At first glance the artistic world of Mark Bulwinkle appears happy. Animals cavort, flowers bloom, a boy has hearts for eyes, the sun shines. The cartoon like images seem to be laughing at us, as if there is some private joke incised into each of them. Upon closer inspection, an energy emerges with manic overtones. We notice that a cat is blind, a dog appears rabid, a grin seems more like a grimace, and a trio of menacing beasts swallow each other whole. The flat, graphic images in Bulwinkle’s ceramic art emerge from his background in printmaking. From paper to ceramic, by way of steel and rust, the journey’s narrative imagery is rooted in the perennial perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy, crafted by an adult.
Bulwinkle left his Massachusetts home in 1968, eventually landing in San Francisco. He painted houses, and was so successful that by 1972 he had saved enough to invest in real estate. Instead, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. Eight short months later he received an MFA in printmaking. After starting work at the Bethlehem Shipyards welding “really big things” (as he refers to the ships he repaired), steel and the oxyacetylene torch replaced wood blocks and paper. What emerged were flat steel sculptures, elaborately produced, expressing a sardonic anarchy. Bulwinkle took to mild steel with the same immediacy as paper. He torched directly onto the steel without any preparatory work. “After all,” he says, “steel is produced and behaves a lot like paper. It’s just a whole lot heavier and requires a tiny bit more persuasion, and some might say, masochistic determination.”
His sensibilities, both confrontational and humorous, aligned him with William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson, and David Gilhooly, Northern California artists whose works are rooted in wit, playful imagery and popular culture. His Oakland home became a tangled forrest of spontaneous steel sculpture. By default, he joined the ranks of the West Coast Funk movement. By 1987 the reclusive and irascible Bulwinkle was a full time artist. He sold his art to collectors and was exhibited in museums. He was also perhaps the first and only person to refuse an interview with Oprah. His desire, he said, “was to be an artist, not a celebrity.”
Ceramic, in many ways the antithesis of steel with its soft, malleable character, also requires fire to complete its life cycle. Bulwinkle credits ceramic instructor Richard Shaw at the Art Institute with teaching him about clay. Not that he actually enrolled in Shaw’s class. He snuck into the ceramics studio around 2:00 AM and taught himself all he needed to know. Shaw wrote poster sized instructions and placed them around the room. All Bulwinkle needed to do was read and follow them. He would leave the studio around 7:00 AM as the earliest students were arriving. He never got caught.
His first ceramic tiles were slip cast molds using an unconventional process to create forms that were so dimensional and intricate that the multiples were often mistaken for originals. He started with a series of phallic bugs, which morphed into tableaux of literal, wounded eroticism. He also created his own steel and wood tile making technique, though he eventually settled on a hydraulic mold process. He carves directly into leather hard clay, creates a mold and then forms the tile with a hydraulic press of his own making. He considers this repetitive process meditative. Influenced by the Bauhaus principle of melding machinery and craftsmanship to create products with both physical and artistic integrity, he feels that, “like a good brick,” his tiles democratize his art.
All of Bulwinkle’s art is autobiographical. A friendship with a female bartender justly proud of her ample breasts sparked a conversation about copyrighting them. In the tile “Julie” you’ll find the copyright symbol nestled quietly in her cleavage. When asked about his original inspiration for becoming an artist, Bulwinkle replies, “Vietnam.” Though as the years go by he admits, “it is more and more difficult for those younger than myself to imagine what that means. For me it still feels like yesterday.”
Bulwinkle has experimented with glazes, but now prefers his tiles plain and unadorned. It is in the raw that they most resemble the spirit of his steel work. He points to a sculpture in the yard and says, “Just because this piece of steel plate is rusty, doesn’t mean it’s recycled. It just means that it’s rusty. I let it rust because that’s what steel does.” The colors of his unglazed tiles vary in shades of brown depending on where they sit in the kiln. Because that’s what stoneware does. Pity the well-meaning admirer who compliments him on the patina of his surfaces. The Latin etymology of “patina” is shallow dish. There is nothing remotely shallow about the man or his art, and there is no patina in Bulwinkleland.
“Tileista” is a monthly column that explores the beauty of artisan tile. JoAnn Locktov is the author of two books and numerous articles on contemporary mosaics. Her public relations firm Bella Figura Communications represents creative individuals and businesses in design, architecture, art, and travel. Follow her musings on Twitter: