Artist Mark Bradford checks progress of free Getty-sponsored art lesson plans

Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford is known for mixed-media works rich in texture and complexity.
Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford is known for mixed-media works rich in texture and complexity. getty.edu

Budget cuts in recent years have forced teachers to do more with a lot less. One program recently offered public school art classes the ability to use free, downloadable lesson plans created by “art star” contemporary artists, led by one who grew up and works in Los Angeles - Mark Bradford.

There are few rising art stars like Bradford. His honors, including the MacArthur Genius Award, have piled up in the last decade. So have exhibitions of his found-object abstract expressionist art at major museums in Miami, New York City and Chicago.

On this day, his welcome is a very unglamorous school buzzer at the start of an intermediate art class at Culver City High School. Kristine Hatanaka is the teacher.

"And I would love for you to let Mark look over what you’ve done. And ask him questions about his work or what you feel you’ve done and how it maybe relates to what he’s done," says Hatanaka.

Wow, a famous artist evaluating student work? It’s more than that.

Bradford’s here because of a Getty Trust effort to create a bridge between contemporary artists’ creative process and classrooms across the nation and around the world. It’s called Open Studio.

Bradford goes over a group of pieces one girl did, mapping a song through art. Bradford crafted the lesson plans for these students. The teacher downloaded them free from the Getty website.

The first: Print and rearrange in any way the lyrics from a favorite song. The second: Use colors, shapes and lines to map the school cafeteria and the people who eat there. The third: Create a sculpture with your eyes closed.

"I think that artists should take a more active role in arts education," says Bradford. "I think we live in a contemporary world and contemporary art, contemporary world, young people, they tend to be kind of contemporary. To me it’s a win/win situation."

Bradford called on 10 other high-profile visual artists, including photographer Catherine Opie and conceptual artist Xu Bing, to contribute their own lesson plans. Bradford visited this classroom to monitor the project.

In schools that haven’t laid them off, art teachers encourage their students to grasp the fundamentals: drawing, painting and printing. Contemporary art, with its mixed media and idea-laden content, can be harder to teach.

The challenge inspires Culver City High’s Hatanaka to use MacGyver-like resourcefulness. "I’m always looking for ways to supply my students with what they need," says Hatanaka. "So you have to be creative as a teacher to find ways of collecting materials. It’s the grant writing that I feel I’m most proud of."

As the students in this high school art class build their skills, there’s nothing like validation from a globetrotting artist like Mark Bradford. During a question-and-answer session, the students get much more than that.

Bradford pulls the curtain back on the way he works. One girl asks Bradford about how each artist's pieces are similar to other work they've done and whether he's seen the same thing in his own work.

"Yes, I absolutely noticed it," says Bradford. "You know, the funny thing about being creative is that, especially high school people, I kept noticing I’d always go to these certain materials. I’d always be picking up trash and picking up paper and using it."

The bridge between artist, teacher and student works. The Getty’s facilitating that understanding through its sponsorship of Bradford’s Open Studio project.

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