A newspaper clipping of a diner exterior is shredded to reveal other layers of newspaper, multicolored paper, and red yarn underneath

Reveal the layers within a story that matters to you with Mark Bradford.

We want to see your creations! Share on social media @hirshhorn with #HirshhornInsideOut.

Time: 60-90 minutes
Skill Level: Advanced
Topic: Storytelling

The ways we remember history and stories are messy. Watch this video and learn about artist Mark Bradford. Then, explore how you share your personal stories and memories by creating your own multilayered painting with paper.
Watch the video. What do you notice about the size of the work as a whole, and the materials used? Notice the thick layers. What does Bradford say about how he builds them?Watch Bradford at work. How would you describe the way he works?
The artwork in the video is called Pickett’s Charge. It is made of eight super-sized canvases that wrap 400 feet (nearly the length of a football field!) around the Hirshhorn Museum’s circular walls. Mark Bradford describes the way he makes art as “painting with paper.” To do this, Bradford applied thick layers of colorful paper and rope to each canvas. On top of these layers, he placed enlarged prints of an 1883 painting by Paul Philippoteaux, also named Pickett’s Charge; both artworks are named after an important moment in a famous battle in the American Civil War. In his work, Bradford cuts, tears, and scrapes through the layers to reveal hidden textures, colors, and patterns. The layers of paper are like years of history. The artist wants us to think about how stories are told and remembered. When we look within the layers of Bradford’s work, we are digging through time, looking backward and forward all at once and sensing all the different voices that make up history. Bradford’s art communicates just how complicated the telling of history can be.

Drawing of Mark Bradford by Anne Matlock for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Mark Bradford grew up in Los Angeles, California, where he still lives and works. He didn’t decide to become an artist until he was 30 years old. Before then, he worked in his mom’s beauty salon. The materials he found there inspired him to start making art with different types of materials than we might expect artists to use. Bradford draws both his inspiration and materials from the city streets and the people he meets. He also gets inspiration from world events, and uses his art to help people have conversations about both history and what’s going on in the world around them now.

Want to learn more? Read more about Mark Bradford’s life and work.

When you looked closely at Bradford’s work, you may have noticed that it looks messy. The ways people remember the past and tell stories about it are messy, because everyone remembers events differently.

Talk with the people around you about an important memory you share. Choose a memory with a lot of feelings attached to it, such as a situation you didn’t understand or a favorite memory. Have each person share what happened. Notice what each person shares. Did you remember the same things? Do you agree or disagree about what happened? Memories, stories, and history are messy.

Newspaper clipping of a diner exterior with green roof, hand written signs on the windows, and American flag at the entrance. Newspaper clipping of a diner exterior, ball of red yarn, pair of scissors, newspaper, multicolored paper, and small bowl Pair of scissors lying above red yarn, newspaper, and multicolored paper all cut into stripsSmall red bowl rests on a newspaper; hand uses a spoon to stir the beige mixture inside the bowl Collage of wet strips of newspaper, colored paper, and red yarn placed diagonally across a canvas with one strip intersecting the rest Newspaper clipping of a diner exterior with green roof, hand written signs on the windows, and American flag at the entrance. Hand tears a wet newspaper clipping of a diner exterior to reveal other layers of newspaper, multicolored paper, and red yarn underneath

  1. Choose your story. Look for a photograph that shares a personal story or a news clipping covering a story that interests you. For our project, we chose a news clipping of a diner that switched to take-out only during the COVID-19 pandemic. Note: If you are working with a child under five, we recommend choosing a personal story or memory to feature in this work. As it may be traumatic to tear a picture with people, images of favorite places may be the best choice for young children.
  2. Gather your materials: You’ll need:
    • Your selected image (from step one)
    • A sturdy surface such as cardboard or cardstock
    • Paste ingredients: water, flour, and a small bowl (glue can be used as an alternative)
    • Layering materials, such as colorful paper, magazine or newspaper clippings, rope, string, yarn, and other interesting found objects Note: If using the flour and water mixture, the process will be a little messy. Set out a work tray or mat, or line your work area with newspaper.
  3. Prepare your layers. Set aside the photograph from step one for later. Cut and tear your other materials including paper and magazine pages into strips. Explore different sizes and ways of creating the strips. Which colors, sizes, and materials would you like for your artwork? Note: Tearing paper is an excellent fine motor task for young children. The act of pinching and tearing the paper develops hand strength and the grip children will need for writing and drawing.
  4. Prepare your paper layers. Soak paper strips in water/flour mixture. Watch what happens. Does your paper lose color or not? Some paper, like the kind artist Mark Bradford uses, will release color when wet. If your paper does, decide if you want to use that as part of your process (for example, by leaving the paper in the wet mixture longer).
  5. Squeeze excess liquid off the paper. 
  6. Layer your materials. Build up layers of your paper strips, rope, string, and other found objects on your surface. Explore the possibilities as you create. Try twisting different materials together. Mark Bradford built up many different layers throughout Pickett’s Charge. How many layers will you create in yours? Note: It will be helpful to leave some ends of the string visible, and not completely covered, for the next steps.
  7. Attach the image or newsclipping you chose in step one on top of your layers of paper, string and other found objects by pressing it on top of the other layers. If needed, apply some of the flour/ water mixture to help secure it. Look back at Mark Bradford’s work, and notice that he placed an image representing the past as the top layer of Pickett’s Charge. How does this choice impact the way the story is told?
  8. Tear, scrape, and cut the photo with your hand and scissors to reveal the hidden layers. You might also try pulling strings or ropes from lower layers out, as Mark Bradford did when creating Pickett’s Charge. Note: Small hands may need guidance using scissors in this step.
  9. Complete your project. After revealing the hidden layers, finalize your artwork. You may want to cut your surface down to the same size as your work. If you like, title your work! We took inspiration from the story we chose and named ours Take-Out Café.