Raleigh artist Anthony Ulinski had the perfect upbringing for a painter. Born in Indonesia to American parents, he passed his wonder years all over the world as his diplomat father moved the family around on his various postings. It was an existence conducive to developing an observational streak.
I was always looking at things as a traveler and observer being put in new cultures, Ulinski said. Everything was different everywhere, whether I was in India, Liberia, Indonesia, Italy. I was always an outsider and never really became part of any community while growing up.
For all that, however, Ulinski admits he spent most of the past few decades not seeing what was literally right in front of him. Like a lot of people in the Triangle, Ulinski didnt think the eastern end of North Carolina was much more than a stretch of desolate flatlands one drove through on the way to the beach.
But that started to change a few years ago, when Ulinski was invited to do a show at the Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences in Rocky Mount. His initial thought was to base the show on paintings depicting scenes in Rocky Mount; then he broadened that to include the rest of Eastern North Carolina, an admittedly unusual subject for a show.
Artists typically paint landscapes of either the mountains or the beaches, said Karen Bethune, curator of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Nature Art Gallery. Eastern North Carolina is frankly unremarkable in a lot of ways, but I think Anthonys paintings of it are very remarkable. Theres a lot of sky in Eastern North Carolina, and he represents that in very interesting ways by creating layers for visual depth and texture.
The show is literally The Places In Between the mountains to the west and the beaches to the east. Ulinskis renditions are elegantly spare, depicting everything from farms to factories with striking simplicity. The paintings will be on display at the museums Nature Art Gallery in Raleigh through April 28.
Id go on Sunday drives on back roads and byways around Rocky Mount, Kinston, Wilson, Tarboro, Ulinski said. The towns were all in disrepair and collapsing, but the agricultural infrastructure still seems fairly intact. I looked at the farms, really looked at them, because Id never paid much attention to them before. Some were thriving, some abandoned with trees swallowing them up.
Putting down roots
Ulinski, now 58, came to Raleigh in 1976 thinking hed be here maybe three years while his girlfriend got her masters degree in landscape architecture from N.C. State University. That relationship didnt last (in 1990, he married Kim Church, a local lawyer and author who will soon publish her first novel), but Ulinski put down roots here anyway. By now, he has lived more years in Raleigh than everywhere else combined.
Not long after arriving, Ulinski began working as a furniture maker, eventually setting up shop under the name Dovetail Furniture. Hes still in the downtown workshop he moved into in 1978.
Health problems in the early 1990s forced Ulinski to change his work focus to something less physically demanding. He still makes a half-dozen or so pieces of furniture each year, mostly on commission. But painting takes up far more of his time nowadays, primarily still-life scenes and landscapes.
Typically, Ulinski starts out with a charcoal drawing on a canvas. Then he uses a cold-wax technique mixing oil paint and beeswax to apply anywhere from two to 12 layers. Instead of a brush, he uses a palette knife.
Thats mostly because Im a terrible housekeeper, and Id always forget to clean brushes at the end of the day, he said. By the next day, they were stiff and ruined. So I use a palette knife, which is easy to clean and OK if I forget. I like the texture of it and I do a lot of layering, one color over another over another. You can skim over the top and make it work in a way I never could with brushes.
Once he decided on Eastern North Carolina as a subject, Ulinski spent six months driving around, taking pictures of scenes to paint, carrying them back to his studio. Some of the nature scenes had obvious visual appeal that was easy enough to understand.
But over time, Ulinski started seeing visual virtues in the everyday things he had passed by earlier, like the subject of Cleaning Center. It depicts a small, freestanding building on Dickinson Avenue in Greenville with geometric precision, reflecting its surroundings in the glass windows.
I was a little surprised at how my perception of the state changed and the way I started seeing things, Ulinski said. After a while, everything started to seem beautiful. I love how Eastern North Carolina is just dead flat, like a tabletop. Theres the horizon line, gray winter soil, thin tree line at the edge of the field, gray skies thats like landscapes for beginners. Then it got more complex as I looked harder and trained myself to see what could be beautiful. The entryways to cities, the bypasses with strip malls and fast-food franchises in the late-afternoon light even those looked interesting.
Ulinski explored for scenes in all sorts of weather, some of it pretty intense. But that often worked out to the advantage of the art, especially in Wilson Iron Works, in which Ulinski tried to capture a scene he saw at sunset one evening.
Thered been a big storm, the streets were wet, there was heavy cloud cover and the sky was that odd greenish tornado color, Ulinski said. But the lighting was beautiful, bouncing off the clouds and illuminating buildings. The Wilson Iron Works had this glow about it, almost like an Italian hill village. It felt pictorial to me, although most people would say that was a stretch.
North Carolina is such a rich visual environment with so much out there, Ulinski concluded. Mountains, beaches, barrier islands, salt marshes. So much that a lot of whats in between is easy to miss. Thats what this show is about.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat