The news came Wednesday night via e-mail: Dan Tulk had been killed in a car accident. It’s understandable if his name doesn’t ring a bell. Local arts coverage tends to shine brightest on a select few, and Tulk was an emerging artist, just stepping into the faint edge of the light.
The missive was from Dan’s wife, Erin—-sent to Jeffry Cudlin, Sam Scharf, and me—-requesting help to install a couple of his works for a memorial celebration on Saturday. We had all met Dan this summer during the installation and exhibition of “Planning Process” at Arlington Arts Center. Cudlin was the Director of Exhibitions at AAC at the time; Scharf, Tulk, and I had all been juried into the exhibition by Helen Allen. Given the timeline, we barely knew him. But because of his friendly and genuine nature, we all looked forward to getting to know him over the coming years.
Typical of many Gen Xers, Dan kind of poked around throughout most of his 20s: waiting tables, doing odd jobs, hiking, and rooting for home teams. It changed when he met his wife-to-be, who was finishing a law degree. As their relationship got serious, Dan decided to go back to school at George Mason University, where he eventually caught the art bug in a sculpture class taught by Peter Winant. He graduated with an art degree, but took time off to be a stay-at-home dad after his first child was born. Eventually he worked in IT. Then, in 2009, as if a switch flipped, he began making art again.
Though we met and chatted over an exchange of tools during the installation of “Planning Process,” we didn’t really talk until the opening. There was something about his work that I recognized, but I couldn’t place it. “Planning Process” was his second show, and first in the area.
Later that summer I stopped into DCAC’s annual “Wall Mountables,” a show where artists pay a pittance for a square foot of wall. It’s a meat market of mostly bad work and clutter. Even good works by serious artists can look trampy next to some stoner’s mushroom doodle. But there are always artists who make it work. In my City Lights pick of the show, I found a few artists I liked. Stepping in for a closer view of my favorite pieces, I laughed: I should have known they belonged to Tulk.
In August, writing a piece about the Post’s reboot of Real Art DC, I referenced an earlier article I had written about the first installment. For that first edition, I had selected 10 artists whom I thought deserved attention. First on my list was an artist who used the handle dant2. It was Dan Tulk. After he returned to art, Real Art was the first time he submitted his artwork to any kind of show or review process. He did it without expectations. His work stood apart from many of the submissions because they were clearly ephemeral commonplace objects, organized for a brief period of time, only to be repurposed for another piece later. I not only liked the work, I liked the methodology.
Given his Mason background, it makes sense that Tulk was a minimalist. I’ve taught there. All students in the art program eventually read Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book about conceptual artist Robert Irwin. Not all of the students buy into it, but some do. It’s possible Tulk found beauty in common objects before Mason, but his penchant for it was evident in his work. Among some of his works installed at Arlington Arts Center was a grid of nails, with string woven throughout. Yeah, in a way it borrowed from one of the cliches of minimalism: “string art.” But minimalism done well is anything but minimal in its execution, and his grid of 22 nails across and down—-as well as his weaving—-indicated he was not involved in some frivolous relationship with a movement. He was committed to an idea of letting commonplace objects and events transcend their material nature. His artwork was invested in the sublime.
Some of Tulk’s recent shows were of the come-one-come-all variety: “Wall Mountables,” the WPA’s “Flat File” at (e)merge, “Artomatic” in Frederick. But that didn’t mean people didn’t notice. Monday. he learned his work had been accepted to an exhibition in New York, juried by Margot Norton, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Considering his drive and the attention he was getting, Tulk wanted to make documentation of the work appear more professional. Going by the images on his website, it was evident that he worked out of his garage—-an unfinished space with unpainted drywall and bags of dirt and mulch piled up in a corner. Though the wall adds to the deliberate rawness of his work, messy drywall can be distracting to a picky juror. Tulk wanted to paint his garage white, and was on an errand to get paint Tuesday, when his vehicle was struck head-on by a dump truck on U.S. 29. The artist, much like his work, was with us for only a brief time. And then, he was gone.
Dan is survived by his wife and three children.
A memorial for Tulk will take place 12:15 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at The Mason Inn Conference Center & Hotel’s Grand Ballroom in Fairfax. Several of his works will be on view. Other pieces are on exhibit in the group show “Utopias” at John A. Cade Center for Fine Arts Gallery at Anne Arundel Community College to Dec. 9.