Wall to wall: Artist Jacob Cullers has expanded his work to murals, on view from Niantic to Groton
The side of the building that houses the Outer Light Brewing Company in Groton has transformed into a literal work of art. Set against the deep blue background painted on the wall are the words “Greetings from Groton,” with the letters of “Groton” oversized and almost bubble-like, each filled with some image related to the city — the Gold Star Bridge and the Fort Griswold Monument among them, both set against an idyllic light-blue sky. Below that is a painting of a submarine for the city dubbed the Submarine Capital of the World.
This mural, completed in late June, is just the latest by local artist Jacob Cullers. His first was at Niantic Public House, where the walls are now highlighted by Cullers’ work, including his take on Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Cullers also does the can art for Niantic Public House, where his wife is taproom manager and where he works once a week.
Cullers left his artistic imprint last year on the Niantic Children’s Museum, where an exterior wall has become an undersea world of wonder, depicting whales and sharks and shipwrecks and treasure.
“So slowly but surely, it’s kind of spreading out,” said Cullers, who lives in Groton.
Murals are a new aspect of Cullers’ career. He creates conceptual art at his State Street studio in New London. He teaches oil painting and drawing foundations at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and drawing at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich.
Doing the murals, he said, is “a good side hustle.”
The mural at Outer Light is the largest one he’s done so far, at 25-by-50 feet.
He knew the business’s owners, and they wanted a mural with a “Welcome to Groton” kind of vibe.
Tom Drejer, an owner of Outer Light Brewing Company, said the concept of the brewery having a mural had been percolating for a while.
“We really wanted to do something for the community. Being a brewery, breweries are nice little community-supporting centers. It’s something we thought would be really neat, especially since we’ve been in the city for probably nine years at this point,” Drejer said.
“We were excited to do something that paid homage to everything that happens in and around Groton. … It came out great.”
While it is Groton-focused, it also features, for instance, the Coast Academy Academy, which can be seen across the Thames River from Groton. Drejer noted that the Coast Guard is a big part of the community as well, and a lot of people from the Coast Guard come into Outer Light.
Outer Light is planning to do an event in September or October that would include a ribbon-cutting for the mural and the creation of a special beer release.
In developing murals, Cullers said, the site’s owners will usually come up with an idea, and he and they will go back and forth discussing it.
“I have a masters in painting, so I pride myself on the fact I can basically paint anything. So whatever the client wants, I’m able to work with that,” said Cullers, who has earned a bachelor of fine arts degree with a minor in art history from the University of Hartford in 2015 and a masters of letters in painting from the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland in 2016.
He tends not to pre-sketch.
“I can kind of be intuitive and creative while I’m doing it,” he said.
The Outer Light mural took about a month to complete. Cullers had to rent a manlift to paint it all.
“Each one, I learn a little more about how to make the process a little bit smoother,” he said, mentioning as examples learning to be flexible and be able to adapt and edit on the fly.
The Outer Light mural has garnered good public response online and in person. People have taken selfies in front of it. When Cullers was painting the mural, Groton town historian Jim Streeter would stop by and watch as he worked.
Another brewery has contacted Cullers about a possible mural this summer.
He said that how much he gets paid depends on the project and the scale of the mural.
Working on murals, he said, “gets me out of the studio. It kind of helps me to flex my skills in a way that I don’t here (in the studio).”
In 2021, Cullers had a solo show at Real Art Ways in Hartford, after being one of five people selected to receive the 2020 Real Art Award.
But he acknowledges that trying to get exhibitions for his art or galleries to represent him can be tough.
“I have probably 200 emails of rejection letters. Being an artist, it’s difficult and humbling,” he said. “… Luckily, I’m able to teach and do the murals.”
A response to grief
Cullers, who grew up in Waterford, was drawn to art after serving four years in the Air Force. During his time in the military, he was stationed at Camp Bucca, the largest detainee facility in Iraq. On his return stateside, he became a student at Three Rivers.
His art became a way for him to deal with his grief and anger after his brother, Ari, was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2011.
In a 2016 interview with The Day when his work was exhibited at Three Rivers, Cullers said, “Really the only good thing that came from it is that I did have painting at the time to express how I felt. It’s been an ongoing process and struggle with it. I always say, ‘Paint or die.’ That’s my motto. If I didn’t have painting at the time of my brother’s death, I don’t know where I would be right now.”
Culler said now that “I always have this internal dialogue fight of making commercial work that sells compared to staying to my true self and what got me into this. My early work had to do with my time in Iraq and losing my brother in Afghanistan, so a lot of it was pretty heavy. I kind of got exhausted of painting about that and having to tell my story alongside of the art, instead of letting the art be what it is.”
He has shifted his focus and, since the Trump administration, has been using his art to critique “this far-right aesthetic of patriotism and nationalism. It all started really with: ‘Your brother died for this country.’ It was like, Why is this country so great that my brother had to die for it? … That made me step back and start looking at the systems in place.”
The subjects Cullers is exploring now often center on gun violence and what he calls “this fragile masculinity.” The artistic style he uses is markedly different from his murals and includes found images and other materials that create layered paintings.
Cullers hopes to continue both creating murals and making his own personal work. He’d like to find a gallery to represent him as an artist.
“Hopefully, if I can make a living doing what I love, that would be kind of complete freedom for me,” he said.
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