Mark Bulwinkle, An Autobiography

A Working Artist

 

I was born in 1946 in a very small New England town, Waltham, Mass., the second son of George and Ruth Bulwinkle. The same doctor, Doctor Gustafson, who delivered and circumcised my father, practiced his delicate craft on me when my turn came to enter this world.

I grew up a couple of miles west on the Boston Post Road in Weston, Mass. There I went to kindergarten, grammer and high school. A little yellow house on Merriam Street snuggled amongst the pine and apple trees - gravel driveway - located equidistant and after-school- walking-distance from two fine spring fed trout streams - was almost my entire world for the first sixteen years of my life until 1964, when I left home forever. But first, when I was eight years old, I began my working life by picking weeds from ninety-two year old Mrs. Brooks's Rose beds. Mrs. Brooks was the neighborhood matriarch who lived with Mrs. Bickford, twenty five years her junior, in a large white house just down the street from me on Silver Hill. Mrs. Brooks sat on an old wooden chair placed there by Mrs. Bickford and would strike my hands with a wooden cane if I should be so careless or lazy as to miss a weed or fail to retrieve its roots entirely. "Roots will never die, young man," she warned me. "You must kill them all." At seven o'clock on a brisk October morning Mrs. Brooks could be a merciless task master and a Yankee to the marrow of her brittle shrinking bones. She paid me thirty-five cents an hour plus all of Mrs. Bickford's freshly deep fried donut holes I could eat. As an eight year old I liked making my own money and liked the idea of working. The concept always appealed to me much more than chasing various sized balls around fields and I in my youth became a work-boy. Ever since then I have worked at all kinds of jobs including being an artist, a job that I still keep busy with and find to have been considerably easier than picking weeds from rock strewn New England soil. But gee, I really miss those donut holes.

It was in Weston when, as a very, very young man, I first fell in love with a very soft and very young woman who showed me for the first time what and where my heart was - along with a couple of other troublous organs which would remain forever in some strange sense, it seemed, not entirely connected to me. Hunting dogs forever wander, my Uncle John, the bird hunter, said. Chain good dogs to the house or they will run far away. Forever.

In 1968 I graduated from The University of Pittsburgh with a BFA, an article of paper granting me all the privileges thereof which I never bothered to pickup. A few years later and on the other side of the USA I earned an MFA in printmaking from The San Francisco Art Institute in 1974. There another privileged piece of paper orphaned. While Pittsburgh seemed like Mars to this small town New England boy, San Francisco, at that time, resembled the thirteenth moon of Pluto. It suited me just fine and I never returned back over the Great Divide to pick no weeds for nobody.

After attending The San Francisco John O'Connel Trade School(my favorite school where I studied and practiced industrial welding) in 1975, I took a job in the Bethlehem Ship Yards as a production welder during the Alaska Pipeline project and spent the next twelve years of my life building and repairing really big things - mostly ships and other ocean going vessels - for that company and many others(all now disappeared) around the waterfront and Bay Area and out at sea. I had become a number, 30-250, a highly skilled and equally cantankerous production stick welder and burner, and I liked that just fine also. What I had thought to be just another six month day job in between unemployment checks had become my profession. But that kind of work was really a young man's sport, in a way like picking weeds, just a lot heavier and bigger and frequently scarier. Along the way I was badly injured and had to change my evil ways, my trade, or just give up on life altogether.. Back then, production ship yard workers sometimes said that when they died God would never send them to Hell. They'd already been there. It was just as well, though, for Ronald Reagan had been elected and the ships and heavy industry had got their marching orders to leave the American landscape and go to where human life was cheaper.

In 1987 I quit working as an industrial welder and became a full time artist. At long last my stars were aligned! During my sentence in the ship yards I had learned to transfer the graphic art technique of cutting out paper stencils (which I had previously been doing extensively as an artist and printmaker) to cutting out thick steel plate with an oxyacetalene burning torch as if it were that same paper. After all, steel is produced and behaves a lot like paper. It's just a whole lot heavier and requires just a tiny bit more persuasion and, some would say, masochistic determination. Never before had cutting steel been done so elaborately, skillfully, and graphically by any artist or itinerant cowboy welder... even. Steel made my graphic work extraordinarilly well known in a very short amount of time in the late eighties and early nineties when I was showing and selling work in eight different galleries not only locally but nationally. Bulwinkle had become famous and many long suffering sculptors, some outraged at the attention I was getting, did not consider my work sculpture at all. That was alright though because I never thought of their work, whatever ill-conceived three dimensional monstrosities they might produce, as art. As the painter Ad Reinhardt once famously remarked, sculpture is just something you bump into when you are backing up to get a better look at a painting. My art rests happily in many collections, private and public. I had become sliced bread. Mrs. Brooks and Mrs. Bickford were smiling down on me, in their own scowling yankee way.

Today I doubt it is possible to travel anywhere in the world without seeing the ubiquitous rusty steel plasma-cut ugly and tiresome imitations of that particular aspect of my art work. Leaping lizzards, but something that was once as happy and new as fresh puppies had become as tiresome and boring as fog. The computer, tied to inverter plasma-arc technology, made it possible for anyone with more tatttoos than brains to imagine they were an artist, even if the only real experience they had ever had was staring at a television by another name.

Close friends and fellow artists have remarked that Mark does not make art. He makes Bulwinkles. As I have grown older I have found in that insightful observation less and less with which to disagree. I do, I confess, create my own art, just as I have, for better or worse, created my own life. I do accept that and up until now, I have spent far too much time trying to define both of those. I seriously doubt I shall ever find out what or why my life or art is and shall have to be satisfied, I suppose, with knowing when they are not.

I still live and work as a graphic artist, sculptor, fork lift mechanic,etc. -whatever - at my studio/yard/garden in Oakland, California, USA. I watch less suspiciously now from my lair as the world changes around me.You may google me and through the magic invasiveness of those merciless search engines find out more about me than you would ever want to know. Some of it may even be true. Currently I am very busy wrapping up loose ends and I expect this curious task to take the rest of my life. Very often just sweeping can be quite enough. Thanks for the help, Mrs. Brooks, and the donut holes, Mrs. Bickford. L'Chaim!

Mark Elliott Bulwinkle - 2010

 

 

 

Click on my pretty flower shirt and catch me working!