A Letter from Harrison House Music, Art, Ecology

By Eva Soltes

Bridge Bones Centennial Gate by Artist, Mark Bulwinkle

In 2015 Mark Bulwinkle sent me an email message that attached a Request for Proposal from the Oakland Museum to create public works of art from recycled steel beams that were being removed from the Bay Bridge.  Mark’s message read “If you write a proposal and get the pieces, I’ll make you a gate for Harrison House.” My heart leapt.  It had long been my dream to have a Bulwinkle entrance to Harrison House, as Mark was Lou Harrison’s favorite artist (and not so secret crush)­!  It was through Lou that I met the mystery man, a well-known recluse in the Bay who, in the 70s, had enveloped his Oakland home from roof to yard with his character driven steel sculptures.

Bulwinkle began as a printmaker who received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute.  His early hand-hewn woodcuts would morph into one of his most recognizable mediums of flat metal art.  That material was introduced to him when he became a shipyard welder at Bethlehem Steel, in San Francisco during the 70s to support his art habit.

For decades Mark generously created the art for album covers, posters, and book covers for Lou.  What a dream to have an epic gate installed at the Lou Harrison House here in Joshua Tree!

So, I pled my case for the steel to be granted to our little rural community far, far, away.

My proposal read: In 1936, Lou Harrison was an up-and-coming composer in the Bay Area when the bridge was constructed.  He and John Cage foraged junk yards for brake drums to create melodic percussion orchestras that they composed music for.  The pair were part of a burgeoning new music scene that went on to define the modern-art era of the 20th century.  The proposed structure of recycled Bay Bridge steel would celebrate the artists of that time.  One work of art could bridge history, geography, and artistic legacy.

It turns out that spinning a good story in proposal form was only the beginning.  There’s a reason that the artist Christo proudly displayed the reams of bureaucratic paperwork and hoops that he had to traverse to realize his large visions.  The complications went on endlessly for nearly two years!  But finally in March of 2017 I received the following news: Freightquote: Your shipment #80170342 has been scheduled.

Weeks later a huge transport truck drove up Mount Lassen Avenue in Joshua Tree with 3 pieces of steel weighing about 4 tons each.  Morongo Basin’s own “tractor artist” Matt Smith was here to unload the steel elegantly and effortlessly.  The construction process can be viewed on a video “Bridge Bones Gate” edited by the wonderful filmmaker and friend, Emiko Omori at: https://louharrisonhouse.org/video-gallery/.

Mark Bulwinkle is a storyteller hugely generous to his friends albeit weary of the business of art.  The Harrison House gate, when closely observed, is adorned with musical instruments, a keen observer in a cap (himself), a gesturing dancer (me), and fantastic array of desert creatures. Maybe it was a miracle, and maybe it was meant to be that the project was completed and was inaugurated on May 14, 2017, the late Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday.

The “Centennial Gate,” as we refer to it, was a gift from the artist and befits his legacy of being a devoted recycler who transforms street trash shopping carts, appliances, bicycles into beautiful, comedic, tragic, and truthful stories. Only this time, it was huge hunk of otherwise disposable steel.

Bulwinkle’s enchanting work is so suited to the Mojave Desert.  The harsh environment makes a rich patina of rust that encrusts his intricate cut outs that are a pantheon of characters, some of whom he has met, observed, or have inhabited his nightmarish dreams.

After installing the Harrison House gate Mark realized how much he loved Joshua Tree and environs.  He bought a house nearby where he spends much of his time. His work has also spread out into the region and can be seen at Sarah and Rex’s Country Kitchen restaurant in the village of Joshua Tree and at the Joshua Retreat Centers’ new Sculpture Garden curated by Rolo Castillo.  Harrison House also makes available for sale some of Mark pieces large and small which now adorn several of our surrounding acres. They can be seen by appointment.

EVA SOLTES is a prolific performing arts producer, dancer, and documentarian, who has championed the work of gifted artists and underserved art forms for decades. She is the Founder/ Director of Harrison House Music, Arts, Ecology, a residency/performance program based in the late Lou Harrison’s straw bale retreat in Joshua Tree, California. Soltes enjoyed a multi-faceted personal and professional relationship with Lou Harrison that spanned nearly 30 years. During that time, she developed a large body of media on the composer, culminating in her feature length documentary, LOU HARRISON: A World of Music, which has been called “wizardly” (SF Chronicle) and “affecting” (The New Yorker).

 All photography by Eva Soltes

For public & educational screenings and all other inquiries contact us at info.harrisonhouse@gmail.com or call 760-366-4712.

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