He comes in colors

Oct 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

His stained-glass work gives grace to the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. You can find his massive oil paintings on Federal Reserve Bank walls, and an impressive 37-square-foot piece he named "Genealogy" is the circular terrazzo floor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. 

See, Hubert Massey is an artist of interminable versatility. The guy sculpts from bronze and builds granite statues for city parks, all the time incorporating Detroit's youth in helping to create open-air mosaics. Considering he often works in public, Massey's art transcends traditional relationships of artist to buyer, art to wall. 

His rises from Detroit's varied and storied communities; he grasps the merit of their role, which, make no mistake, is that of muse. 

Before beginning a large public piece, he visits the neighborhood in which it will sit and holds informal meetings with its neighbors, who come to tell their stories. He espouses collective participation because, as he puts it, you don't just build art in someone's backyard and expect them to like it. 

Massey's efforts are a means to serve broken neighborhoods and foster community by bringing people together in a shared voice. His images are born of rich personal anecdotes swapped with folks on front lawns and park benches. Take the sprawling, vibrant tile mural on the College for Creative Studies' parking structure. In it, a woman holds a child in her arms and with a single thread she sews a quilt that winds around Motor City landmarks using colored bands to symbolize the various cultures here. Massey says he got that mural inspiration from an Internet forum dialogue about how people view their city.

The Flint native
is a rather quiet guy, and he doesn't offer much up for conversation. His towering physique shows four years of college football and that he owns records in discus-throwing competitions. 

Massey's faculty for art and athletics underscores an allure for big endeavors — he claims some of the best years of his life were spent hand-painting billboards while strapped in a harness six stories off the ground. 

Some 30 years ago, Massey attended Grand Valley State University (GVSU) on a football scholarship. In college, his creative abilities led him to spend a semester in London. Exposure to European museums and cathedrals fed his curiosity about the synthesis of architecture and art. 

Massey saw art in the context of a building's creation, rather than as aesthetic pleasure added as afterthought. With a head full of masters, such as Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt, he returned home to study art restoration, classical technique and the chemical makeup of art materials. 

After earning his B.A., a decade of working as a pro sign painter proved invaluable in equipping Massey with the discipline and aptitude for large-scale art that he'd later use in his fresco work. 

In the early '90s, when the demand for sign painters was basically evaporating in the new digital age, Massey began painting murals. It was a natural transition. So natural, in fact, that Massey painted the impressive 625-square-foot oil mural in Greektown's Atheneum Suite Hotel lobby in 1992, by commission.

Around that time, Massey was one of 12 artists selected to learn fresco techniques under Stephen Dimitroff and Lucienne Bloch, elderly former apprentices to Diego Rivera. The education set Massey apart from his contemporaries, and he considers himself to be the only artist creating "true fresco" in Michigan since Rivera graced the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932 with his Detroit Industry, the apogee of his career. 

The nearly lost art of fresco — painting on wet plaster — is thousands of years old, and Massey's eyes dance when he tells of the primitive origins of his materials. He mixes his own oils, pigments and plaster. For him, the unequivocal challenges of fresco, and its resilience, are the attraction. And it has its workmanlike duties: first, four layers of plaster, each requiring weeks to dry, precede any application of color. It's a process that demands 10- to 15-hour days, as sections must be painted before the plaster dries. It's a job that can't be done alone, so Massey works closely with his assistant, 90-year-old George Arnold. Once color is added, it cannot be removed, and the palette is limited to seven or eight hues because only a few hold up to the chemical effects of oxidation. 

Then come the longstanding, soul-enriching rewards: his exemplary works. For example, his creations in the Detroit Athletic Club and Grand Valley's downtown campus are as visceral as they are abiding. His Earth, Wind, Fire and Water piece at the Flint Institute of Arts stretches 88 feet.

Last year, the Michigan Department of Transportation put out a call seeking Michigan artists to design a piece for the Bagley Avenue Pedestrian Bridge in Southwest Detroit. Applications were judged on durability, artist qualifications and capacity to work with civic agencies. MDOT chose Massey, and he was awarded a substantial grant to create two public installations. 

Massey is now working on a collaborative tile piece for the Bagley bridge, and freestanding pictographs for a nearby park. As a former art teacher with lofty visions for Detroit youth, he works to involve neighborhood kids in this piece. He has set up permanent art programs at schools and community centers in neighborhoods where he's been commissioned, leaving behind vehicles to engage students once his project is completed. He plans to incorporate local teens in the pedestrian bridge commission through an afterschool program. The kids will help create and lay handmade, hand-glazed tiles as part of a mosaic installation along the bridge, to be completed next spring. 

Massey uses indelible materials crafted on a large scale because he believes that is how he will create a lasting impact. It's for this reason he focuses on mainly local commissions, considering himself a voice for Detroiters. And it's through the hyperbolic proportions of his art that he is able to translate the tales told by old-timers, neighbors and students into art destined to endure.

Laurie Smolenski now lives in Spain where she’s an intern at the U.S. embassy. Send comments to [email protected]