When I told my mentor Sally Woodbridge about my then-nascent plan for Quirky Berkeley, the first thing that she said was “Mark Bulwinkle.” I now know why. To see the work of Mark Bulwinkle is to see just how much a person can accomplish in a lifetime. Especially if he is a genius. And especially if he has a Yankee work ethic – which means he works very hard – and doesn’t watch television. And more especially if he lives life on his own terms.
Warning right here and now though – this post is longer than most if not all other postings. Bulwinkle’s work commands it.
He tells his life story here. I tell it here.
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 and Big Steel were going strong then.
It impressed Bulwinkle. Something about that steel. He describes being in Pittsburgh after a bucolic childhood in Massachusetts as like being on Mars.
He earned a Masters in Fine Arts at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972. Printmaking was his field. He liked San Francisco. He describes it as appearing to a boy from Weston, Massachusetts as “the thirteenth moon of Pluto.” The prankster in Bulwinkle emerges in this description. Pluto has only five known moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. One suspects he knows this.
After getting his degree, Bulwinkle immersed himself in ceramics at the Institute as taught by Richard Shaw. In the loose sense of the term, Bulwinkle audited Shaw’s class. He read what Shaw said about making ceramics and then used Shaw’s studio when others weren’t using it – at night. To this day, Bulwinkle credits Shaw for what he knows about ceramics.
So far – a fairly normal artistic trajectory. Which all changed quickly.
He attended the John O’Connell trade school in San Francisco and learned industrial welding. And then he 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 he 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.”
He started making art with steel. In 1987 he quit the wage-slave day gig 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.
The cut steel was his invention, his baby. An oxyacetalene torch, a steady hand, good eyesight, and an artistic vision.
There now exists a steel-cutting technology that enables a person with no artistic vision or skill to kick out cut-steel images. He says, “The inverter plasma torch tied to a computer stole my lunch and fed it to their dog. How could I not have been upset as I watched this happen? The value of my work as art was devoured by that same dog as everyone thought they had discovered my “trick.” He considers the many bad Bulwinkle knock-offs out there to be plagiarism. Plain and simple.
From 1975 until 1991 he lived on Manila Street in North Oakland. The steel jungle that he build around and above his house astonished.
In the 1980s, Bulwinkle was Very Large. He was repped by eight galleries across the country.
He was a big name in the art world, so big that Oprah’s production staff took notice and invited him onto the show, where he and his work would be seen by 20,000,000 or 30,000,000 people. Bulwinkle looked 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 no he said and on he went doing every day what he wanted to do.
He left Manila Street in 1991 in the midst of a personal storm he’d rather forget. Today he lives and work in a quonset hut on Hannah Street in West Oakland. From the air:
He estimates that 5% of the work he has produced over the years is in his yard and shop. There are hundreds of tons of steel in his yard and shop. This is 5%, so that means this times 20. Yikes!
Much of his work is in a double-wide lot immediately east of the quonset hut; he calls the lot the Steel Nursery. Bulwinkle is an inspired gardener and the Steel Nursery blends with exotic plants. Steel being steel, rust is part of the deal:
This happy man lived at the Dry Garden (see below) for years. He wore out his welcome and came home.
Yes, a pile of mostly old bicycles.
Working with steel requires good boots. Good boots wear out. Good worn out boots can be sculpture too:
Sometimes Bulwinkle paints his pieces. Here are some from the outside garden. Birds and flowers are big in his universe:
Parked in the main garden is a small teardrop trailer which was home for Bulwinkle for some years.
Fair enough. I wonder what an artist like Mark Bulwinkle does with the interior of a little trailer like this. Maybe a couple pastels, understated, calm? Maybe not:
Yes – all together now – HOLY MACKERELl!
Inside the quonset hut is, if anything, more amazing than the outside garden and Steel Nursery. There are large industrial tools everywhere. And art everywhere.
