Mark Bulwinkle at his studio in West Oakland, CA 1997
While Mark Bulwinkle was a student at the University of Pittsburgh his eyes were opened to the world of art. In 1972, four years after his BA and after a year spent in New York, he moved to the Bay Area where he continued his art education at the San Francisco Art Institute. At SFAI, he managed to complete his MFA in only eight months. It was a pretty quick trip to the degree, I suggested. "Well, I’d been doing a lot of work," he said. A substantial understatement, no doubt. A friend of mine happened to have been in the same master’s degree program there with Mark. He told me, "Mark was an unstoppable force. At every critique, he’d haul in just a tremendous amount of work. He really sort of overwhelmed the teachers there. Here was this big guy, and he’d pull out all this work and set it along the walls and turn around and exclaim, ‘This is really great, isn’t it!’ and it just shut them all up."
In 1977, Bulwinkle moved to a quiet and tidy neighborhood in Oakland. Soon after leaving the Art Institute he'd gotten a job at the Navy shipyards in SF where he learned to weld and soon his little house on Manila Street was sprouting all kinds of sculpture with wild pieces of torch-cut steel extending from all available surfaces, including his roof. (Steel is the artist's primary medium although he also makes prints, works in clay and paints.)
Bulwinkle’s house quickly
became an astonishing sight and began attracting a steady stream of the curious. It had become a tourist attraction. Television people began to appear at his door. Can we interview you? Do a piece for Channel Five
"How long did this go on?" I asked him.
"Let’s see. I lived there from 1977 to 1991, and it went on
the whole time." And not once did a television reporter get to do a story.
The television matter came up when, in the course of conversation, I’d asked him something like what he thought the real place of art in our society was today, a question that could easily lead one to television. He really warmed up to the subject.
One reporter had been very persistent, he said. She’d schmoozed and cajoled hoping to persuade him to allow her crew to set to film a piece for a local news program. Retelling the story seemed to amuse him. It was more than that, though; he became thoughtful. From the pauses and the way he searched for the right way of putting it, I could see there was something deep he was trying to say. She'd used one argument, then another, he told me. Then finally, at her wit’s end and completely frustrated, she’d thrown down her last, most compelling card: "Well, why did you make all this work if you didn’t want to be on television
He repeated this, as if to savor the pure strangeness of her proposition. "She just didn’t get it. How that just wasn’t what it was about. She just couldn’t understand that."
A number of months later I happened to run into Mark having breakfast at a local restaurant. He had a story for me. He’d gotten an inquiry from the Oprah Winfrey show, could you believe
? Would he be interested in making an appearance there? He paused to let me get the picture: Oprah Winfrey
He told me, "I asked the caller: Why
It had caused a period of silence on the other end of the phone. It probably wasn’t a question the producer had ever faced before. But it didn’t take her long to get right to the point. "Well, twenty or thirty million people would see your art
"Twenty or thirty million," he repeated, in an even tone, looking at me in a way meant to convey the downright head-pounding challenge such an offer presented. "Did I understand?" his expression seemed to ask. I felt he wanted a response from me and I nodded non-committally, not quite understanding where he was going with this.
He continued, "Well, just this morning I made a little note for myself," he said, and pantomimed his big hands writing on a little pad of paper. "You know what it said?"
I shook my head.
"All that was written on this note," he said—and he raised his hand up as if to read what he’d written— "All it said was Oprah, no
…That’s what I’d written there. Just, Oprah, no
I tried to read his face for a clue. Joke? Man of principle? Scale tipped after a mighty internal struggle? Hopeless dreamer? All of the above? Finally, I just laughed. Bulwinkle smiled broadly.
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