Dreams of the Father: The Inspired Artistic Trajectory of Gale Fulton Ross
by D. Amari Jackson
“When I created as a child, and I did early, I was creating to escape the chaos of the adults around me. When I was a young woman, I was creating to escape my own chaos. And now that I am an older woman—watch the word, older woman—I create to escape back to the child that I was.” –Gale Fulton Ross TEDx Talks, 11/16/13
Born an artist. Knew from the start.
After all, for celebrated painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Gale Fulton Ross, it was in the blood.
“My father, Herman Fulton, Jr., designed the fin on the iconic classic Cadillac,” reveals Fulton Ross, of the man who most influenced her half-century career in art. Though working daily to support his growing family as a body and fender man for a small car dealership in Malden, Massachusetts, Fulton Ross characterizes her father as a “frustrated artist” with bigger dreams. In the cellar of their Malden home, near the coal bin that fueled the furnace, “he created a studio for himself with a drafting table, a stool, and a light bulb that hung on a chain over the table and, on each side, were shelves with his materials for drawing. So he was more of a draftsman.”
“Every night, after dinner, daddy would go into the cellar,” remembers Fulton Ross. As a child, given she always wanted to be an artist, she earned the moniker “baby artist” from her father. “So I would go into the cellar too, and he would make me a stool next to his, and I would learn to draw from him.”
Years later, Fulton Ross would emerge from the cellar to become the artist her father once dreamed of. In high school, the talented teen received numerous awards for her art along with college scholarship offers. At the Massachusetts College of Art, her apparent ability and encouragement from an instructor prompted her to leave school early and seek mentorship from the likes of the legendary Charles White and the underappreciated Cleveland Bellow.
Her chosen path has taken her around the world—from Africa to Europe to Asia—to study with master artists and exhibit her work while crossing paths with such icons as Thurgood Marshall, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and James Baldwin. Her long roster of commissioned portraits includes Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Josephine Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among many others.
In the late 1990s, Fulton Ross became the first Black woman to exhibit her work on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota and, months later, accomplished another Sarasota first for a Black woman by opening the Fulton-Burt Gallery. With studios in Florida, California, and New York, Fulton Ross has received a long list of honors and commissions and is a sought-after speaker, art educator, and the creator of an art foundation dedicated to developing young artists.
Undoubtedly, her ongoing support for emerging artists and her stellar career largely reflects the dreams of her late father.
“The Cadillac and Oldsmobile people did not give him credit because he worked for them,” reports Fulton Ross, of the popular design feature that would subsequently grace Cadillacs across the nation. She describes her father as an “excellent mechanic” tasked with merely knocking the dents out of cars, restoring and painting them to a better condition. “So one day he decided that he was going to mix some parts of an Oldsmobile with a Cadillac and create a dream car for himself which, back in the day, men did,” explains Fulton Ross, noting this practice would sometimes raise the ire of dealerships, who viewed these vehicles as potential competition.
Her father drove the newly-finned car, and was even featured in Jet and Ebony magazines as a “dream car builder” until one of the white owners of the dealership told him “he couldn’t have it. He said, ‘No, that doesn’t work. You work for us and we have to take the car.’ And they did.” That same owner, says Fulton Ross, then “drove the car for 13 years” before sending it to General Motors where they “gave the concept of the fin to a white designer named Harley Earl, who ran the design department. So they just gave him credit for my father’s hard work.”
The troubling incident further fueled Fulton Ross’ passion to succeed in art. However, while her artistically inclined father was fully on board, her mother was not.
“My mom was not an artist,” laughs Fulton Ross, characterizing her as “a strong-willed woman who believed her children should have a good job.” She clarifies that, for her mother, Henrietta, it wasn’t even about promoting the value of education, reiterating “she wanted you to have a good job. And so if anybody asked my mom, ‘Where’s Gale, your oldest?’ My mother would say, ‘She’s somewhere in the world coloring pictures.’”
Nonetheless, Fulton Ross acknowledges that she and her mom, though often at odds over the daughter’s life choices, were alike in many ways. While her mother became pregnant out of wedlock with the artist when she was a young teen, Fulton Ross became pregnant at 17. Both women, the latter once told an interviewer, were “full of spit and vinegar” as they often had “heated discussions about life.” However, both women would make their own way, Henrietta being sent North from Virginia by her own mother to avoid the stigma of out-of-wedlock childbirth, and Fulton Ross using art to make ends meet.
