Saturday memorial set for former PD art critic Helen Cullinan at Cleveland Museum of Art

Thursday, 22 June 2017, 08:10:21 PM. A memorial will be held Saturday at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the Lecture Hall for Helen Cullinan, Plain Dealer art critic from 1960 to 1995.

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Helen Cullinan, the art critic of The Plain Dealer from 1960 to 1995, is remembered as a cultural advocate who championed the rise of the city's contemporary art gallery scene in Little Italy and Tremont.

Cullinan chronicled everything from exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the era of director Sherman E. Lee to the careers of noted Northeast Ohio artists such as Ken Nevadomi, Shirley Aley Campbell and John Clague.

Cullinan died May 2 at age 86 at the Cleveland Heights home of her sister, Jean House, of complications from lung cancer and Alzheimer's, said her son, Thomas W. Cullinan.

She was interred at Calvary Cemetery, 10000 Miles Ave., Cleveland. Her family requests that contributions should be made in Cullinan's memory to the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Memorial at museum

Cullinan will be remembered Saturday, June 24, in a noon memorial in the Lecture Hall of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland.

Speakers will include former Plain Dealer photographer Bill Wynne, and artists William Martin Jean and Campbell.

"She took the time to write about local artists, and so local art thrived," Thomas Cullinan said. "Art communities were born that are still thriving in Cleveland."

As a writer on art, Cullinan avoided negative comments, her son said.

"She had a policy that if she didn't like an artist's work, she simply didn't write about them," he said. "She had a very strong idea that it was not a good idea to write negatively about someone's work, because you were impacting their means of making a living.''

At times, Cullinan revealed a witty self-awareness of her reticence.

Cullinan on Noguchi

In a column published on Oct. 3, 1976, she said that her readers had been pressing her. What did she really think about Isamu Noguchi's "Portal," the monumental tubular black steel sculpture outside the city-county Justice Center?

"I have been asked it a dozen times," she wrote. "Not just think, but 'really think,' as if evasion and deception were to be abandoned at last for an honest confession."

Answer: She liked it. A lot. She said, "its soaring curves soften the angularity of the Justice Center and complement the neo-classical majesty of the County Court House down the street." And: "It becomes calligraphic, changing from every angle and with every step of the viewer."

From the beginning

Cullinan was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on July 1, 1930, to Frederick Borisuck and the former Irene Gladden, 16 months after the birth of her older sister.

Thomas Cullinan said the marriage ended a year after Helen's birth, when Borisuck, a native of Russia, was deported.

Gladden was married a second time, to Isidore Scharfeld, who worked in circulation for The Cleveland Press, and from whom Helen developed her love of newspapers, Thomas Cullinan said.

According to Plain Dealer records, Cullinan received a bachelor's degree from Flora Stone Mather College, Western Reserve University, and a master of arts degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.


Cullinan worked on the news copy desk of The Cleveland News, an afternoon daily, from 1955 to 1960, Plain Dealer records show.

She had a brief stint at the Miami Herald in 1960, followed by another brief job in public relations at Stouffer Corp. in Cleveland before joining The Plain Dealer in November 1960.

She changed her name to Borsick in 1962, the records show, and in 1966 married the novelist Thomas P. Cullinan, whose Southern Gothic novel of that year, "The Beguiled,'' inspired the 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood.

Penguin reissued the book this year to coincide with remake of the film directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Nicole Kidman.

At Checkpoint Charlie

Among Helen Cullinan's more memorable assignments was a tour of Europe in 1964, in which she recorded what it was like to go behind the Iron Curtain at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

"You queue up, supermarket style, at a small barracks building just inside the border," she wrote.

Once over the line in East Berlin, she observed: "my first question was, 'Where are all the people?' "

Noting that the streets were "nearly deserted," she said the effect of being in the communist city was "strangely quiet, like Euclid Avenue at three in the morning."

The Cullinans had one son, Thomas W., who said he was close to his mother.

Thomas said Helen turned to alcohol around the time of the death of her husband in 1995, but that she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and "gave her life over to a sober lifestyle and enjoying life fully."

A long hike

The beginning of that journey took place a year after her husband's death, when Cullinan went for a two-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia with her son, he said.

"At 5-foot-nothing, she had never camped in her life, but she decided she would join me," he said. "We had a very successful trip. We really got much closer and opened an adult relationship."

Thomas Cullinan said that when his mother died in May, "there was nothing left to say, no regrets. She went peacefully."

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