Scrapdaddy, A Story of Redemption
You may reach Mark Bradford through his website, Scrapdaddy.org.
Photos by Shannon Martin
By: Sherri Gragg
Mark Bradford, “Scrapdaddy,” flits about his studio, introducing his guests to some of the most famous champions of the Houston Art Car Parade. Towering kinetic sculptures crafted of steel, aluminum, copper and iron reflect the rising sun as he calls each of their names.
Jadee, Mr. Green, Ozibod…
Elee, Rancho, CharChar…
This is the world of Scrapdaddy. Soaring. Magical. Awe-inspiring. One man’s breathtaking beauty brought forth from the refuse of a thousand others.
For decades, with relentless vision and backbreaking work, Bradford has called fantastic beasts to life from the treasures of Houston’s scrapyard, a beautiful act of redemption that mirrors God’s work in some of the most painful moments of the artist’s own life.
Bradford, a recovering alcoholic, struggled with profound learning difficulties as a child. He suffered, as many artists do, the burden of God’s unique creation of him. He was not made for desks in straight lines, and number two pencils razor sharp. His mind was crafted for another plain. As poet Nayyirah Waheed once said, “Creativity keeps the world alive. Yet every day we are asked to be ashamed of honoring it, wanting to live our lives as artists.”
The intricacies of reading and mathematics eluded Bradford. Instead, he discovered his own unique genius in the melding of art and invention. Unfortunately, his remarkable gift came with a steep price tag.
The Cost of Creation
Bradford lays one hand on a monster of an art car which he is in the process of restoring. It is dinosaur-like, the smooth curvature of its body covered in scales molded from countless spoons discarded by the airline industry after 9/11 in favor of less dangerous plasticware. “It takes so much out of me to do this,” he said. “I breathe in the fumes from the welding. When you sand or cut these materials, microscopic pieces of the metal go into the air. If you look at a piece of stainless steel or iron under the microscope, it looks like a shard of glass. When I am working, I breathe it in. I know that I have some of this inside me.”
The last several years have been dark ones for the man who brought delight to thousands of Houstonians with massive sculptures that lumbered and crawled down the streets of the city during the Houston Art Car Parade. As Bradford’s work took a tremendous toll on his body, he began to realize that his sculpting techniques were unsustainable for the long-term future. To survive as an artist, he needed to invent new safer, less toxic techniques for working with metal. It was a daunting, discouraging task marked with countless trials and failures.
Recently, after struggling with the concept for several years, he discovered a method of sculpting with steel and aluminum without the aid of blow torches and saws. The technique yields ethereal objects of incredible delicacy, shimmering in silvers, blues, and purples, from the roughest of mediums.
Bradford turns to a humanoid sculpture resting in the center of his studio and connects its wiring to a nearby battery. The creature lurches to life, lifting long legs that bend fluidly at hips, knees, and ankles to stroll across the concrete. Bradford then turns to pick up a feather constructed of stainless-steel meshing and aluminum and places it gently on the sculpture’s chest to show that once complete, the body will be covered with metallic feathers so delicate that its skeleton will remain visible underneath. He will use the same materials to form wings. Suddenly, the vision is complete- Legs walking. Wings fluttering.
Hope in the Darkest Season
Bradford is visibly excited at the breakthrough. He is humbly grateful as well, perhaps in a way only one emerging from a season of prolonged suffering is capable of experiencing. For although his professional struggles were profound, they were not the only heartbreak in this his darkest season.
He lost his marriage. Struggled financially. And this past January, he was gravely injured in a motorcycle accident when a 90-year-old woman broadsided him. Five months after knee and back surgery, he continues to walk with a visible limp.
Bradford attends St. Luke’s UMC Houston, and when asked about the role of a supportive faith community during seasons of loss, he grows quiet. “St. Luke’s has helped me so much. As an artist, it is easy to be selfish, self-centered. Believing in a power greater than me is what keeps me going. I can't do it on my own. I've tried to do it on my own so many times. St. Luke’s has a lot of groups outside of Sunday services where I am able to come back to the church and work on remembering that it isn’t me who makes the art. It is God who has a plan for me.”
Bradford believes that part of God’s plan for the next season of his life is to both continue to create art and teach others the techniques he has invented for sculpting with metals. He hopes to someday have a studio in which he can both display his work and hold sculpting classes. Recently, he successfully hosted 25 art teachers from Houston-area schools for a workshop using his new techniques.
As Bradford stands on the precipice of his future, he does so with hopeful expectation and gratitude. One day at a time, one discarded scrap of metal at a time, he is seeking to love God and his neighbor through the gift God has given him. “Every day, I pray with my six-year-old,” he said, “We ask God to let Daddy make something beautiful today.”