Faculty member B.J. Bullert’s art imitates her life—in both, she works to inspire social change

Photo of BJ Bullert, Photo Credit: Joseph Hudson
Filmmaker BJ Bullert, Photo Credit: Joseph Hudson

A core faculty member in the Undergraduate Studies program at Antioch University Seattle, B.J. Bullert is also a communication scholar and documentary filmmaker.

Her company, Seattle Films, is dedicated to producing works about the Pacific Northwest, including Chief Seattle and Fishermen’s Terminal.

Her latest short film, Space Needle: A Hidden History, focuses on the inspiration for the iconic building’s unique shape. It’s the result of her quest to understand how the Space Needle’s design came to be. The story is told through on-camera interviews, archival footage, and poetry and dance commissioned for the project.

She discovered architect Victor Steinbrueck was inspired to add curves to the original drawing of the Space Needle based on a wooden sculpture, “The Feminine One.”

“This project has been in gestation for 20 years,” said Bullert of the 18-minute film, released this year.

Her current film is a follow-up to an earlier short film, Space Needle at 40, released in 2002. In that film, she imagined the Space Needle as a woman turning 40.

Space Needle
Photo Credit: Joseph Hudson

“She went from the exuberance and excitement of youth, symbolic of the opening of the World’s Fair, and quickly transitioned into what happens later in life when romantic illusions fall away, as they did during the Vietnam War era. That story of the Space Needle was about the markers in one’s life.”

When she learned about” The Feminine One” she thought of the Space Needle as gendered for the next couple of decades. Through 9/11, she went on, the Space Needle was there, as if she were watching.

The Feminine One
Photo Credit: Dale Cotton

“I thought of it as a constant presence, this female gaze,” she said. “The Space Needle was the tallest babe in town, rapidly dwarfed by gigantic buildings—but it was still a presence.”

It’s been a presence in her own life. Even when Bullert was a bi-coastal resident, she kept a place in Seattle, returning home while teaching at Muhlenberg College and American University, and a fellowship at Harvard.

“One night, a full moon was shining on the water, the shape of the Space Needle in the background,” she said, explaining that such imagery made this film a visually-driven story.

“The timing was right to make the film because now is a time when women are rising and coming into their own on many different fronts, especially in politics,” she said.

Syvilla Fort
Syvilla Fort, source unknown

One of the hidden histories discovered making the latest film is about Syvilla Fort (1917-1995), the Seattle-born, African American dancer who graduated from Cornish College for the Arts, whose fellow students included Merce Cunningham and John Cage.

“Syvilla brought Afro-Caribbean and modern dance together,” said Bullert. “Her generous spirit represents the good in Seattle—it’s what The Space Needle should represent.”

She commissioned two new works that were included in the project: Seattle Poet Jourdan Imani Keith reads her poem, “A Ticket Up: For Syvilla Fort, Ballerina,” and Nia-Amina Minor choreographed and performed the poem. The music is by composer and cellist, Gretchen Yanover.

The film features interviews with Jeff Wright, Chair, Space Needle Corporation LLC; David Martin, art historian and curator, Cascadia Art Museum; and Peter Steinbrueck, son of Victor Steinbrueck.

For Bullert, the serious pivot in the film came from art historian David Martin, who noted how viewers project meaning into what they see, and perhaps that’s what the artist wanted. That pivot connects Syvilla Fort, artwork, and the Needle’s shape.

Bullert’s hope is that her film will change the way the public looks at the Space Needle by enhancing understanding of the arts, heritage and a plurality of Seattle’s identities during a period of rapid growth and change.

Working at Antioch, she aims to further connect her professional work as a documentary filmmaker with her work as a teacher.

“I always believe in keeping creative work alive while teaching—it creates a synergy,” said Bullert. “It models for students how to be creative and critical thinkers at the same time.”