A current of creative energy flows through one Memphis family and sparks the imagination of four of the matriarch’s eight children. Decades ago, Willie Bell Fulton and her now deceased husband, Walter Fulton Sr., would discover that something within four of their children needed to be expressed on paper, canvas, fabric, furniture, wall, glass, wood or any other surface.
Walter Fulton Jr. (also known as “Atoosie”), Gloria Fulton, Jerome Fulton and Vickie Fulton each possesses a talent for either drawing, painting, designing, illustrating, cartooning, quilting, sewing, upholstering, crocheting, and simply bringing to life works of art that depict their myriad experiences.
Gloria Fulton calls this talent a “gift” and added that her parents bequeathed one to each of them. “My mother had a thrifty hand; she was creative,” she said. “But painting and construction came from my dad. For example, I remember him painting a portrait of my mom.”
Willie Bell Fulton, who was married to her children’s father for 64 years, busied herself in the early days with cooking, cleaning and sewing clothes to make ends meet in the Hyde Park community. However, she wasn’t aware at that time that her children were budding as young artists – with the exception of Walter Fulton Jr.
“The only child of mine that I really noticed with the talent for art was ‘Tootsie,” she recalled. “I saw a creative spirit in him at an early age. He was a different child. But the others…I was busy at that time taking care of them.”
Now they are making their own mark in the world as individual artists and collectively as the Fulton Four.
Walter ‘Atoosie” Fulton Jr.:
In pursuit of opportunities
It would be futile to try to define Walter Fulton Jr. or attempt to box him into a single category. He has the skills to move linearly or laterally in the art world and has no qualms about taking his art on the road or settling for a stint in a bustling city for artists.
Fulton has lived in Florida 12 years; New York, 5; Los Angeles, 4 ½; Atlanta, 5; and Las Vegas, 2 ½. When he’s back in Memphis, he’s painting, drawing, cartooning, illustrating, designing fashions or sewing clothes and, to no one’s surprise, preparing to globe-trot to the next city for another adventure.
“All my life, I’ve been somewhere,” said Fulton, 64, always in pursuit of making a living even if opportunity isn’t knocking. “You might as well enjoy yourself. God will provide what you need.”
Although Fulton generally follows the market that is conducive to his style of art, the thought he’s had of launching a line of clothing – after designing and manufacturing them – has not faded from memory since he first learned to sew. He hopes to develop the idea into a business and employ people.
“I love to paint and draw, but I would love to manufacture cotton clothes – shirts, pants, dresses and skirts – and be a viable player in the game (the fashion industry),” said Fulton, noting that Memphis is the purveyor of cotton, “so why not use cotton to manufacture clothing?”
Fulton understands the world around him – its beauty, significance and functionality. “Everything you do has art in it,” he said. “The only thing is how do you take it and put it on the market.”
When he was budding as an artist, Fulton received art scholarships from the 10th to the 12th grade at Douglass High School to attend summer school at the former Memphis Academy of Art. After graduating high school in 1968, he received another scholarship to the art school – this time as a bona fide college student.
Like his siblings, Fulton has a spiritual side that radiates when he speaks. He recounted a story that he shared with homeless men, comparing stones to talent.
“I work with the homeless and often tell them about the story of David, how he defeated the giant with five smooth stones. I tell them that the stones are talent and that they have to use their stones to defeat their giants.”
Gloria Fulton Singleton:
Recycling discards into works of art
If art is the explicit purpose of man’s existence on earth, then everything that Gloria Fulton Singleton sees in her mind’s eye can be transformed or repurposed as a work of art. She is the quintessential recycling artist who sees beauty and meaning in discards.
A painter, muralist, interior designer and decorator, woodworker, upholsterer, art teacher and seamstress, Singleton parlays her skills into works of art that are useful, functional and appealing to the homeowner.
“I’ve always been around creative people,” said Singleton, 62, adding a tagline to her style of art: “Fulton’s Art & Home Furnishings.”
The artist attributes her creativity to her mother, a seamstress; her late father, a painter and woodworker; and her late grandmother, a shoemaker. She credits her brothers Walter and Jerome for hewing a path in the arts for her to follow and esteems Estella Cash, who taught sewing in the Hyde Park community.
