His name is unforgettable, and so is his art. Mark Bulwinkle is the artist behind those whimsical steel plate silhouettes scattered around the East Bay Bridge Shopping Center. His “The Traffic Jam” pieces are arguably the lone bright spot in an otherwise dated looking strip mall.
Now seventy, Mark still resides nearby at his West Oakland compound on Hannah Street. “Bulwinkleland” is a sort of labyrinth and museum of his work all wrapped into one. Bulwinkle “the inventor of rust” lives life on his own terms and has inspired many including the founders of the nearby Crucible industrial arts school.
We had the pleasure of touring Bulwinkleland while inquiring about a commissioned piece for the neighborhood dog park we’ve been trying to coordinate (Warning: Not all his pieces are rated PG ;).
A native of New England, Bulwinkle received a BFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1968. He moved to the Bay Area in 1972 and earned a MFA in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1975, he enrolled in the welding trade and took a job at the Bethlehem Shipyards in SF where he worked for 12 years.
This experience as a ship welder drew him to working in torch-cut metal and inspired his creative path as a sculpture. At the age 40, he decided to turn his creative passion into his full-time profession.
Bulwinkle acquired some property in West Oakland (back when things were more “affordable”) and has expanded his lot over time. He initially used it for storage, but eventually made it his personal dwelling that now spans an entire acre.
His living quarters is a 7,000 square foot prefabricated military Quonset Hut made of corrugated galvanized steel. He sleeps in a retrofitted camper that he explained was once a “whore-house” that he bought from a neighbor for $80. “It was the nicest little place I’ve ever lived!”
The below 1998 episode of the Canadian show Weird Homes provides a glimpse of his compound and lifestyle. “I don’t have a door bell,” he explains to the host Arthur Black. “I tell people If they need me, they can throw rocks.”
“All the work is autobiography in some sense” citing his inspiration for his characters. “people that I’ve known.” Other features of Bulwinkleland including a mound of bicycle rims & parts and a vast sculpture garden.
“What I was proud of was introducing to steel skilled cutting and good graphic design as well as a sort of story-telling” he noted in this 2014 Berkeleyside interview. The interview also explains the reserved nature of Mark and his decision to decline an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Besides his signature sculpture style, he has disciplines in printmaking and ceramic tiles. “It’s an irrepressible need to keep doing things,” he goes on to explain of his artistic drive. Weird Homes is a Canadian produced show on the Life Network that showcased unusual homes and the fascinating people who built and live in them.
Bulwinkle is considered an early pioneer of what has been dubbed the West Coast Funk Art movement. His works can be viewed in museums including the Spalding House of the Honolulu Museum of Art, the City of Portland and Multnomah County Public Art Collection and many private and public pieces in neighboring Oakland and Berkeley.