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.
For more information about Mark Bulwinkle, visit www.markbulwinkle.com.