On Colusa Avenue, beach debris art with a twist

Known as “the house on Colusa,” Mark Olivier’s yard is a riotous mix of folk art.

By Emily Gordis

“Eccentric Artist in Residence” warns a sign outside of Mark Olivier’s house. Usually known simply as “the house on Colusa”, Olivier’s home is something of a legend in Berkeley because it is covered in art made from debris washed up on beaches. Many Berkeley residents know the house, but the owner himself is mostly anonymous, and the story behind it mostly untold.

Olivier, who grew up in Millbrae, says he started making the art about six years ago. “I’d been living in this house for the last 26 years and I’d been walking my various dogs [at the beach] for many years.” He gestures to his white poodle, Captain Nemo. “This is the latest incarnation. I’d become familiar with the stuff that was down there and, one day, I started picking stuff up and playing with it.”

Olivier’s first project was a series of samurai armor he made for the “How Berkeley Can You Be” parade in 2005. “I was walking down the beach one day and I found a backplate in plastic for a mercury outboard motor and it reminded me of Captain America. So I picked it up and built a suit of armor around that. That led to other things and now you see out front, there’s all new stuff and in the driveway there’s a huge pile of materials that I go out collecting, much more than I work in the studio.”


Olivier says there are certain items he will always collect, because he knows he will find uses for them: various pieces of plastic, rope of all kind, nautical gear including buoys, hats and hatbills, lighters, winch handles…

He shrugs when asked about the environmental implications of what he finds. There is no deep message or huge complexity in what he does.  “You know Berkeley. You drive around and you see cars with far too many messages on the back,” he says, gesturing at one of the driftwood signs he has posted which reads: “No Parking for Cars with More Than 3 Bumper Stickers.”

When he’s not working in the studio or collecting, Olivier might be watching sports on TV by the open windows and he hears people walking by his house commenting on the spectacle. “Occasionally, I’ll stick my head out and sometimes if I’m out front people will say, ‘Are you the artist?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah,’ and they’ll say, ‘I love your stuff’ and we’ll talk about a piece or two. […]  I’ve gotten generally very positive feedback and if anybody doesn’t like it, they don’t stop and tell me, so…,” he says, laughing.

The materials he uses are generally in their raw state. “On the whole, it’s pretty much as it comes out of the Bay. And from that, I’ll just add more stuff. Sometimes, I may paint something but generally I just like to leave the bleached or patinaed sheen on it,” he says.

Asked about his artistic inspiration, Olivier cites Marcel Duchamp. “He was the progenitor of a lot of this ‘found objects’ stuff, or taking a very common object and by its mere presence in a different venue makes it something else,” he says. Olivier also describes himself as a folk artist and remembers becoming aware of the concept when young. “As a kid growing up in California I remember touring around and seeing lots of people’s collections of hub caps made into something or old farm implements which were welded into giant creatures of one sort or another.”

Olivier points out he is not alone in festooning his front yard in Berkeley and mentions gardens on Cedar, above Oxford, and on Marin which have sprouted lively art including, in one case, a saxophone player made out of junk steel. “I figure I’m in the swing with the rest of everybody in Berkeley,” he says.

Olivier says inside everything he does is a little kernel of humor and he hopes passers-by will appreciate that. “I’m hoping that people will take the humor that is part of the piece, because with all of it there’s a little wry twist, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.”

Emily Gordis is an intern on Berkeleyside. A 13-year old Berkeley resident, she blogs about baseball and has her own online magazine, Joy Today.

Photos: Emily Gordis.