When Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in November of 2016, Bend painter Paula Bullwinkel was not the only one who was shocked. But rather than being stunned into a stupor, the event spurred her to action.
“It was deeply upsetting,” she recalled. “And then I got very worried, as a woman, as an American, as a parent. But I told myself, ‘Let me just start,’ and so that’s how it evolved.”
As Bullwinkel began sketching and painting, images began to emerge. First came women, their images inspired by shampoo and perfume advertisements and snapshots from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Next came rodents, for which Bullwinkel actually has a lot of affection.
“I think rats are rather cute," Bullwinkel said. "They’re camp, sort of scampering through the paintings. But I also picked them because they’re attracted to decay, and they’re necessary for renewal.”
Finally, Bullwinkel added quotes from Donald Trump. Quotes that upset her.
“The quotes were really, really hard for me to paint.”
But preserving the words was important to Bullwinkel.
“I felt like it needed to be done, so no one could say in the future that it was never said,” she said.
The now infamous quotes included Trump’s remarks about how his stardom conferred the privilege of getting away with anything, including grabbing a woman by her genitals or characterizing media commentary as meaningless “as long as you’ve got a beautiful piece of ass."
Bullwinkel summoned the discipline to finish dozens of sketches, color tests, etchings and, finally, a series of five large oil paintings entitled “25%! Americans! Approved!”, which refers to the number of Americans who voted Trump into office.
Bullwinkel began her art career as a photographer in the 1980s — a career her parents thought she was ill-advised to pursue. But the young, outgoing Californian was an intriguing anomaly in the cool, high-fashion worlds of New York and London and she wasn’t about to let anyone tell her no.
“I was persistent, that was the main thing. I had talent but I was very persistent,” she recalled. “I went to the model agencies. I shot the new girls, that’s what they called them, the models. And often they were just girls, 16 or so. Ford [Modeling Agency] used me regularly. When the girls got off the plane, they immediately came to us for some pictures.”
Bullwinkel was among the first to make photos of a very young Kate Moss, and went on to photograph celebrities including Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Kevin Bacon and many others. Her work appeared in Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine and adorned album covers for Suzanne Vega and Sinead O’Connor.
Through her photographs, Bullwinkel became a storyteller.
“There’s a drama happening. There’s characters. There’s definitely a costume. There’s a story being told. So to me, I was the director of a play and it’s a narrative image I’m making. And I carried that right into painting,” she said.
Today, Bullwinkel’s oil paintings have a familiar-yet-disturbing, often dreamlike quality.
‘Disturbing’ or ‘offensive’?
For the imagery in “25%!” series, Bullwinkel drew from super-slick advertising images women. But instead of cradling bottles of shampoo, her models are nuzzling rodents, surrounded by the president’s off-color quotes in an oddly enticing juxtaposition.
“I was trying to process things that made me very, very angry into something I could handle and also address the absurdity of it all," Bullwinkel said. "So I made it into something kind of weird and funny yet jarring, a knife-to-the-heart kind of idea.”
When the series was finally exhibited in Bend during the Spring of 2019, they were taken down almost as soon as they were put on display.
“These paintings were originally hung in a privately owned building in town. And the owners of the building asked for the paintings to be taken down because they found them offensive,” said Jenny Green of Bend’s At Liberty Gallery.
The following week, the imbroglio became the Source Weekly newspaper’s cover story, where the offending words were covered over with a stencil saying “CENSORED.”
“It’s very interesting,” Bullwinkel said, “because in the imagery there’s nothing offensive. It’s just the words, our president’s words.”
Bend’s artistic community rallied behind Bullwinkel and a few days after the paintings were removed from the Franklin Crossing atrium, the paintings found a new home at Bright Place Gallery and then subsequently at the At Liberty Gallery (now called Scalehouse Gallery).
“A lot of people were upset, but Paula’s work is doing what art should, which is asking questions and getting responses and it’s stirring up the community,” said Green.
“Some very interesting conversations have been started and suddenly everyone had a very passionate opinion that was supportive of the idea that artists should be able to paint what they want, say what they want. No one should try to silence them,” Bullwinkel said. “I was very buoyed and happy to be a Bend resident at that time.”
While there are currently no plans to exhibit these paintings, Bullwinkel will have a solo show at Transmission Gallery in Oakland, California, in April 2021.
“Artists have a responsibility I think to some degree to address what is the most apparent and glaring in our society. Otherwise you’re just painting for yourself and you should just keep them to yourself.”