Gale Fulton Ross On Life's Work As An Artist & Civil Rights Activist
Gale Fulton Ross, “Woe In Yellow” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND THE CONVERSE LIBRARY, MASSACHUSETTS
Gale Fulton Ross discusses her precious life’s work as a multimedia visual artist and fierce civil rights activist.
“There have been many times when I had to make a choice between Titanium White and tuna fish,” reveals Gale Fulton Ross (@galefultonross), speaking from Camarillo, Calif., where she is an artist-in-residence at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center (studiochannelislands.org). “I chose painting every time.”
That was unusual for any woman, let alone a Black woman, in the late 1960s and 1970s. In her late teens, Fulton Ross had also become a mother and wife. Those circumstances still didn’t stop her from pursuing art. Being a Black artist, especially then, however, did require her to shift gears.
Gale Fulton Ross PHOTO OF ROSS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
When she was told that to be successful in art school she would have to essentially not paint Black people, she left. With her mother and then mother-in-law helping with her son to make the impossible possible, that was not an easy decision to make. But the responsibility of the work wouldn’t let her stay.
“Because I had looked at books and saw very little work by African American artists, and I had been to museums and galleries (because I had an aunt who liked to take me to those places), and I didn’t see much of us, I didn’t know there were many before me. So, I thought it was my job to make art that demonstrated the dignity of Black people,” she explains.
In season three of her only child Craig Ross Jr.’s ALLBLK hit series Monogamy—starring Jill Marie Jones, Darius McCrary, Vanessa Simmons, Brian White, and more—her daughter-in-law Caryn Ward [Ross’] character, Sincere, is accepting that she is an artist and Fulton Ross’ work is her finished canvas.
Gale Fulton Ross, “Nobody Knows What I’m Thinking...” (2021). PHOTO OF “NOBODY KNOWS WHAT I’M THINKING...” COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND THE CONVERSE MUSEUM, MASSACHUSETTS
“My mother is the artist that I aspire to be. She is 10,000 times the artist I will ever be,” filmmaker Craig Ross Jr. says. “Growing up, [I watched] her do her thing and all the issues that she had to go through, being a woman of color who was also an artist. ... She started her career as almost an activist kind of artist in the ’60s and ’70s. This was poignant for me. It was really, really impactful.”
Fulton Ross’ résumé is impressive, especially since she forged her own path so independently without gallery representation. She has been commissioned to paint such luminaries as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who actually sat in person for her) and has studied in such coveted places as Italy. The Oakland Museum of California and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles are among the many places her work has been exhibited. Recently, the Converse Memorial Building and Malden Public Library in her native Malden, Mass., where a librarian displayed her first drawing as a child, became yet another permanent collection to acquire her work. There, her acclaimed “Woe in Yellow” resides. She is the first Black woman artist to exhibit her work on Palm Avenue in Sarasota, which is her longtime permanent residence, as well as the first Black woman to open a gallery there with her Fulton- Burt Gallery.
Gale Fulton Ross, “Artist Beauford Delaney” (2020). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
For as long as she can remember, Fulton Ross knew she was an artist. Her father, Herman Fulton Jr., a body and fender mechanic by day, but a self-taught draftsman who designed cars and furniture in his home at night, called her “my baby artist” in affirmation, and allowed her to create alongside him. When he took his life while she was chasing her dream in New York City, none other than the legendary James Baldwin helped her gain perspective and get back on track, even with a hole in her heart.
“We used to go to this club, Mikell’s. And that’s where I met, [well] we called him Jimmy Baldwin. His brother David was a bartender [there]. And, in Mikell’s, which was an after-hours jazz club, you saw everybody. I would go in the door and Miles Davis would be going in and out that door,” she recalls.
One night in 1978, she sat next to Baldwin and introduced herself as an artist. “We just started talking so I told him about my father: ‘He took his life, and I didn’t say the right thing that day or I didn’t do something.’ And James Baldwin took a drag on his cigarette and rolled his eyes at me and said something like, ‘What the hell? He’s a Black man in America. He was tired. He was probably so damn tired. ... Do you know how hard it is to be a Black man in America?’ He said, ‘It’s not you; that’s your ego thinking you could have done anything for him. There’s nothing you could have done.’”
Gale Fulton Ross, “Writer James Baldwin” (2020) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
That conversation helped transform Fulton Ross. “He gave me a strength that was unbelievable that evening,” she says. And, over 30 years later, she has been hard at work on her exhibit The Consequence of Chaos: James Baldwin and Friends in the Time of Jim Crow honoring him and other activist Black artists and thinkers. George Floyd’s killing, as well as others, has brought a new urgency to her work that COVID-19 has unexpectedly given her the time to honor. Over 50 years later, Fulton Ross is still here. It has not always been an easy journey, but it’s one she could not have done differently.
“When you recognize who you are, and you’re honest with yourself, then you know what you can do and what you can’t do. I used to beat myself up because I recognized early on that I couldn’t be the best mother, sister, daughter, friend because I wanted to be the best artist I could be,” she says. “Yes, I chose art over a lot of things, but I did not forget who I was or where I came from.”