Photographs posted on Simon Bull’s website depict the artist with several stars ranging from actress Ashley Judd and television host Larry King to boxers Evander Holyfield and Muhammed Ali. This articulate, thoughtful and philosophical artist may rub shoulders with the glitterati, but he has his feet firmly planted in Carmel…and in reality.
Born in England, Bull’s early years were nomadic, due to his father’s military service. His promise as a successful artist was revealed early on: his first one-man show took place in Hong Kong when he was just 18. He earned a BA in Fine Arts in 1980 from Leeds Polytechnic in Leeds,
Bull’s early work was initially quite literal. “I did tightly detailed, graphic studies of farm animals and landscapes until the early 1990s,” he says. The painter was initially inspired by traditional English illustrators, such as Eric Ennion, known for his ultra-realistic bird paintings.
Bull’s style underwent a sea change around 1992. “My work became much freer. The bold colors came in and morphed into a more contemporary, looser style.” The large flower canvases from this period bear the DNA of another of Bull’s influences, Georgia O’Keefe. “She is probably my favorite artist,” he confesses.
What precipitated that metamorphosis? “As a young man I went to a very strict, sort of fundamentalist church. It was great, but on another level very narrow,” he says. “There was no going to movies, no reading books apart from the Bible, no listening to the news. It was kind of Amish. You cut yourself off.” When he eventually left that church, he felt like a stranger in a strange land. “I felt like I was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. I saw things through fresh eyes.”
“Up to that point, my painting had been all about commentating on the natural world,” he recalls. “I was working very hard to produce pretty paintings. In a sense, my work was all about me: I wanted people to think that I was a good artist.” That isolation had allowed him an insight into the world that those of us who are immersed in it day in and day out might become blind to—and it has informed his work ever since.
“When I went through this transition, I realized that it’s not about whether I’m good or not or whether the painting is good or not, but whether it communicates love to the person who is looking at it,” Bull muses. “Everyone is driven by a longing to love and be loved.”
Bull’s Carmel Point home also houses his main studio—his backyard deck. “I’m inspired by everything that enters my eyes, basically. That boils down to nature: trees, flowers, mountains—things that are primarily organic.” The bucolic scene that surrounds his al fresco work space provides lots of that inspiration. “Through enjoying and observing and sitting with that world, I pull stories out and tell them in a different format,” he explains. Of course, winter weather being what it is, he needs to maintain indoor studio space as well, but he works outdoors whenever possible. “I love the multiple inspiration around here.”
One of Bull’s most interesting collaborations was the one he enjoyed with the late, great Muhammed Ali. “I learned through an agent that Park West Gallery was searching for an artist to produce paintings that could be printed for Ali to sign,” he says. “Peter Max and I were both chosen.”
It was initially a commercial project, but when Ali and his family saw Bull’s paintings they asked if they could get some of them for their home. “I was like…uh, yeah. Absolutely,” he recalls. The relationship then turned more personal. “He commissioned me to paint President Obama. He wanted to give a gift to the President at his 2009 inauguration.”
One painting depicted the President juxtaposed with Ali at the (1964) Sonny Liston fight that made him a household name, and another with an older Ali. The former was unveiled at the Bluegrass Ball in Washington, DC, by Ashley Judd.
“Ali was a very powerful and I would say a very good guy,” Bull recalls. “Despite his illness, he retained a kind of nobility about himself and a care for other people and a keen interest in what they were doing. He was someone that obviously loved life and loved people.”
No matter how successful he has become as a painter, Simon Bull sees himself primarily as a storyteller. “Every painting should tell the story of the whole of human life,” he reflects. “The story is simple, and I think that’s why my art has been readily received by people,” he reflects. “I think people are looking for life-affirming messages. Art is artificial. It’s not life, it’s about life, it’s a mirror of life. It holds the world up to you in a way that you’ve not seen it before and changes your perspective and feeds back into your own life.”
View Simon Bull’s work in Carmel at Meuse, his gallery at Ocean and Monte Verde and in Monterey at Meuse Contemporary, 201 Cannery Row, Suite 1. For more information, visit www.bullart.com.