Art at the Bulb
by Amy Lenzo
Photographs by Fletcher Oakes

(you can click on the most of the images for enlatgements)

My friend Fletcher first introduced me to ‘The Bulb’, an old landfill near my home in Albany, California, that, until about 2 years ago, was home to a small village of over 100 squatters. But this was no ordinary landfill, even before then. It was originally built in the shape of a peninsula, extending out into the water on the east shore of the spectacular San Francisco bay, and the views are the equal of real estate anywhere in this exclusive (and expensive) area. Now the squatters are gone, and the land has been colonized by dog-walkers, nature-lovers and a new breed of urban artists, who have created sculpture and paintings all along the shore, and into the interior of this innovative outdoor gallery.

You really have to hike to get in to see the main body of the artwork, but it is well worth it. A collective of four artists who call themselves ‘Sniff’ have done most of the artwork. You can recognize their style, which is quite distinctive, in a number of paintings, many of them depicting scenes in a fantastic world of debauchery and wonder. There are circus and rodeo scenes, underwater rescue scenes, whorehouses, parties, and a fully-functioning revolving wheel of fortune. Painted skyscapes, and race track and construction site scenes share this rugged terrain with abandoned pirate ships - one of which reflects what seems to be a statement about the recent events of 9/11. It has the American flag flying at half-mast, right below a tattered black rag that hangs over it dispiritedly.

The Sniff paintings are mostly rendered on both sides of enormous sheets of salvaged plywood that probably originated as some kind of building material - one side covered with what looks like sand and roofing tar. Each surface renders a painting with dramatically different effects, and there are other works on concrete walls, logs, rocks, bits of driftwood and other salvage strewn throughout the site.

There is also some outstanding metalwork, and sculptures, all made from the ample stores of material found right there on the land: shipwrecked vessels, recycled and broken bits of cars, bicycles, shopping carts and machinery along with pieces of pipe, concrete, wire and other discarded materials.

All this art sits within its environment of air and water and vegetation; the San Francisco cityscape with both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and surrounding mountainous coastline. Pristine nature and profane Babylon intertwine in one fantastic world, occupied by the many species of birds, small mammals, and the occasional human that make their life and home there. There are definitely politics in this art, and a wild abandoned beauty, each integral elements in the unusual and stimulating content and context of this cutting-edge urban gallery.

There is no admission fee, no gift store (though on my last visit I noticed a poster advertising calendars made from photographs of the art), and no café, but the venue is very impressive, and the exhibition is constantly changing; eroded by weather and time, rearranged, painted over or just replaced. These extraordinarily committed artists make additions and adjustments to the content of this all-weather outdoor show every Saturday morning, and have been doing so every week – rain or shine - for the past three years. There are no placards or tour guides to tell us what we are seeing, no openings or ‘meet-the-artist’ nights, no price tags, no special lighting. There are no security guards or bag-check areas, but there are several strategically placed pieces with dire warnings of what happens to people who vandalize or steal other people’s art. This doesn’t completely discourage vandalism- I’ve seen several pieces of sculpture trashed over the year I’ve been going there – but it's rare, and it's a tribute to the whole community that for the most part these beautiful works of art are respected and allowed to exist without being disturbed.

There are also no grants or buildings with permanent leases, but last week the ever-cheerful Sniff crew posted a humorous retort to this morning paper’s threat about impending land use regulations being imposed by city officials here. Like turn-of-the-century gold-rush men, they painted and planted a sign, staking ‘claim’ to the spot in the name of Sniff and the other artists who work there, and all who love and would preserve the wildness of nature there. I met them for the first time while they were in the process of doing this, and I felt moved to thank them. Not only for their courage and humor in responding to the threat of their last several year’s work, and of course for the pleasure of the art itself, but also for modeling another way of being an artist. The incredible generosity and lack of ego-attachment exhibited in sharing their art so selflessly is wonderfully refreshing. It is also extremely stimulating to experience their attitude about art and permanence… in setting aide their egos and personal ambitions, they’ve rediscovered the ancient secrets and power of art.

The creative attractions at the Bulb don’t stop there. The last vestiges of what was originally a Squatters’ Paradise are still found in the myriad trails that meander confusedly all over the landfill (they used to lead to campsites and temporary homesteads now almost hidden by the verdant vegetation). One of the most permanent and impressive of these is a concrete structure/home built (and still occasionally inhabited) by ‘Mad Mark’. This place is really something special- there are stone-terraced steps leading up to it from the sea side entrance, and a paved path

entering from the interior of the property. The compact circular building has a beautiful chapel window overlooking the bay, and is painted in blue and white stripes, resembling a cross between a war bunker, a barber shop, and a rather short but avant-garde lighthouse. Inside, it has a set of winding steps that lead to an outdoor sun deck, whose floor is painted gold, with a low railing and a plaque that reads: "California, Heart of Gold. Live up to it". There is a concrete patio out in front, and a gravel garden sculpted in the shape of the suit of Clubs (there are a heart, diamond and spade embedded elsewhere in the house and garden). The views are stupendous, and the roof is water-tight. One can easily imagine living there.

Click here for Fletcher Oakes' photographic gallery of Sniff's art at the Bulb.

Fletcher Oakes, who took the photographs that accompany this article, is also a digital artist and has used many of these photographic images in his own creative work of digital montage and mandalas (which are also displayed in this section). They offer a fitting tribute to this very special place and body of work, and (along with more photographs of the art at the Bulb), are displayed on his website:

Fletcher also located this link to an information-rich article written in 1999 for what was then the excellent local East Bay Express. It focuses on the late stages of the squatter ‘scene’ there at the Bulb, but also covers a lot of background about the habitat and natural history of the land along with its human history. You can read it at:

The calendars mentioned in the article are very beautiful, cost $12.95 plus tax ($13.99), and can be shipped in the US for an inclusive price of $15.00 each. They are available though Jill:, whose mailing address is: PO Box 410202, San Francisco, CA