“If you wanted something, you made it, painted it, or recycled what you had,” said Singleton, drawing her experiences from her youth while growing up in a household of nine other family members. Those early influences, however, would enable her to harness her creative energies.
“I like a beautiful, peaceful and cohesive environment. That’s what I strive for,” said Singleton, who works with children at Mustard Seed Studio teaching them the art of sewing, crocheting and knitting. Her ultimate goal is to teach children and employ women.
Singleton graduated from Douglass High School in 1970 and afterward matriculated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ray Vogue School of Fashion Design in Chicago, the Tennessee Technology Center at Memphis to study carpentry, and the University of Memphis.
Her current focus is on art and home furnishings.
Recreating the Old South in multi-media
There’s a little history and antiquity in the artwork that Jerome Fulton creates. He’ll take you back to the Old South and elsewhere, where life for African Americans is seen through a kaleidoscope in cotton fields and rolling landscapes, where multi-colored, multi-patched quilts are suspended from clotheslines while a slight breeze nip at their fringes, and where the blues reverberates from guitar strings.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Africans, the drums, and their music. It’s part of who we are. It’s in our bloodline,” said Fulton, 60, whose varied images of the Old South speak the language that he conveys on paper, canvas and through various found objects that comprise some of his wood constructions.
It was during the summer months in Clarksdale, Miss., that images of southern life would emerge and eventually become a focal point in some of Fulton’s mixed media paintings and drawings. An aunt, he said, lived in Clarksdale and visits there would open his eyes to a new world, which stirred his interest to recreate the era’s enduring legacy – albeit good or bad for African Americans.
“It was in Clarksdale that I learned to appreciate music, experience the great feel of country air and love for southern folks,” said Fulton. “The first sunset that I saw at the age of 8 inspired me to always look for beauty in colors.”
Fulton is a graduate of Douglass High School. He’d dreamed of creating beautiful works of art on paper, but discovered a watercolor technique that he’d borrowed from his instructors – watercolorists Dolph Smith and Fred Rawlinson – at the former Memphis Academy of Art (Memphis College of Art), where he graduated in 1976.
“I love watercolors,” said Fulton, who took what he learned from his instructors and breathed new life into the fluid technique of watercolors by inserting, transferring or adhering photographic images of rusty shacks, people and building to a watercolor board.
After college, Fulton lived in Chicago for 28 years drawing and illustrating and returned to Memphis 5 years ago to give us a history lesson on southern culture.
Communicating through patchwork quilts
Hand gestures and a radiant expression frames Vickie Fulton’s face when she expounds upon her newly discovered talent for quilting. It had been a long time coming – an innate ability that was once dormant – but the creative urge to speak through her quilts has emboldened her and awakened the artist within.
“When I’m sewing quilts, I’m singing, meditating, praying, and listening to God, and trying to solve the world’s problems,” said Fulton, 58, who took three quilting classes from Anne Harper and Andrew Hayes at the Josephine K. Lewis Center for Senior Citizens at the corner of Bellevue Boulevard and North Parkway.
However, before finding solace in stitching quilts, Fulton taught in the legacy Memphis City Schools for 25 years. She’d devoted considerable time in the classroom teaching the curriculum and imparting to her students a sense of history from an African-American perspective.
Although the field of education was foremost Fulton’s passion, it is quilting that piques her interest of late and imbues her with sheer joy. “I’m still in the line of education,” said Fulton, who delights in designing each quilt in a way that educates, that tells a story.
For example, in “Secret Code Quilt,” the artist stitched a colorful patchwork using images of African American slave quarters and abolitionist Harriett Tubman, each juxtaposed against vibrant colors symbolizing secret messages that were deciphered by slaves seeking to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“When I wake up in the morning, I start quilting and don’t stop until the night,” said Fulton. “In my sleep I’m sewing. I’m always thinking about new projects. My spirit and soul are in my quilts. They are like children.
“It’s therapy to me. I’m engrossed in thought on each piece,” said Fulton, noting that she hasn’t sewn since high school but picked it up in a snap. “I love it. It’s a lost art. And my goal is to bring it back.”
Fulton graduated from Northside High School in 1974, from Southwestern Christian College in 1976 with an associate’s degree in social work, and from Lipscomb University in 1979 with a bachelor’s of art in social work.