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Lofty pursuit

David McCullough engages viewers with his small talk and big art at the Continental Lofts lobby gallery.
Judy Walgren

The guy in the corner of the lobby gallery of Continental Lofts doesn't live here, but he is camped out nonetheless. He's too tidy to be a panhandler, but too casual to be a security guard, even in Deep Ellum. His short ponytail pops up as he bends his graying head over a sketchbook. He alternately reads, draws, or writes, surrounded by large painted or watercolored canvases, hand-painted poetry text, and wall sculpture throbbing with bright splashes of color.

David McCullough seems immersed in what he's doing, until the unsuspecting loft dweller returns home from work. He hopes to engage them in small talk -- a chance to tell his story in the verbal medium he favors as much as the visual. "People who live here get tripped out by me, but I'm waiting for this conversation, this cultural experience that may or may not happen," he says. "I'm waiting for Godot."

One lobby visitor is studying the white wall where McCullough's "Sacred Messenger" hangs among his other like-sized watercolors. "These look like carpets," the viewer says after a thoughtful minute. "Wow," McCullough responds, "it's funny you should say that. I was just thinking of the first museum show I ever saw, before I knew I'd become an artist."

McCullough has hooked another stranger who becomes an audience-of-one for a performance piece of storytelling that is as much what McCullough is about as the art on the walls. "That first show had antiquities," he continues. "Turkish silk rugs hanging on the walls, lying on the floor..." Suddenly, McCullough is off and running, and the art-viewer seems surprised that a casual comment has generated this heartfelt but endless soliloquy.

This self-appointed Carlton-your-cultural-doorman is just one of a handful of artists who are contributing to a growing trend within the local arts scene: loft art. Burgeoning loft developments around Deep Ellum are transforming their lobbies and public spaces into galleries for reasons that range from the commercial to the cultural. The demographics of Deep Ellum loft residents are right for art appreciation -- upscale professionals looking for an urban living experience, thirty-to-fifty-somethings with net incomes in the high five figures.

Continental Lofts started its gallery both to please its tenants and out of a sense of loyalty to the area that spawned so many artists in abandoned warehouse lofts nearly 30 years ago. "Art absolutely belongs here," says Sunny Wood, property director for Continental Lofts. "I like the variety of rotating shows and giving emerging artists an opportunity for exposure."

Steve Warren, marketing director of Live Oak Lofts, donates empty loft spaces in his building at Live Oak and Good-Latimer to artists for a once-a-month art opening. "We built this building with 12-foot ceilings and lots of natural light, and artists love that," he says. Eliseo Garcia takes advantage of the temporary exhibition space to show steel and stone sculptures, two examples of which have a permanent position in the second-floor courtyard at Live Oak. Michael Marlowe painted the Mondrian-esque mural flanked by elevators in the parking garage, and shows his smaller work in the building's one-shot shows. Matt Stevens is about to move in, sensing that the airy living space will suit his aesthetic sense and that the wealth of neighborly contacts won't hurt his decorative arts business based in Dallas.

When Continental first opened three years ago, Wood asked Nancy Whitenack and Marty Walker at Conduit Gallery to "help us find artists and put up shows," she says. "They were our neighbors." Conduit pitched in for the first year, followed by Melissa Sauvage, then the director of the Deep Ellum Center for the Arts. Sauvage freelanced exhibitions for the next year. Shows by artists including Martin Delabano and Luciana Amirgholi have graced Continental's gallery, and were usually well-received by tenants and the gallery-going public.

But of all the art exhibitions at the Continental Lofts gallery, Wood says, McCullough's is generating the most response by far. "David's down there holding court on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday," she laughs. "Whoever walks through there is going to be approached by David." Along with the free exhibition, they're likely to get a lecture.

"Dialogue about art is an essential part of art," McCullough says. "My life in art is predestined, so I approach every encounter with another soul as a possibility for a sign."

McCullough, 53, sounds like a psychic healer when he waxes incessantly in his airy, metaphysical way. But he becomes decidedly more grounded when his attention is turned to how he got started in the art business. "It was like stepping into horseshit," he says of growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where young artists embraced the New England watercolor society ethic. "There were young guys all around me who wanted to be the Homers and Wyeths," he says.

