Interviewsand Articles

 

Mark Bulwinkle—What Drives Us?: by Richard Whittaker

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 2, 1999


 

 




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 graduating, and a year spent in New York, he moved to the Bay Area. He decided to continue his art education at the San Francisco Art Institute, and in only eight months received his MFA. I remarked it was a pretty quick trip to the degree.
     “Well, I’d been doing a lot of work,” he said.
     No doubt, this was an understatement. A friend of mine had been in the same master’s program at SFAI with Bulwinkle. He told me, “Mark was an unstoppable force. At every critique, he’d haul in just a tremendous load of work. He sort of overwhelmed the art professors. Here was this big guy, and he’d pull out all this work and set it along the walls. Then he’d turn around and exclaim, ‘This is really great, isn’t it!’ and it just shut them all up.”
UNTITLED woodcut, 1983 by Mark Bulwinkle
 Mark Bulwinkle, Untitled, woodcut, 1983
    
     In 1977, Bulwinkle moved to a quiet neighborhood in Oakland. He’d learned to weld soon after leaving the Art Institute and soon his little house on Manila Street was overflowing. Wild sculptures of torch-cut steel poured out into the yard and all available spaces, including the roof of his house. (Steel remains his main medium although he has worked in clay, has occasionally painted and has done many works on paper as well.)
     Bulwinkle’s house on Manila Street quickly became a truly astonishing sight and before long was attracting a steady stream of the curious. 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.”
     But not once, I learned, did a television reporter get to do a story.
     I learned about the television story when, in the course of conversation, I’d asked him something—probably philosophical—like “What do you think the real place of art in our society is today?” Right away, he warmed up to the subject.
Untitled woodcut, 1983, by artist Mark Bulwinkle
 Mark Bulwinkle, Untitled, woodcut, 1983
    
     One reporter had been very persistent, he said. She’d schmoozed and cajoled in an effort to persuade Mark to allow her film crew set up and do a piece for a Bay Area news program. Retelling the story seemed to amuse him. It was more than that, though; from his pauses and the way he searched for the right way of putting it, I could see there was something that went deep in the incident. The reporter had tried one line of reasoning and then another, and finally, at her wit’s end, 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?”
steel shards sculpture, 1987
 Mark Bulwinkle, torch-cut steel, 1997

    Bulwinkle repeated what she’d said as if hearing the pure strangeness of it couldn’t be grasped in just one telling.
     “She just didn’t get it. I wasn’t interested in being on television. That just wasn’t what this is about. She just couldn’t understand that.”
View across sculptor Mark Bulwinkle's Roof, 1997
      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 told me that in response to the question, he’d said, “Why?”
     That caused a short period of silence on the phone. This had to be a question the producer had never 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.”
fence dogs and other creatures, 3/4
    “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 nodded noncommittally.
     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.
untitled woodcut,1983
   Mark Bulwinkle, Untitled, woodcut, 1983


     “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.

Visit Mark Bulwinkle's website
       
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine     

 

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