by Liza Roberts
photographs by Missy McLamb
In Anthony Ulinski’s warehouse district studio, landscape paintings are underway. Green expanses of farmland, grey geometric cityscapes, and sunset-lit barns and outbuildings celebrate the serene beauty and expanse of Eastern North Carolina. And his finely honed works of wood are on display, too: Reliquaries, cabinets, and tables.
To Ulinksi, these works are all important. But they’re not all. “I really think of myself mostly as a still-life painter,” he says.
For an artist with many interests and abilities, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Ulinski is hard to define. After all, he only became a painter when his busy furniture-making business left him hungry for an outside hobby. And he only became a furniture maker when he thought it would be useful to learn how to run a small business. He was a developmental economist at the time, and wanted to know first-hand what the challenges were like for the small businesses he touted. For a man like this, labels are probably unimportant.
Regardless, what Anthony Ulinski does with paint and brush and palette knife to depict the Eastern North Carolina scenery of his most recent work qualifies him in many viewers’ minds as a landscape artist of the first order. A show of these works, The Places in Between, has recently travelled from Raleigh to Washington, D.C.; to Wilson, Rocky Mount, and back here again, most recently at Artspace’s Upfront Gallery.
With a minimalist, abstract perspective, Ulinski takes fields and barns and roads and an expansive sky to their geometric essence, letting light and shadow and color play a leading role. “You do sort of get seduced by the landscape and its potential for pictorial images,” he says.
It was fairly recently that Ulinski began to appreciate this kind of beauty. One afternoon near Wilson, about two years ago, “there had just been a thunderstorm. The light was being bounced around under the clouds; there was an eerie glow, an energy,” he recalls. After that, “I started seeing it.” Farms that had never caught his eye before became “perfect little farmsteads.” Abandoned tobacco barns and “vibrant” thriving farms came alive. The world of agriculture in the late afternoon setting sun became his fascination, taking him on road trips from Raleigh any Sunday he could manage, driving along back roads with his camera out the window.
“I got to learn a lot about farming,” he says, “something I never knew anything – anything – about before.”
He could have said the same thing of landscape art in general until a few years ago. While painting at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, he set up a still life in his studio in front of a window, and realized that he’d have to depict what lay outside that window in a small sliver of the painting. “It was snowing, so I had a white field, and lots of sky. Then, I started to think: What else is out there?”
A lot, it turned out. “Once you start to look at this carefully, everything starts to look like a painting,” he says. A pile of haystacks under a lean-to in one Eastern North Carolina photograph he took looked immediately to him like the work of an abstract expressionist: “See the Diebenkorn?” He asks, pointing to the squares of straw in the photo, as if it’s obvious.
For someone who sees Diebenkorn in the straw, the challenge, he says, is to keep his work relevant, not insular. John McPhee, whose 1975 tome on oranges impressed Ulinski, gives him hope. “He wrote a whole book on oranges. If he can pull it off, can I pull it off? I mean, I see the beauty in all of this, but…”
Ulinski, 59, has the easygoing demeanor of someone who spends a good deal of time doing what he loves to do. Youthful in jeans and boots, his hair is long enough to curl under his ears, and his smile is constant. Unless he told you, you’d never know that he’s been battling an autoimmune disease since 1982.
“Sometimes,” he says, “my hands don’t work.” Painting is easier than woodwork – brushes are lighter than tools – but even then, a flare-up can sideline him for a day or two.
If he soldiers through, perhaps it’s because he comes from illustrious stock. He is the grandson of William B. Franke, who was Secretary of the Navy under President Eisenhower, and he is the son of a career foreign service officer. Born in Indonesia, Ulinski lived and was educated all over the world – India, Italy, Liberia, Spain, Vietnam – before moving to Raleigh in 1976 to be with his girlfriend. He thought it would be a three-year stint, while she finished her degree at N.C. State. Thirty-seven years later, he’s still here, married to writer and former attorney Kim Church, whom he wed in 1990. She left the law when she saw him enjoying his creative life and wanted one of her own, he says.
A creative life was not what Ulinski had in mind when he arrived here all those years ago. He was on another path altogether. With an expansive worldview, but no knowledge of art – outside of what he’d seen in the museums he’d been dragged to by his parents – Ulinski assumed he’d go into the field of development economics, like his father. Learning how to establish a low-overhead, “easy-entry, easy-exit” business seemed a responsible project for someone planning to champion their virtues in developing countries. Woodworking was the example most often used by developmental economists to describe this kind of business, so woodworking it was.
Then, “I got seduced by the work. It’s a very nice, contemplative way to spend the day. I don’t want to think about how much time I’ve spent sanding boards.” He laughs. The solitude and satisfaction he found in woodworking were seductive enough that he “never quite got back” to the field that brought him there.
And then, after many years in the wood shop, painting came. In 1993, “I thought: I have to have a hobby.” He signed up for a class on Tuesday afternoons with painter Elizabeth Lentz and never stopped. Since 2001, Ulinski has had solo shows every year in galleries up and down the Eastern seaboard and has work shown regularly in juried and invitational group shows.
Ulinski’s still lifes have made way for more and more landscapes, and still, he makes furniture and art out of wood. His studio, Dovetail Woodworks, is divided into two sections – one for painting, the other for woodwork. Heavy plastic curtains separate the two, keeping sawdust out of wet paint. In the studio, a glass-covered cabinet makes an easy-to-clean palette; oversized books on artists ranging from Kandinsky to Vuillard bend a shelf above a desk crowded with coffee-can pen-holders, an old-school index card Rolodex, and more books.
“I still love both of these endeavors,” he says of painting and of wood. “They’re very contemplative.” But painting, to his mind, doesn’t yet come quite as naturally as working with wood does. “There’s something I know about woodworking. I know when it’s good; I know when it’s done. I haven’t quite gotten to that point with painting.”