang of familiarity– while I’m bad with names in social settings, I rarely forget a name that I’ve typed into a spreadsheet.

The name was GS Bullen, which I quickly googled with “Artblog” and found in our ongoing virtual exhibition, “Artists in the time of Coronavirus.” Bullen’s submission subject line had been “GS Bullen shutdown submission;” I had found it endearing. They submitted two paintings, and a short statement:

My daily life has only shifted in the sense that my one man dog walking company is on hiatus because of the shutdown, I’m quite the loner and introvert. Other than that, it’s mostly interactions with others that has changed, some people more openly cradling the false comforts of panic and despair, others discomforted by the silence and mood, many staying positive, some angry and demanding the shutdown unnecessary, it’s all fascinating to absorb and process.
G.S. Bullen

We vowed to come back for it on the way home.

(Our walk to the river was marked by the insatiable need to pee, and I eventually peed behind a vase on a Rittenhouse street while accidentally locking eyes with a man walking his dog; our walk along the river was laden with too-energetic-to-not-be-drunk people not wearing masks. We turned back quickly.)

From half a city block away, we saw someone standing above the FREE bin, a book under their arm. We waited nearby while they generated a small pile on the window ledge in front of them, two large shopping bags and a backpack by their feet. They too weighed Bullen’s book from hand to hand, and we silently hoped they would drop it. How could they carry all of that home? If they had to sacrifice just one book, we hoped it would be “The Quiet Night Sleeping.” But they lifted their bags and nestled their small fortune in their arms.

We began to wonder, Could that have been GS Bullen himself? Upset, or entertained with finding their own book? My partner looked them up on instagram, but found no pictures of them. Instead, multiple stories posted at the river we had just left, on the same day, at nearly the same time we had been there. They could have been walking home, too.

I emailed Bullen from my Artblog account to let them know of the coincidence, which striked a back and forth about their career as an artist, a story that I felt needed a home — and what better place than here on Artblog, where they themselves submitted their artwork just weeks before. So, who is GS Bullen, the author (of a dictionary-sized epic in sonata form) turned painter?

GS Bullen has written an impressive eleven books. Each deals with different subject matters, like love, or human existence.. and most impressively, each is written in a new format:

I didn’t want to do the same thing twice, it isn’t fun for me when creating, so each format had to be new and different, otherwise it wasn’t challenging or exciting… my books have chopped and screwed storylines, one is circular, the last page leads into the first, even the stories that look similar have noticeable differences in styles and format.

They tell me that their “… brain can build up fast,” which I find hard to believe after learning that they have been to college and dropped out four times- including culinary school, US history, and psychology- and had a range of jobs in a veterinary clinic, a CVS, a riverboat company, and a barbecue restaurant– (that’s what led to the culinary school). But I learned that their knack for skipping around came from a fear of writing.

Bullen describes their elementary and middle school experience as disturbing, leading them to develop a mistrust in educators. Bullen grew suspicious of their alternative high school writing teacher when the teacher encouraged them, relentlessly, to submit a play they wrote to a national competition, finding it impossible to believe that the teacher did not have ulterior motives. Until dropping out of college for the final time, the only writing they’d indulge in was ghost writing essays for other college friends. They’d pour over the essays together, editing for structure and composition, and no doubt, fueling their passion for writing as a medium.

Writing, to Bullen, is a self-education. Each book they author is the product of working through an abstract concept and learning which literary format best expresses those findings. There is a reason they wrote an epic on love before they wrote short stories on existence, higher powers, and cosmic forces. And as for the other nine, they say “From there I was just trying to catch up with my mind….”

Subtract painting with a stick figure and expressive marks of color.
Painting by GS Bullen. Courtesy GS Bullen.

They wouldn’t begin painting seriously until they felt they no longer had anything original to write:

I started another book, but a few pages in, I felt like I had been there before, and not in a good way….I felt really lost and didn’t know what to do with my everything inside me that needed to get out…. so I started painting more within a week or two and felt the same relief I had with writing (I collected cardboard and IKEA furniture I dismantled into canvasses and painted with the supplies I already had). I remember even telling my dog and cat one night, chuckling and looking at a stack of paintings, “guess we’re doing this now.” A couple months later a collective accepted me and I was part of my first group exhibition.

Bullen’s writing and artistic habits are not dissimilar to the way many conceptual visual artists work, in series, exploring one theme or another until they have made sense of it. It is the product of working through things that are abstract and making sense of them in a curated way. Sometimes, a more palatable way. That type of investigation can be hit or miss, but I know from experience it is nurturing to the artist.

I was- but shouldn’t have been- surprised to learn that Bullen was both a visual artist and a writer. It’s not uncommon (Alex Smith, Li Sumpter, Levi Bentley are all hometown examples.) But I am always in awe of people who wear artistic versatility confidently. To learn that someone who I acknowledged as a painter was first a novelist, and then to learn that that prolific novelist would one day stop writing… it reminded me that being an artist is not about cornering yourself into a title or a brand. I have shamed myself too many times for not honing in on one medium, for being a “master of none.” And even though Bullen expressed insecurities when we spoke, they seem to me very sure of their art and what it should accomplish.

Bullen is not after commercial success, or making a lot of money, or filtering back into academia as a professor. They just want to sustain themselves through artmaking, to love what they do, and to make good art: art that challenges, complicates, clarifies.

Reflection

I’m sure many artists will relate when I express that one of my biggest blocks with artmaking is worrying about whether it is possible to sustain myself as an artist. I don’t have much faith in the art world, in the rich purchasing art as a tax break, in turning yourself into a brand in order to be considered a real artist… But I still catch myself measuring success in grad degrees, residencies, or exhibition histories. I will continue to unlearn these notions of success, and hope for a future where all artists– even those like Bullen or myself, who do not want to teach or can’t afford to residency hop– are fairly paid.

Tags

artblog, artist, artist collective, Collective, college, culinary school, CVS, furniture, GS Bullen, human existence, ikea, love, Neighborhood books, novelist, painter, philadelphia, rittenhouse, riverboat company, Schuylkill, Schuylkill River Trail, South st, veterinary clinic, visual artist, writer

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