If ever there were a perfect place to exhibit paintings of bridges, the City of Bridges would be it. Pittsburgh’s bridges have brought artist Roland Kulla back time and time again. Now his exhibit of acrylic paintings and prints, “Bridge Works,” is at the West End’s James Gallery.
Mr. Kulla first visited James Gallery in 2008 while attending the International Bridge Conference. Since then, his work has been on display and for sale at the gallery, but this is his first solo exhibit there. Not coincidentally, “Bridge Works” opened during this year’s conference, which ran June 8-12 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
“We’re placing a shining spotlight on Roland’s work at this time because it’ll generate interest and exposure,” gallery director Paul Cicozi said.
All of Mr. Kulla’s work features bridges. In addition to Pittsburgh’s spans, he has photographed them in Berlin, Chicago and Boston. Next on his list is Portland, Ore., and Cleveland.
Working from his photographs, he creates cropped, abstract images. His paintings maintain a delicate balance of abstraction and reality, so much so that people have often mistaken them for photos.
“I really try to put in everything that’s in the photograph. If there’s graffiti or rust on there, I’ll put it in,” Mr. Kulla said.
His initial paintings, he says, were cleaner and more “static.”
“Rust and graffiti add a level of patina that I think gives it greater depth. It really kind of makes it juicy,” he said.
Mr. Kulla’s path to bridge painting has not been a straight one. He initially moved from his native St. Louis to Chicago to study to become a Catholic priest. He then made a “lateral move” from seminary to social work. He was a social worker in 1989 when he took an oil painting class for alumni at the University of Chicago. He had always painted, mostly with watercolors.
“We did a still life and I did one and said, ‘Oh, this is cool. I could do that,’” he said.
In the next decade, he tried a variety of styles and discovered a love for architectural subjects. One day, he was walking across a Chicago bridge and noticed the patterns created by sunlight on the bolts.
“I thought, ‘What if I focused on chunks of the bridge rather than the whole bridge and abstracted that element?’ That was really the beginning of it,” he said.
He began painting part time, and working part time in social work. Ultimately, he turned his full attention to his painting. He called his first series in 2000 “Constructs” and the next “Nuts and Bolts.” Since then, he’s done more than 100 series, expanding from Chicago to other “bridge cities.”
Pittsburgh, however, offers him something other cities don’t.
“One of the things that is so important about Pittsburgh is its history. This is the place where they made the steel -- they designed it. Pittsburgh has the most bridges in America, if not the world. The bridges here really are what make the city echo because they’re your connective tissue,” Mr. Kulla said.
His prints start at $450 unframed, and large-scale paintings are priced up to $15,000. There are eight paintings and one framed print in the exhibit and a varied portfolio of prints for sale.
Mr. Kulla has done other subjects, including a series of ruined abbeys in France and Germany. But he remains attracted to bridges, especially those built in the late 19th or early 20th century. He likes ones that challenge the way he sees the world.
“When I first did my series, I kind of made the names more abstract like ‘Construct’ as opposed to the name of the bridge. Now what I do is name it after the bridge because someone may not recognize it,” he said.
Mr. Kulla said there are always new bridges and new angles to explore, so he’ll never run out of subjects.
“The things I like the best when someone goes to one of my shows is they say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this bridge forever and I’ve never paid any attention to it.’
“It sort of opens your eyes to things you take for granted.”
“Bridge Works” will continue through July 19 at James Gallery: 413 S. Main St., West End (15220). 412-922-9800 or email@example.com.
Kate Mishkin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1352.