Jean Schulman: An Alabama Legacy

Jean Ellen Schulman

FLORENCE – Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts is pleased to present a memorial exhibition and sale of works by one of the South’s most recognized artists, Jean Ellen Schulman that begins August 28th and continues through September 30th; a reception will be held Sun., Aug. 28th from 2-4 p.m.  Long recognized in local and state art communities, her work using native north Alabama clays to dye fabric is found in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology, and in more than 100 private and public collections throughout the U.S.  She has won extensive awards for her innovative approach to both education and design including the Alabama Governor’s Award.  Posthumously, Schulman was recently awarded the 2022 Alabama Arts Alliance Legacy Award for her commitment to enriching our community.  Schulman inaugurated the art program at Muscle Shoals High School where she taught for over 20 years.  She considered her work as an educator to be one of her most important contributions to the art world.

Originally from Russellville, Alabama, Schulman earned her BA in Fine Art at Washington University, St. Louis, MO; her MA in Fine Art at University of North Alabama, Florence, AL; and her second MA in Education with majors in English and Art also from UNA.

Schulman first tried using clay as a dye when she visited a friend’s classroom to give a batik demonstration and saw little jars of clay.  She dipped a brush in the jars, painted on her fabric and was instantly won over.  “When you put color from the ground on fabric, it looks quite different from synthetic dye,” she said.  She used clay dug from the vibrant Alabama dirt for fabric dye in her batik paintings.  While Alabama is known for its deep, red clay soil, Schulman’s batiks include shades of red, yellow, brown, pink, purple, gray, and green.  A native of Franklin County, she said her home area has provided a wealth of clays.  At one site, she was able to collect about 25 colors in an area about the size of a football field.  “I use only water and clay.  You can’t mix it like paint.  If you do, you get mud.”

“It started as a whim, but I kept working that way,” she said.  “You can’t really imagine until you see a synthetic dye next to a clay dye, and one of them just looks like it’s alive.”  Her technique eventually earned a spot for five of her works in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.

The subjects of Schulman’s paintings include flowers, musical instruments, animals, landscapes, people, and abstract designs.  Often, she said, she doesn’t set out with a specific image in mind but just starts putting down colors and waits to see if anything jumps out at her.  “When I did the first batik I loved it.”  Schulman said, “And you would have to love it to do it because of the time it takes and the mess it makes.”  For many years, Jean Schulman graced us with her presence and support.  She is truly missed. 

The Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts is free and open to the public Monday - Friday from 9-4 and on Sundays from 1-4. The art center is located at 217 E. Tuscaloosa St. Florence, AL and can be reached at 256-760-6379.