For more than 40 years, Mark Bulwinkle has lived life on his own terms, doing what he wants to do every day with a unique artistic vision, a welder’s torch, and a Yankee work ethic. His art, especially his cut-steel sculptures, add a genius quirkiness to Berkeley.
Bulwinkle grew up in a house on the Boston Post Road in Weston, Massachusetts. Weston is the wealthiest suburb of Boston and has the highest per capita income in Massachusetts. When Bulwinkle was young, Weston had one of the highest ranked public school systems in Massachusetts.
Next stop for Bulwinkle was the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a BFA in 1968. Pittsburgh impressed Bulwinkle — something about that steel. He describes being in Pittsburgh after a bucolic childhood in Massachusetts as like being on Mars. He then earned a Masters in Fine Arts at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972, focusing on printmaking. He liked San Francisco. He describes it as appearing to a boy from Weston, Massachusetts as “the thirteenth moon of Pluto.”
So far – a fairly normal artistic trajectory, but it changed quickly. Instead of pursuing a career in academia, Bulwinkle enrolled in the John O’Connell trade school in San Francisco and learned industrial welding. He then went to work for Bethlehem Shipbuilding in San Francisco, welding as a member of Local 6 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers & Helpers.
He helped build barges under contract to Crowley Marine, ocean-going barges to carry pipe from Japan to Alaska for the pipeline. Alaska was booming. He worked with very big steel. And in working with very big steel he started to have an idea. His idea was simple – steel is like paper. Why not make art with steel, cutting as if he were cutting paper?
Bulwinkle wasn’t just the first to do what he has done with steel. He was the first and the best. He says: “What I was proud of was introducing to steel skilled cutting and good graphic design as well as a sort of story-telling. I found this missing in the world of sculpture, most of which I still feel is tremendously dumb and boring. There is a sensuousness to cutting steel when you are doing it right. Same goes for welding. Very few people are any good at it. Like any craft, it takes a lot of hanging around the stuff to get any good at it. Most people just get average at it and think that’s it. The advantage of working in a shipyard was that I saw many levels of the craft that you were always trying to get better at.”
At the time, Bulwinkle was living on Manila Street in North Oakland. In his spare time, he built a sprawling garden of steel around his house. People started to pay attention. In 1987 he quit the day job welding and plunged full-time into art – mostly steel, but also woodcuts and ceramic tiles. His images float between happy and manic and maniacal. And as he says, many of his pieces tell a story. His craft is staggering – using a torch to cut intricate designs in steel, working often in negative space, and then repurposing the cut-out negative space into other works. An oxyacetalene torch, a steady hand, good eyesight, and an artistic vision.
Bulwinkle was a big name in the “outsider” art world, so big that Oprah Winfrey’s production staff took notice and invited him onto the show, where he and his work would be seen by 20- or 30-million people. Bulwinkle looked at what William James called the “bitch-godddess success” square in the eye and he passed. No thanks to Oprah. To buy in would be to surrender his freedom, his autonomy. So he said no and on he went doing every day what he wanted to do.
Since 1991 he has lived and worked out of quonset hut on Hannah Street in West Oakland. His work can be seen throughout the Bay Area. There are major installations at the Home Depot shopping center in Emeryville, the Dry Garden Nursery at 6556 Shattuck Avenue, and Jumpin’ Java Coffee at 6606 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland. The latter two are a stone’s throw from the Berkeley line.
In Berkeley, the single largest collection of Bulwinkle art is at Bear Basics, at 2350 Telegraph Ave. This is the original home of Ken Sarachan’s Rasputin’s Records, and Bulwinkle sculptures, commissioned by Sarachan for Rasputin’s, is welded in place. There are more than ten pieces, including these:
Sarachan has also commissioned Bulwinkle work for the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media, under construction at the former Cody’s site on the southwest corner of Telegraph and Haste. There will be a number of Bulwinkle sculptures, including these two:
Bulwinkle’s work can be seen at two Berkeley schools. In the early 1990s, he designed and installed a sign for the Willard School Metal Shop Theater, working pro bono.
At about the same time, Bulwinkle worked with students at Malcolm X School. The students designed pieces which Bulwinkle cut from steel. He found their artistic visions to be aligned with his, especially the younger students. There are more than a dozen pieces mounted at the school garden on Ellis Street, just south of Ashby, including these:
At the north end of the garden, tucked behind the garden shed, is a single piece with Bulwinkle’s signature initials.
Bulwinkle gates and sculptures quirk up a number of Berkeley residences.
You can see photos of the garden pieces at the Sack House Garden website. While on the subject of Bulwinkle in Berkeley gardens, this website shows photos of Bulwinkle work in the garden of Marcia Donahue at 3017 Wheeler.
Other residential installations, which don’t require commentary:
The quantity, the vision, and the craft of Bulwinkle’s work astonishes. I marvel at the freedom with which he has lived his life. He looked at the photos that I had taken of his work and said, “A life well squandered.” When I talked with him about freedom and living life on his own terms, we were standing in the Steel Nursery on Hannah Street. He said: “Sometimes I think I’d trade this for a house in Danville.” He waited a beat and continued, suggesting that I was hearing the prankster Mark – “Just a small house.”
I know that there is more Bulwinkle art in Berkeley, probably a lot more. I count on Berkeleyside readers to clue me in. Bulwinkle’s art is quirk at its finest, its very best.
For a fuller treatment of Mark Bulwinkle and his art, see Quirky Berkeley.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. This is the ninth installment in the series.