“It happens in stages over an artist’s career,” she offers. “You never think you can make a living, you just accept the fact that you don’t need a lot. But you do need to do the work, so I often, in the early years, made a way out of no way.” Fulton Ross had to make a way, given her new family, her rebellious persona—a self-described “freedom fighter at the easel” replete with full afro and Black Panther-like attire—and her release from an early job with the Children’s Television Workshop, the nonprofit behind The Electric Company and Sesame Street. “I got fired from there for using my expense account to buy art supplies,” recalls Fulton Ross, noting “I didn’t lie. I mean, I put it in the expense report, and they basically said, ‘What is this?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know I’m an artist, and I ran out of supplies.’” That, she laughs, was “the last job I ever had. And that was like 1971.”
Though not amused, her mother did eventually come to appreciate her daughter’s prolific talent in her own way. Within the year after her mother’s 2019 death, Fulton Ross’ art was installed at the public library in Malden, a few miles away from her childhood home. “It would have been wonderful for her to have been there and seen that other people appreciated my artwork,” she admits. However, “according to friends, they say she absolutely appreciated my artwork, as it hung in her house. And it did. I gave her pieces and she immediately hung them, so I know she did… she did.”
Even though the job with the Children’s Television Workshop ultimately ended the way it did, it prompted Fulton Ross’ relocation to New York City. And that, by all accounts, was a game changer. While still working with the popular children’s programmer, and befriending Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman, she would paint after work and on weekends as her art began selling well at the city’s Carnegie Gallery. One buyer, who had purchased her drawing of Duke Ellington, was popular Black socialite, singer, and activist, Marian Bruce Logan, and she wanted to meet the artist. The two met at Logan’s brownstone on 88th Street, hit it off, and the well-connected socialite offered Fulton Ross a downstairs studio in the building. The latter was immediately thrust into the heart of the New York Black social scene engaging with the likes of Cab Calloway, living next door to Donny Hathaway, meeting Nat King Cole’s wife and her daughter Natalie, and even having South African Bishop Desmond Tutu sit for her in her first floor studio. Upon being introduced to Vernon Jordan and Dr. Howard Thurman of the National Urban League Trustee board, and being encouraged by Ron Brown, Fulton Ross would subsequently become the youngest trustee in the civil rights organization’s history.
Along with Hathaway, who she’d occasionally visit to hear play piano, Fulton Ross was also neighbors with Taj Mahal and Miles Davis. “You didn’t have a relationship with Miles Davis,” she laughs, depicting how “he grunted if you spoke. You were afraid because Miles would go off on people, so I never spoke to Miles Davis. If I was going through the door to Mikell’s (Jazz Club) and he was coming out, I would just smile and he’d grunt. That was it.”
In 1975, after her divorce, Fulton Ross relocated to Oakland, California to be near her son who stayed with her ex-husband. There, she studied under printmaker and painter, Cleveland Bellow, and opened a studio and gallery called Earth and Art in downtown Oakland on 17th Street.
Two years later, tragedy struck as the life of the one person who had supported her art from the beginning—the man people commonly said she inherited her artistic abilities from—ended in sudden and shocking fashion.
“My father committed suicide at age 58,” reveals Fulton Ross, noting “I took it pretty hard. I actually had been talking to him on the phone that day and then, two hours later, he killed himself. So it was a very hard time.”
“He and my mom were divorced, he was remarried and had moved to Atlanta, and a lot of things were not going right,” says Fulton Ross, pointing out her dad had started his own automotive business with a partner who then cleaned out their bank account and skipped town. He then took a job as a security guard. “I think it was a time in a Black man’s life, at 58 years old, who had hopes and dreams of much higher endeavors, and he became extraordinarily depressed,” continues Fulton Ross. “He suffered some kind of health condition that may have come from working with cars for many years, and his wife thought he took his life because he was sick. But I thought it was because he was extremely depressed.”
Though devastated by the loss of her father, the shocks did not end there. Around the time of his funeral, Fulton Ross found out that her beloved father was actually not her father. After her mother became pregnant as a young teen in Virginia and was shipped off to the Boston area, she had married Herman Fulton, Jr. when Fulton Ross was two years old. Still, for all the heartache and trauma caused by the suicide and the subsequent revelation, there was a silver lining. “I went on to meet my biological father, who was wonderful,” says Fulton Ross, explaining that her mother’s side of the family had blocked him from being in her life. “I got to meet him, and two years after I met him, he passed away. So I was very fortunate to meet my biological father and his family, and they are so very dear to me.” To this day, Fulton Ross remains close with her more recently discovered relatives. “So it all worked out, but it was definitely a rough patch.”
