On April 11, 2023

Following Fran: What makes the life of an artist?

By Elsie Lynn Parini/Addison County Independent

There was a moment when Fran Bull decided to be an artist:

“I remember sitting on a commuter train back in the ’70s, traveling from Setauket, Long Island, to New York City,” Bull explains in her online biography. “I was in my late 20s, a person of many interests, still living in the question of my life. As the landscape scrolled by, a great shift happened in me. The gods of fate and decision-making had boarded that train and when I disembarked in New York I had committed to a life in art.”

And thus was born the life of an artist. It is a span that has crossed time and space, grown and expanded to encompass various styles and various people, including one very special one.

Growing up in New Jersey, Bull remembers spending Saturdays and summers taking children’s art classes at the Newark Museum. “I fancied myself a ‘modern’ artist,” she says, recalling time she spent with her best friend in a basement making drawings and oil paintings. 

Bull expanded her pallete at Bennington College, where she graduated in 1960 with a major in music, with two subsequent degrees in textile design and an M.A. from NYU in art and art education. 

“In the ’80s I enjoyed New York gallery representation working within the Photorealist movement,” Bull’s bio continues. “My art evolved away from this constrained, exacting way of working and veered in a more personal direction — I needed to tell other stories through art. I needed to address other persistent questions: Who are we human beings? What is our purpose in the universe? Why have we made such a mess of things? What is art’s purpose — can it heal? Can art illuminate and thus transform?” 

To pursue these new pressing questions, Bull made the move to Brandon in 1999 and opened a gallery space called Gallery in the Field. 

“I was a fool rushing in,” Bull said. “I had no idea. But it was a life-long dream and we had so many wonderful moments.”

A decade later, Bull’s life partner Robert Black moved to Brandon too and “got into it with Fran,” as he says. 

“We really were and are asking, ‘How does art bring community together?’” summarized Black, who has been an architect for over 40 years, and also wears the hats of photographer, artist, teacher and professional facilitator. 

“Fran is famous,” Black said, in only the way a partner can.

“Well, I was in ‘multi’ there for a while,” she retorted, referring to her earlier years as an artist. “I was in disguise…When I was first exhibiting, I died a thousand deaths. Those were long, arduous months of work and I would be a wreck.”

What Bull has come to learn through her own work with Jungian therapy was a “letting go.”

“What I had to learn was every day to do things for real life — you know sit down or boil potatoes — to really live in real life,” explained Bull, who is now in her mid-80s. “Little by little I made breakthroughs — without judging I was in touch with myself as much as possible. It’s a journey.”

How do you get to that place where you trust what’s emerging from you as an artist?

“I have no idea,” Bull said with a delighted laugh. “Now, I make something, say here’s my work, and maybe it will speak to you.”

“It’s like the series of brick photos I did where I took pictures of bricks on brick,” Black added. “The wall was uniform but different. As an artist can I put myself out there for people to see and take the lumps…?”

Perfection is not the goal. 

On the contrary, in fact. If you were lucky enough to see “We’re all at a party called life on Earth,” an art installation at the Jackson Gallery in the lower level of Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, you know what Bull and Black (who together go by the name of FROBERTAN) are up to these days. 

More than just showing the work, the couple aims to educate and engage too. Through workshops, multi-media talks and programming, FROBERTAN try to open people to the world through art. 



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