 

A series of tragic family circumstances put McCullough to work at age 11 on a newspaper route, providing much-needed income for his single mom who eventually succumbed to a terminal bout with breast cancer. At 16 he got off his bike and landed an apprenticeship with the Springfield Daily News in its commercial art department. All along he was interested in attending fine-art school, but when he couldn't get in, he ended up in the Naval Reserves and commercial art school at Boston University of Art. "It was like a trade school," he says, "but what I got was a direct relationship with the teachers who encouraged me in illustration." On his own, McCullough took advanced mathematics at MIT and began to see the possibilities for mathematical applications in art. "Something magical happened," he says. "I was treating it like artistic composition. I got caught up in that, and I still use geometry in my art today."

The Vietnam War interfered with McCullough's ongoing quest to get into a fine-art school, yet he credits it with bringing about his artistic epiphany. Though called up for active duty, he didn't have to go to Vietnam and instead served stateside in an orthopedic hospital outside Chicago as a medic treating the wounded. "I was surrounded by people my own age all mutilated. I was learning surgical dressing changes, and that was one of the single most important things that ever happened to me," he says. McCullough remembers thinking of George Segal's work in plaster body casting as he put real people in body casts. He would take home rolls of plaster casting material and sculpt with it in his bedroom. "I would dip them and pretend I had to do this wrapping of my sculptures in a certain amount of time, like I had to do with a real guy," he says. "The material heats up and is pliable for a short time before it hardens. Then I would paint these sculpture forms with acrylics."

After his discharge, McCullough journeyed around the country, living in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Kansas, and Texas. He met Bob "Daddy-o" Wade in Cedar Hill, and through another series of coincidences, ended up renting a large warehouse loft in Fair Park with artists he says single-handedly started the Deep Ellum scene. "Richard Childers, Richard Tuttle, George Goodenow, and later Frank X. Tolbert and Susan Walton decided to collaborate on the first project," McCullough says. "It was cooperative living in a collaborative space on First Avenue." McCullough says the collaboration was like 500X Gallery before 500X, and the small group structured what became known as the art scene of Deep Ellum. In 1978, "I showed David Bates and James Surls in my studio next door at the corner of Expo and Parry."

Since 1980, McCullough has made a living as a working artist, experimenting with performance art, music-inspired "Tone Poems," and "Baggie Burial Rituals" involving burying canvas in rural East Texas with plastic sandwich bags loaded with paint and water. Sand painting was an accidental discovery, when his resurrected canvases were spread on the roof of the Deep Ellum art warehouse to dry, held down with bags of sand. "I noticed this granular, climatic thing going on," he says, "and the logical thing, I thought, was to glue colored sand onto the canvas. It became an alchemical performance thing."

Sand and glass figure in his work today, as do the geometry, plaster, and acrylic paints he's experimented with over 20 years. "I've never not worked in all these mediums," he says. "I'm just exploring my ideas that I have about life." And he's pushing those ideas to anyone who'll listen in the lobby of Continental Lofts. "I'm just shooting it out there," he says. "That's the way I live. Gallery people won't touch it, but I think that has to do with selling art. If they don't get it, they think they can't sell it...But people come through here and say, 'Wow, I got that.' That's all that's important."

A work-worn woman comes through the lobby door, heading upstairs for home. "Hey," she says, brightening when she spots McCullough bent over his sketchbook. "I met you at the opening and I talked to you about that part in the poem about bridging the gap between poetry and painting." McCullough springs to life, embracing the woman without touching her, as if he has just discovered another "soul mate." "I remember," he says, and he actually does remember. "We talked about the metaphor of the sacredness of the earth and the materials I use in my work." She nods, saying that reading the words helped her relate to the visual images. "I hope things connect up when you read between the lines," McCullough says. "I could talk about this all night."

 

And no doubt he would, but the woman doesn't give him the chance. She says a quick good-bye and heads upstairs to the relative quiet of her loft.


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