Within a two-year period, Fulton Ross had not only lost two fathers, but found out that the central figure in her life was not of her blood. But while blood may be thicker than water, spirit can move both. Consistently, for Fulton Ross, such a revelation could never diminish the impact that Herman Fulton, Jr. had upon her artistic passion, her chosen career, and her compelling life journey. “People would say, ‘Oh, you have your father’s talent,” says Fulton Ross. “He was not my biological father, but he was my biggest influence, and my inspiration for who I am to this day.”
In 1978, amidst this tumultuous period, another event happened that would also prove transformative for Fulton Ross. Splitting time between coasts, the troubled artist returned to her regular New York spot, Mikell’s, where she came upon a familiar looking man with unmistakably large, all-seeing eyes sitting at the bar smoking, drink in hand. Knowing who he was, the 31-year-old assumed the adjacent barstool, ordered a gin and tonic, and introduced herself to James Baldwin. The conversation with the world-renowned author would last for hours as both shared their life stories and striking similarities. Both were the oldest of nine siblings; both were theater and museum lovers; both were Leos; and both had learned that the fathers who raised them were not their biological fathers after their deaths.
Further, both had experienced the heart-wrenching effects of suicide. Baldwin acknowledged how he had tried to take his own life on multiple occasions, and how he was haunted by the 1946 death of his best friend, Eugene Worth, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge. Upon confiding her anger and guilt over not recognizing her father’s desperate state during their last phone call, the 54-year-old writer, Fulton Ross recalls, “told me to get over myself, that I had nothing to do with his death. There was nothing I could have said. As a Black man in America, he told me my father was tired, and I needed to understand that and not take it personally.”
That said, Fulton Ross’ art is, in many ways, personal. “One time, she sent me one of her originals when she was down in the dumps,” says longtime friend and collector, Hattie Dorsey, who met Fulton Ross through a mutual friend at a showing in California in the late ‘70s. Bearing a melancholy figure, reports Dorsey, the image “was on a small scrap of art paper, and this was her mood at that time. And I took that and I framed it. I told her that it represented, to me, where a lot of Black folks were at the time—What am I going to do? How am I going to make it, you know?”
Dorsey, who now resides in Georgia, laughs at how her Atlanta home has pretty much become Fulton Ross’ “art gallery” with her friend’s art “holding prominent spaces throughout my house. I think it really depicts the story of Black folks.” With roots in rural North Carolina, the avid Black art collector speaks to how a particular piece she owns by Fulton Ross portraying “a little girl looking out the door at her grandmother reminds me of going to the country in the summertime when I used to visit my grandmother. So I bought that piece from her, and then she did a collage of it as well.”
Fulton Ross’ art continues to resonate. While it has been exhibited at such institutions as the Oakland Museum, the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, and the California African American Museum, Fulton Ross also has works in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland. She was recently selected by pioneering business leader and retired Harvard Business School professor, Dr. James Cash, to do his official portrait upon becoming the first Black person to have a building named for him on the Harvard Business School campus. As an artist-in-residence at Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo, California, Fulton Ross is currently creating an exhibition honoring the activist Black artists and thinkers of the 1960s, inspired by parallels with the racial justice movement of 2020.
Fittingly, some of these honors hit close to home. The Converse Memorial Building, a longstanding institution affiliated with the Malden Public Library, recently commissioned and installed two of Fulton Ross’ works in their permanent collection. The master artist believes she has “come full circle” in that Malden, and the larger Boston area she hails from, is now “acknowledging me in such wonderful ways” through this permanent collection. “And that’s important,” stresses Fulton Ross, before playfully pointing out that “I am a grandmother now—one’s nine and one’s four. And I’m looking forward to the day, whether I am here or not, that they get to see that grandma was a real artist.”
Indeed, by all accounts, Gale Fulton Ross is a real artist, one who has lived a remarkably artistic life that—both unfortunately and fortunately—her father, Herman Fulton, Jr., could only dream of.
“My 75 years on this earth have been full of art, full of culture, and full of lessons from my ancestors,” says Fulton Ross, promoting art as a “universal language” that, without it, “you don’t have a connection from one culture to another, and you lose all sense of humanity.”
“I believe that art is long and life is short.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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