Mostly but not all his. Works in progress. Work from 40 years ago. Work from last month. Steel and tin and wood block and ceramic and prints and postcards and wood. Tons of steel waiting for the torch, wood. And an orange cat. One third of the hut is open to the ceiling, and two thirds has a second level.
This is one of the first cut-outs he made. It might be the very first. You can see the inspiration from paper cut-outs, especially papel picado from Mexico.
This is a print from the 1970s. He has lots of them.
A woodblock from the early 1970s when Bulwinkle tried New York. A week of carving – very intricate.
And then a little bit of the lots of stuff there is:
Across Hannah Street is another Bulwinkle lot.
There are cranes and racks of steel and a slutted out car and truck or two and a great fig tree under which his two loved Boxers from the old days are buried.
And there is a shipping container. He lived here for a while after his divorce and before the teardrop trailer that he bought for almost nothing after the pimp who used the trailer as a mini brothel on wheels died (I think that is the story).
There is a VERY BIG dog and other pieces. Is there no end?
UPDATE ON 3223 HANNAH:
In the late summer and fall of 2015, Bulwinkle sold 3223 and cleared the lot. As in – moved it all a little north to a second lot. This is what it looked like when he cleaned it up:
Nary a trace.
But, back across the street – Jesus – taking in all the art on Hannah Street is more than a little bit like trying to drink from a firehose. Maybe you should stop, listen to Highway 61 Revisited, and then come back.
Bulwinkle’s work is all over the Bay Area. When you went to Sports Authority or the Home Depot off San Pablo in Emeryville, you may have seen work by Bulwinkle. Here is the setting:
And here is the art:
Working our way towards Berkeley on Shattuck, just – and I do mean JUST – before you get to Berkeley – within throwing distance of Berkeley, are two businesses with substantial Bulwinkleana. First, the Dry Garden Nursery at 6556 Shattuck. Here are the Bulwinkle pieces that I saw there. There might be more.
Bulwinkle postcards are sold in the office.
Outside the office Bulwinkle tiles are sold.
Because your car is pointed south and you want to go north, you turn left on Fairview to turn around. Although you are in Oakland and outside the normal rules of engagement, you do not have to ignore a glorious piece of Bulwinkle right there:
Mike Couzens and Adi Givens live here. Adi does archival work for Pacfica. Mike is a communication lawyer with an office on Telegraph. He helped Bulwinkle out on a copyright infringement issue and the art followed. Bulwinkle admires them, their work, and their generosity when times were tight (which he says “for me has been most of the time”). It is a stunning, bright piece.
Turning north on Shattuck, a few doors farther north at 6606 Shattuck, now within spitting distance of the Oakland/Berkeley line, is Jumpin’ Java Coffee. Bulwinkle and Jumpin’ Java owner Mike Dawoud are friends. Dawoud showcases local artists and there is a permanent showing of Bulwinkle work.
You can buy it. Or at least some of it.
First – the front windows and the front door.
And smaller pieces throughout. Wow. That’s all I could say when I went in for the first time. Wow.
Which brings us, at long last, to Berkeley and to Bulwinkle in Berkeley. I would like to start with Bulwinkle in businesses. They are easy to see and there are lots of pieces in each.
Bear Basics on the southwest corner of Telegraph and Durant (2350 Telegraph) was the original site for Rasputin’s, now a block south on Telegraph. Rasputin’s is owned by Ken Sarachan, a well-known figure of Telegraph Avenue. He is sometimes a patron of the arts. For example, he hired cartoonist Dan Meth to design an advertisement for Rasputin’s in Newark:
And to design the graphics for a never-built Rasputin’s pinball machine.
And more importantly for our purposes, Sarachan installed a number of Bulwinkle pieces at the original Rasputin’s, still part of the decor at Bear Basics.
Sarachan also owns the Cody’s bookstore building at Telegraph and Haste.
