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Beline Obeid

The art on and of display

Douglas Bulka has six prints on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum, where he works as a paper care specialist, has owned the prints nearly 30 years. This is the first time they are on display in the museum.

February 16, 2012
Grosse Pointe Park resident Douglas Bulka is a patient artist.

The Detroit Institute of Arts purchased six of his prints nearly 30 years ago. They are on display for the first time in the museum in the "Once Upon a Time: Prints & Drawings That Tell Stories" in the Schwarz Gallery until May 13.

In addition to the prints currently on display in the DIA, the museum also owns a drawing on canvas by Bulka. The drawing depicts the island at the interchange of two major Detroit-area freeways at night. I start with water color washes, Bulka said. I block it in then build it up with charcoal and pastels. photo by Karen Fontanive.
Bulka's artwork has graced the halls of many museums and galleries. The museum also owns one of Bulka's drawings on canvas. It depicts a major Detroit-area freeway interchange at night. (Bulka has an "interest in doing things at night and the night light quality.") While currently in storage, it has been displayed in the museum on several occasions.

It was Bulka's mother who first saw his artistic talent.

"There wasn't a lot of art in school period back then," Bulka said. "She knew I had an ability and I wasn't getting enough stimuli at school, so she came up with the money on her own for me to have private painting classes."

Even with his focus on art, Bulka wasn't sure art was his career. After high school graduation, he took a year off and traveled.

He returned to Michigan with a scholarship to the University of Michigan and started in pre-med.

"I had been doing the art, but I thought I wanted to be a doctor," Bulka said. "I started in pre-med and I couldn't stand it and I applied to the art school and got in, but I was extremely disillusioned with the art school at U-M."

One of his professors at U-M used to teach at Wayne State University and was living in the Cass Corridor. He suggested Bulka go to Wayne.

"I checked it out, I came down here. It was the best thing I did," he said. "At the time, the painting department at Wayne was one of the best in the Midwest and the Cass Corridor movement was in its decline then (late '70s), but I still got to experience some of that and the energy and living down here."

While at WSU, he began teaching at Lawrence Tech and working as a paper care specialist at the DIA. He earned both bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees at WSU while teaching and working. He still works at the DIA after 36 years.

As a paper care specialist, Bulka is responsible for storage, exhibition preparation and handling the objects when they are loaned out. Paper objects — prints, photographs, books, wood etchings — comprise half of the DIA's collection.

"Paper objects have very unique issues in terms of how they're stored, how they're exhibited, how they're treated," Bulka said. "The museum sent me to study with paper conservators at four different museums out east."

Bulka points out there is an art and a science to displaying paper objects. Prints must be hinged to a mat. A variety of hinge papers and adhesives, depending on the paper object, are used to hang the art piece.

Then there's the matter of matting: how a print fits in the mat and in a frame. Books need to be displayed at a certain angle to be seen, but also to keep the binding from breaking. Also, when a book is on display, its pages need a "text block" to support them so they don't drop away from the binding.

"People often say how could you work there that long and a big part of it is because I'm working with these objects in an extremely intimate way — I'm handling them, I'm taking hinges off of them or mending tears," Bulka said. "That intimate relationship with those objects has been really important to me. I've worked on things from as early as the 16th century to some that were made just this week."

Besides creating artwork and his responsibilities at the museum, Bulka is married and father to 8-year-old son, Owen. He stays active with his son's Little League team, hockey team and serves as his son's Cub Scout den leader.

Through all of the teaching positions, gallery exhibits and artistic acclaim over his 35-plus year career, Bulka admits he's doing his best work now. As cliché as it may sound, it's true.

"Being Owen's father is the best thing I've ever done," Bulka said.

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