Mark Bradford used the unique qualities of his upbringing in South Los Angeles and his perspective to stand out in the art world.
The 6-foot, 8-inch man was a late bloomer. He began studying art at age 30 while working as a hair stylist in South Los Angeles. Bradford did not sell his first piece of art until age 40. Now 57 years old, he is selling his art for $10 million, he said on 60 Minutes.
Bradford was raised by a single mother who worked as a hairstylist. He, too, became a hairstylist, but when he started studying art at age 30 he realized the power it held in expression and political commentary. Bradford could not afford paint, and found another medium. One late night, he noticed translucent end papers on the floor of the hair studio.
“He could buy cartons of end papers for $20,” Anderson Cooper said on 60 Minutes.
The papers, used to make Jheri curls, became his paint.
Though his art looks like paintings, his pieces are made of paper.
Cooper was visiting an art gallery when he noticed the statuesque Bradford wearing house-painting clothes, Cooper said. They exchanged hellos, and it was not until later that Cooper realized Bradford was a famous artist featured in the gallery.
Cooper now owns a Bradford made of end papers, called “The Hood is Moody.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Bradford Grew Up In South Los Angeles & Was Bullied Starting at Age 8
Bradford was born and raised in South Los Angeles, where he put down roots. Bradford still lives in South Los Angeles. He makes his art in a large studio warehouse in his hometown. At 6-feet, 8-inches tall, he stands out in a crowd.
His childhood and his hometown was not always kind to him. At age 8, other kids in his class started bullying him.
“That was the first time I felt different. That was the first time I was aware of my sensitivity. That’s the first time someone said, ‘Oh, you’re… a sissy,’ Bradford told Cooper. “I definitely knew that I had to learn to navigate in a more cautious way. So that I could survive. I just never had a problem being me.”
He said he didn’t want to change himself, but only wanted to avoid a beating. Bradford wasn’t afraid to be different, and it was his unique qualities that enabled him to stand out in the art world. Although his art looks like paintings, he uses paper which he stacks and molds. He uses tools like power washers, sanders, drills and knives to make his work. He uses blow torches to create fringing on end papers, which was his first art medium.
He told Interview: “I came from a place where there was creativity, but there were also so many day-to-day factors—like you had to make some money. And I wasn’t scholastic. Although I was smart, by junior high I had fallen through the cracks. I didn’t have that someone who saw something in me. So I was on my way to the nightclub, because that’s where people like me went. But I was always creative.”
According to Art21, he was born in 1961 and received a BFA in 1995 and MFA in 1997 from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. The site reports that Bradford “transforms materials scavenged from the street into wall-size collages and installations,” and his themes include “underground economies, migrant communities.”
2. Bradford’s Mom, Janice Banks, Raised Him As a Single Mom at Her Hair Salon
Bradford’s mom, Janice Banks, was a single mother who owned her own hair salon in South Los Angeles. It was there that he would get his inspiration for his art, but he would not find success in art until much later in life.
He started taking art classes in junior college at age 30. He reached a breakthrough learning about modernism and feminism. During his studies, he was still working at the hair salon, and he found a way to study while he was working. He had his clients help.
“I put the book in their lap and said, ‘Girl, read that back to me,'” he told Cooper.
During a late night at work, Bradford was exhausted. He saw end papers on the floor, which are used in Jheri curls.
“And I looked down, I thought, ‘Oh, they’re translucent. Oh. Oh, I could use these,'” he said.
A Guggenheim bio on Bradford reports that he “worked in his mother’s salon and referred to himself as a ‘beauty operator,’ continuing to do so even as he earned recognition in the visual arts.”
3. He Sold His First Painting at Age 40 for $5,000 & Now They Sell for $10 Million
When Bradford was approached about selling his first painting, he responded by asking the collector how much she had to spend. It took Bradford until age 40 before he became a professional artist. That first piece went to Eileen Harris Norton, who later became a partner in his non-profit organization, Art + Practice. The organization has a joint mission to serve the local foster community and to provide the community with art.
Bradford still works as a hair stylist, and gifted some of his artwork to his friends. One of the friends, Lynette Powell, said on 60 Minutes she put the piece of art in her garage.
“And this guy was like ‘You know, you have something like a Mona Lisa.’ I’m like, ‘For real?'” she said.
Now, Bradford is a celebrity in the art world, and sells his paintings to celebrities. Beyoncé and Jay-Z showed up to a recent art exhibit in Los Angeles, where all 10 of his paintings were sold out before the opening. The celebrity power couple owns several Bradfords.
4. Bradford & His Partner, Allan Dicastro, Use Art to Revitalize Bradford’s South LA Neighbhood
Bradford and his longtime partner, Allan Dicastro, are using Bradford’s art to revitalize the South Los Angeles neighborhood where Bradford was raised. They opened Art + Practice with Eileen Harris Norton, who was the first collector to ever buy Bradford’s work.
Art + Practice is a non-profit. Their South Los Angeles space includes a gallery, lecture spaces, and his mother’s old beauty salon. The hair salon, called Foxy Hair, is now a center for young adults transitioning out of foster care.
Dicastro and Bradford have been together for more than 20 years.
The non-profit was designed to support the local foster community and to provide the neighborhood with free access to art.
“Exhibitions feature museum-curated contemporary art in all media, with a special emphasis on social commentary,” the website says.
He told Hauser & Wirth: “I always see Los Angeles as being horizontal, and just like early explorers thought that if you kept going in the ocean, you would fall off the ends of the earth, I see Los Angeles like that.”
5. Bradford Was Commended by Michelle Obama & Named a Wall Street Journal 2017 Innovator
Bradford was named a Wall Street Journal innovator in art in 2017 after installing his largest piece of work to date at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall. The piece is called “Pickett’s Charge,” named for a moment during the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War that marked the Confederate’s deepest penetration into the North. The failed offense was led by General George E. Pickett. It is considered the turning point of the war.
“If they had broken the Union during that charge, they might have won,” Bradford told the Wall Street Journal of the historic moment that served as the namesake for this installation.
The artwork has a circumference of 400 feet.
“I am so incredibly proud of Mark, and I can’t wait to see everything he’ll continue to achieve and contribute to our country and our world in the years ahead,” Michelle Obama told the Wall Street Journal.
Bradford’s art is often social or political commentary, such as the Watts riots in Los Angeles or the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Minnesota.
“Politically and socially, we are at the edge of another precipice. I’m standing in the middle of a question about where we are as a nation,” Bradford said.
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