PITTSFIELD — Morgan Bulkeley's 50-year career retrospective, "Morgan Bulkeley: Nature Culture Clash," at Berkshire Museum, aims to bring hope — to an institution that is selling 40 artworks to stave off hopelessness; to a community that is experiencing many of the woes befalling the U.S.; and, perhaps most poignantly, to an artist who is suffering.
"So many of my family just died in, I don't know, the last five years, all of them essential, so it's been a really sad and dark kind of period," Bulkeley said while perusing the four rooms holding much of his life's work before the show went on view to the public last Friday. There is an opening reception with the artist 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Bulkeley's amusing drawings, paintings and wooden creations don't totally veer from this personal despair. Some even offer direct reminders. He takes the same approach when addressing human infringement on nature and other weighty matters, which was part of why the Pittsfield institution decided to give the 73-year-old artist's work such a comprehensive treatment.
"I recognized that the playfulness projected in his art was a portal for people to consider serious contemporary issues," Berkshire Museum executive director Van Shields said in a statement. "Morgan doesn't preach when he takes on consumerism, pollution, habitat loss, and a host of other issues that threaten to destroy living systems; rather, he invites the viewer to ponder the unintended consequences of the way we live."
Animals, especially birds, feature prominently in Bulkeley's work. The 73-year-old was raised alongside them on a farm in Mount Washington. His parents, Barbara and Morgan Bulkeley, often cared for various creatures, some of which (deer, fox, raccoon) appear in photographs near the exhibit's entrance.
From 1960 to 1973, his father, who died in 2012 at 99, also wrote an "Our Berkshires" column in The Eagle. He took his son to meet Robert Frost in Ripton, Vt. one time.
"It was like being with an oracle, really," Bulkeley, an English literature major at Yale University, said while hovering over a portrait he drew of the famous poet. "I was just so knocked out by him."
Narrative has always been a part of Bulkeley's work. He didn't appreciate the art teacher in college who tried to force abstraction upon him.
"Most of the classes I had, I didn't like," he said.
The artist's affinity for stories is perhaps no more evident than in a series of oils along the back wall of the exhibit's second room. The paintings depict people and animals in windows of the various houses lining streets in Cambridge, Mass.' Inman Square, where Bulkeley moved after stints in the U.S. Coast Guard and Newark, N.J., following college to join a commune.
"I loved the quality of the buildings," he said.
The people range from famous historical figures — George Washington wrestles Richard Serra in one; Gertrude Stein peeks out a window in another — to people in the commune to family members. The pain crops up here. Bulkeley's sister, Ruth Miles, is playing the piano in one painting. Bulkeley found her dead on a floor in 2015.
Another figure, an old girlfriend, occupies another one of the works' windows. She recently opted for what Bulkeley described as "assisted suicide" after being diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, according to the artist.
Bulkeley tried to move away from narrative after seeing a Philip Guston retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1981.
"It didn't depend on reading a personality...A lot of the paintings that I'd been doing had people, and you'd say, 'Oh, that's so and so, and he's happy, or he's sad, or he's angry or whatever.'"
Bulkeley subsequently created some works with faceless subjects. In one of them, the being is shooting a bow backwards.
"These were kind of cloaked figures that I thought, in a way, accomplished what I was trying to get at, which was to have an activity that didn't depend on a personality," he said.
The late 1980s brought Bulkeley back into the storytelling realm. He carved and painted wooden masks bearing scenes, such as 1989's "Chewing Tree Mask," in which a person gnaws on a trunk.
The hope comes later in the exhibit. In 1985, Bulkeley returned to the Berkshires and, for some, the triumphs of nature over humanity in his recent gouaches offer solace. For instance, birds overwhelm tanks, a plane and a helicopter in a 2013 piece titled, "Brown Creeper." Overall, Bulkeley's hairless, big-eyed people and active animals evoke a sense of youthful wonderment. Small wooden "whimseys" stoke this spirit, too.
Still, even as these creatures and creations inspire cheer, Bulkeley doesn't refrain from addressing tough topics, such as the Iraq War. The pubescent figures in 2006's "War Wounds" are mangled. Birds poke around the foreground.
"It's been a movement really for me in my mind of trying to balance hope with kind of a roughness I see happening in the world," Bulkeley said.
He's had his own difficulties. In addition to the more recent deaths of his father and sister, Bulkeley lost his mother in 2007. His own heart troubles in 2014 didn't help, either. Still, the opportunity to present at a museum he visited as a child and showed his work in 1973 and 2012 is a blessing for him.
"I felt just such a wonderful kind of hope here in the museum," he said of his childhood visits.
He wants his work to convey a similar feeling.
"I've never been able to kind of be totally negative, he said. "I mean, I've always had a side of me that's ... that hopes things are going to work out."