Meet PNC Pop In Artist In Residence, Ursula Gullow

For the month of July Artspace’s PNC Pop-In resident artist, Ursula Gullow is facilitating the development of a community mural in the upfront gallery of Artspace. Gullow is a visual artist living in Asheville, NC and for the last four years she has made a self portrait everyday as part of her ongoing series, Self Exam. For her residency, Gullow has invited the general public to join her in her studio to make a self portrait which will be exhibited as part of a collaborative mural. To date, nearly 200 self portraits have been collected for the project. The final installation will be revealed to the public on Friday August 4th.

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What does self portraiture as an art form mean to you?

I’ve always been fascinated with the way people depict themselves – particularly female artists who were historically shut out of art institutions and therefore used themselves as subject matter. I’m interested in self portraiture as a response to societal expectations – for example, Jenny Saville and Beverly McIver are two women who create very powerful, confident representations of themselves, which stand in contrast to the hundreds of passive nude depictions of women painted (by men) in Western art.

Self portraiture is a way for someone to reclaim an identity that has otherwise been tokenized, appropriated or objectified in art and media.

How did your project begin and what’s the meaning of the title?

In the last year I’ve been thinking a lot about the the prevailing emphasis in Western art on the concept of “the individual.” There’s an archetype of the lone creative genius that, I think, goes hand-in hand with a capitalist economy and the “survival of the fittest” mentality. Needless to say I’ve been interested in collaborative art-making and the shifting boundary between the individual and their community. I hope this project enables each participant to consider him/herself in relation to the people around them. “One is a crowd” is typically said when a person has fun just hanging out alone, but in this case the title refers to each person being a culmination of many people and experiences.

One is a Crowd flips the self portraiture from yourself to the Raleigh community – can you describe what that experience has been like? Frustrations and/or joys?

At first it was difficult to convince people to try to make a self portrait in the studio with me. I think the first participants were very brave and they really helped to launch the project – more than I realized at the time. As the wall has filled up with portraits, people are exponentially more excited to participate – maybe this is because the pressure to produce a perfect image is not so great and they know their portrait won’t be so front-and-center.

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It’s been fascinating for me to observe how people react to the space – at worst they recoil at the thought of making a self portrait and move on. I did expect more adults to willfully participate in this project – but mostly people bring in their kids and refrain from making a portrait themselves. Perhaps the next time I try this I will make a rule: if you bring your kids you are also required to make a portrait!

I’ve also observed that people over the age of 45 are less likely to participate in this project and I’ve had no one in their 60’s or 70’s participate.

How often will people be able to come and what times are you typically at Artspace?

I will be available to assist people during the normal hours that Artspace is open. The last day for public participation is Friday, July 28 until 6pm. The exhibition opens on August 4th. Participants are able to come to Artspace and pick up their portraits anytime after September 5th even though the show will hang until September 30th. I purposely invite people to take their portraits early and leave gaps in the installation because the gaps will bring a whole new layer of meaning and storytelling to the project.

What is your vision for your exhibition?

Around the second week of this project I began snapping photos of participants posing with their self portraits. I find these photos to be as compelling as the portraits – the way the person smiles, stands, or holds their portrait conveys so much information about them. I’ve begun making mini paintings of the photos which I’m considering exhibiting in the same space with the portraits. Additionally, I plan to paint the wall that the portraits are displayed on so that a color block is revealed as each portrait is taken down in September.

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Are there any particular portraits that have stood out to you?

There are so many amazing portraits and each one is embedded with a memory I have of the person who made it. One of the first participants was a little girl who talked about basketball the whole time and then she painted her shirt orange – the color of a basketball – though I don’t think she did that intentionally. She was very excited when I showed her different ways to mix colors for skin tones.  Also, there were two friends – a man and a woman ­– who collaborated on a single portrait. In general, the portraits that contain some sort of narrative or symbolism are very powerful to me, and also the ones that unknowingly deal with scale – a small head on a large field of paper can make quite a statement. I also like the portraits that reveal a sense of audacity and a willingness to be experimental or playful with materials.

Through this work do you anticipate new developments in your own work or projects? Where does it go from here?  

This is my first time facilitating a collaborative public project on this scale and I think much of its success is due to the fact that Artspace is a venue that different types of people feel comfortable entering, plus it’s located right downtown which makes it easily accessible. I would like to try more iterations of this project in community art centers – perhaps inviting online participation or working with specific demographics or imposing some chance-operations-John Cage-ian method to determine which art materials are used. It might sound trite, but I genuinely think everyone deserves an opportunity to make art and be witnessed by the people around them.

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PNCA special thanks to PNC Bank for supporting this residency program. The PNC Pop In Residency supports artists whose works encourage conversation, collaboration, and interaction between artists and the public.

About Annah Lee

Annah Lee is the Director of Artistic Programs at Artspace.

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