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EyeWitness: Tom Cullins


As Tom Cullins discusses his philosophy of art, it becomes apparent that he could also be talking about his philosophy of life. “It’s easy to go back to success you’ve had, and to stay with that,” he said during an interview last week at the Burlington airport. “But what really excites me is finding new arenas. I want to be inventing work that isn’t regurgitating older work.”

A few years ago, Cullins started focusing on his lifelong passion for painting, after a four-decade career as an architect in Burlington and Greece. He now composes watercolors at his two homes: one above the Church Street Marketplace and the other on the Greek island of Kea. Both are shared with his wife, Kelly Cullins, who recently retired as director of the study-abroad program at St. Michael’s College. The couple have a daughter who works as an opera singer in Bogotá, Colombia.

Cullins, a trim and animated 66-year-old, says he feels no regrets that he devoted most of his adult life to architecture rather than to painting. He certainly distinguished himself in his chosen field: He was the lead designer for one of Burlington’s most prominent downtown buildings, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other signature works he created at the firm he co-owns — Truex Cullins & Partners — include the library, student center and a residence hall at Champlain College. Architecture is still the way he makes a living; he’s currently designing an eco-resort in the Bahamas.

Cullins does seem a bit wistful about his choices, though. Painting affords greater creative freedom than does architecture, he acknowledges: “Being an architect is about listening to the client; painting is about listening to myself.”

The freedom represented by a blank sheet of watercolor paper can be “frightening,” he cautions. And there’s also the consideration that most architects make a lot more money than do most painters. But, based on the 20 or so predominantly abstract works currently hanging in a hallway at the airport (a venue curated by Burlington City Arts), it does seem that Cullins could’ve been a contender.

His small-scale pieces display a sure sense of form, light and color. Some riff cubistically on the white buildings and blue sea of Kea. In others, it’s hard to discern any representational origins, although Cullins explains that one geometric work featuring slablike orange planes was inspired by a Vermont quarry. The influence of California abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn — “my favorite artist!” Cullins exclaims — is particulary evident in this piece. And the analytical cubism pioneered by Georges Braque can be seen as an antecedent to Cullins’ Kea town- and seascapes.

Even so, his style doesn’t look derivative. Cullins says, in fact, that although he usually works from life or from photos, he often can’t tell where a painting will take him. “It’s a form of magic that happens on the paper,” he says. “I can go off in a totally unanticipated direction.”

A couple of the paintings at the airport remain anchored in the familiar. There’s a sunny sidewalk café in Crete, for example, and a view of the Perkins Pier area that may cause locals to marvel at how urban Cullins has made it appear.

He says he finds abstraction “more stimulating, more dynamic” than realism. And despite the unforgiving properties of watercolor — no pentimenti are possible — Cullins prefers that medium over oil or acrylic. “I love the layering and transparency that’s possible with watercolor, and also the way you can dramatize forms and show shadow and shade.”

Cullins also likes the opportunities watercolor offers for incorporating negative space into a composition. “Kea, Greece II” is bisected diagonally, with pastels and browns suggesting buildings and trees in the upper-left portion of the sheet and empty whiteness filling the lower right. “With watercolor,” Cullins comments, “it’s often more important what you don’t do than what you do do.”

Having worked in this medium since his undergraduate days at Syracuse University, Cullins does know what he’s doing with watercolor. In that era, he was trained in the tradition of rendering architectural schemes in watercolor washes. And it proved more than a mere classroom exercise. Cullins compiled a portfolio of watercolors as well as oil paintings that he submitted as part of his application to the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

That 1963-68 interlude in upstate New York and Cambridge, along with the five years in the ’80s when he ran an architectural office in Athens, were breakaway moves by homeboy Tom. Cullins is a fourth-generation Vermonter on both his maternal and paternal sides. His family has been rooted in the Burlington area since the early 1900s.

A second home on a Greek isle offers a spectacular alternative to his Church Street loft, but Cullins doesn’t find the Queen City confining. It’s got “a great little arts community,” he notes, and he and Kelly often make the convenient trip to Montréal to visit museums and galleries.

Cullins also enjoys a surprising hobby in Burlington’s back alleys: dumpster-diving. Or rather, shooting. “The trash creates patterning on the dumpsters that reminds me of Diebenkorn or [Abstract Expressionist Franz] Kline,” he explains. A serious photographer as well as painter, Cullins takes pictures of those patterns and works off them in creating some of his watercolor abstractions.

If you happen to be flying before the end of January, step out of the paranoia parade — aka, the queue for the security check-in — and have a look at Cullins’ paintings on the second floor. They might be just as transporting as a flight to Florida.