The Cody’s Books building on the southwest corner of the cursed corner of Telegraph and Haste has been empty and in decline since Cody’s closed in 2006. Ken Sarachan owns the property and is in the midst of major renovation of the space, creating the Mad Monk Center for Anachronistic Media. The Center will include a restaurant, performance space, a flower stand, coffee to-go, and a record store – as in records, as in vinyl. And – most importantly here – a good amount of Bulwinkle art.
I haven’t gotten into the building during renovations to see the Bulwinkle art, but Mark took pictures and says I can post them. So here they are:
As in: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
It is great to see Moe at Cody’s. Pat Cody, who with husband Fred Cody founded and ran the store, wrote a 206-page history of the store, which co-existed with Moe’s for decades on Telegraph. She did not mention Moe once. Not even once. Which is why it is great to see him here.
And M for Mark!
The bathroom, one famous for its free-speech blackboard, will show us Bulwinkle tile.
Sarachan’s patronage of Bulwinkle is what Martha Stewart would call a good thing. I would call it a good thing too.
Three more stops before residential Bulwinkle art. The first is south on Telegraph a few blocks. In 1994, Mark Bulwinkle created a sign for the Willard School Metal Shop Theater. He describes the project as pro bono. The junior high theater’s website informs that “weird is normal here.” Appropriate for Bulwinkle art.
This photo was the original configuration. The roof over the entrance is gone.
This is what it looks like now.
Keeping with the school theme, just south of Ashby on the east side of the Malcolm X School is a school garden. In the 1990s, Bulwinkle worked with children from the school on steel sculptures for the garden. The students designed, Bulwinkle executed. He enjoyed the project, and found the imaginations of the first and second grade students to be fantastic.
The gate to the garden:
Joyful! On fence posts on three sides of the garden fence are small steel sculptures that Bulwinkle and the students made. Below are four of the best, with the others – all very good – in a separate post.
Last stop before residential Bulwinkle, a live-work space on Dwight. Helen Holt’s Helly Welly Lamp Shop at 1649 Dwight is a True Marvel of Quirk which will soon be featured as a major quirky destination. Helen attended the San Francisco Art Institute and studied print-making at more or less the same time that Mark Bulwinkle was blazing his way through, and in her store she displays several Bulwinkle prints from those early, SFAI days.
And so, without further ado, Bulwinkle in residential settings in Berkeley. Up on what they used to call “Nut Hill” you will find the Maybeck Sack House. At the Maybeck Sack House you will find Bulwinkle work.
There are other Bulwinkle pieces in the garden. You can see photos of the garden pieces, not visible from the street and so out of bounds for me, at the Sack House Garden website.
Speaking of Berkeley gardens, there is a variety of Bulwinkle’s art in the garden, home, and studio of Marcia Wheeler, who opens her garden at 3017 Wheeler to the public on Sunday afternoons. His signature steel work is front and center, especially on her back deck:
In the front yard you can see Bulwinkle stone work (Donahue’s art-form at the time) and metal bamboo:
Mary Kate Morris and Dan Werthimer live at 2375 Cedar, on the northwest corner of Cedar and Scenic. Their house is a major quirky site in of itself, and among the art in and around their house are a number of Bulwinkle pieces. On the porch, visible from the street:
Quirky Berkeley rules forbid showing art inside houses. Rules are made to be broken, and so here we go – Bulwinkle inside their home:
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.” Ha! 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, “Sometime 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.” Ha!
I know that there is more Bulwinkle in Berkeley. I have a few leads. I will add as I find.
Here is something that the vast Quirky Berkeley community can do – tell me where to find more Bulwinkle in Berkeley. PLEASE.
My friend has heard me talking about Bulwinkle pretty much non-stop for the last month. “Dude, are you crushing on him or what????” he asked me. At this point, my friend had not seen the photos. He put down the Time/Life Science Library book that he had been looking at and looked at the photos – Drugs.
He was quiet, very quiet. Then he said, “I get it dude. How can you not crush on this work? It is far out. Very very far out.” For once, it seemed like he was not going to give this the ultimate approval. He did, though, and his three words took on an entire new meaning: