BETTER IN TUNE WITH THE INFINITE:
The Uncharted Artistic Trajectory of Hubert Massey
by D. Amari Jackson
The fresco. Only the capable, the few. Its popular mystique stems from the medium’s superior scale, its lengthy history, the scarcity of its masters. Not for the faint of heart or unsteady hand, the fresco is a challenging form that, for many, epitomizes the outer realms of visual art, its breathtaking scope, its expansive potential.
“It’s an extremely hard medium, one that hasn’t changed since Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel,” acknowledges Hubert Massey, commonly regarded the sole African American commissioned fresco artist in the country. Massey’s bold work is a hallmark of the Detroit metropolitan region, colorfully adorning the walls, ceilings, and floors of such city landmarks as the TCF (formerly Cobo) Convention Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Athletic Club, and numerous other sites. The formula for fresco, adds Massey, “is still the same.”
So is the challenge. The technique most representative of fresco painting is known as “buon” and involves the timely application of pigments mixed with water to a moist layer of fresh lime mortar or plaster. The painting of “fresh” lime—hence the Italian term “fresco”—with oxidized pigment must occur before the lime plaster dries, a difficult task since the consistency of the plaster is steadily changing while curing. Given the painting becomes an integral part of the surface or wall, the time-sensitive layering and drying processes, notes Massey, leave “no room for error” as you cannot go back and fix it. “What you put down, stays down.”
This quality is what gives the fresco process its valuable, long-term durability. Though the lime permanently records anything touching it, it is relatively flexible in response to movement, moisture, and climate change. Combined with the natural oxidation of the pigment which, explains Massey, is “basically just crushed up stone,” the colors “do not deteriorate over a period of time, they just get richer and deeper. They say a hundred years from the day that you painted a fresco, it’s a hundred years richer; a thousand years from the day you painted a fresco, it’s a thousand years richer.”
The critically acclaimed artist further stresses the healthy nature of the process, referring to fresco as the “vegetarian” of the visual arts world. “There’s no artificial additives,” clarifies Massey. “The medium is water, and the rest is just pigments, lime, marble, dust, river sand. Everything is organic, all from Earth.”
Even more attractive for Massey is what he believes to be the infinite potential of his chosen medium. When he speaks of what his ultimate fresco would look like, his voice lightens as if conveying a magical vision playing out on an endless canvas in panoramic view.
“I would love one that allows me to do the ceiling, the walls and the floor, where you walk into it and you feel as if you were floating but, yet, when you look up in the sky, it is open-ended and has all these wonderful symbols and narratives that take you on a journey,” conveys Massey. “That’s what I would love to see, and I would love to be able to have that type of space to create in.” Upon noting he experienced aspects of such potential art during a visit to Mexico City, Massey promotes his admiration for artists John Biggers and Charles White “because they deal in that type of dimension, power and composition.”
He returns to his vision. “But I think it would be just marvelous to be able to see the ceiling and the walls all moving in harmony and working to create a piece of artwork that’s awesome.”
Awesome is a term commonly applied to an initial encounter with a fresco. Frescoes soar, in stature as in lore, climbing skyward toward the heavens, donning rotunda domes, claiming ceilings, bearing grandiloquent backstories, rich in repetition, if not always veracity, seemingly true. The first frescoes, not labeled as such, adorned the walls, structures, and tombs of ancient Egypt, the country not yet labeled as such, telling mystical stories of birth, life, and death, resurrection and royalty, cosmology and infinity. The ancient practice was passed down, be it by training, dispersion, emulation, or conquest, or all the above, spanning geography and time in the form of Greco-Roman murals, richly adorned Medieval era cathedrals and, most notably for our modern world, within the artistic extravagances of the Renaissance.
The history of the West relentlessly paints our heroes, in war as in art, with brush-yielding conquerors and colorful accounts of great Italian masters and imperious popes locked in epic battles over the exigencies of image. The names are both singular and familiar—Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Tintoretto. Their stories recycle as legend.
Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter. At least, that’s what he thought. But Pope Julius II, known as the “Warrior Pope” or “Fearsome Pope” depending on which survivor you asked, gave the reluctant yet talented artist a deal he could not refuse, though he initially did, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A compromise was reached only after the powerful pontiff sweetened the papal pot by agreeing to let Michelangelo paint the chapel the way he, not the Pope, envisioned. From that point on, the relationship was seldom sweet. The dictatorial Julius criticized Michelangelo’s slow pace while the artist did the same over the Vatican’s late payments. This continued for four years, until 1512, when the 37-year-old artist completed his 5,000 feet in diameter, 300-figure series of nine pictures depicting God’s Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Mankind, and Mankind’s Fall from God’s Grace.
Twenty-four years later, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel under the patronage of Pope Paul III to cover its altar wall with The Last Judgment, depicting the second coming of Christ amidst the ascension of the saved to paradise, and the dragging of the damned to hell. Again, he was criticized, this time by Papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, who vocally deemed the nudity-laden fresco lewd and outrageous. Michelangelo’s response was legendary, forever cementing the disgruntled church official’s image in the massive painting by making Minos, judge of the underworld, resemble Cesena, replete with the ears of a donkey and a snake biting his genitals. Upon Cesena’s subsequent complaints to the Pope, the unsympathetic pontiff reportedly pointed out that his authority did not extend to hell.
Unfortunately, given the emergence and proliferation of oil painting, the glory days of the fresco did not extend past the mid-16th century. The ancient process largely fell out of favor for three centuries before briefly reemerging in the Mexican mural renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. This period was dominated by the works of popular painter, Diego Rivera, and included such Mexican muralists as Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Aurora Reyes Flores.
While the mural renaissance would lose steam by mid-century, the ancient practice would continue as subsequent Mexican artists employed the fresco to express themselves artistically and politically. The impact of Rivera, a former sign painter who spent significant time in Michigan and adorned the Detroit Institute of Arts with his world-famous industrial murals, would far exceed his lifespan. Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Pope Dimitroff, two longtime assistants and close friends of Rivera and his famous wife, painter Frida Kahlo, furthered the form, producing 50 murals across the United States for schools, hospitals, businesses, and religious institutions. Dimitroff died in 1996 and Bloch followed in 1999, but not before the two, who’d married in Flint six decades prior, returned to Detroit in 1995 to counsel 12 select artists on the ancient process of fresco, one being a Flint native, former sign painter, emerging muralist, and limitless dreamer named Hubert Massey.
Perhaps it’s time we present a new narrative, or, at least, a more inclusive account, set not in the symmetrical, column-clad cathedrals or spiraling rotundas of Florence and Vatican City, but in the resilient postindustrial presentations of Detroit, one steeped in an urban ethos, less in lore, nonetheless conveying a rich tradition rooted in ancient limestone. It begins 70 miles north in the industrial and quintessentially 20th century American city of Flint in the mid-70s where a multitalented Black kid draws cartoons, comic books, and dreams of creating artwork like Norman Rockwell while making a name for himself on the gridiron. “I was kind of an anomaly because I played football,” acknowledges Massey, noting he received scholarship offers in football, track, and art, the latter paving the Grand Valley State University junior’s way to a semester at the University of London’s Slade Institute of Fine Arts.
“The school was over 130-something years old at the time, and I went there for painting, and learned a little bit about art history,” recounts Massey, who was “just down the street from the British Museum. I used to go in there to look at the artwork and see some of the sculptures” and it was a “big awakening for me because I’m from Flint. So at the age of 21, being exposed to all that and seeing that these artists were extremely successful was well beyond the cliché of the ‘starving artist’ in the United States.” Iconic Flemish Baroque artist, Peter Paul Rubens, had a “home in the south of France with a drawbridge,” recalls Massey, adding “that was his summer home.”
The impact of the semester abroad was indelible. Returning to Grand Valley State, Massey was faced with a choice. “I was a pro prospect in football after my sophomore year in college and they were asking if I was going to try out for the pros. And I said, ‘No, I think I’m gonna do art.” Applying the same discipline he’d applied to his stellar athletic career, Massey proceeded “to learn as much as I possibly could about the mediums, and how certain combinations of materials create art.” He eventually moved to Detroit to paint signs, a well-established practice given the city’s early 20th century adoption of paved roads. “All the billboards up until the early nineties were hand painted,” clarifies Massey, who painted high resolution images using only oil paint and a brush through the 1980s and into the early 90s. “We didn’t have any aerosol cans or spray guns or anything like that. It was hand paint and, come to find out, Diego Rivera was a sign painter as well, so that’s what attracted me even more.”
While spending 12 years as a pictorial painter at Gannett Outdoor Sign Company, and studying art restoration and conservation, Massey furthered his own craft and made his mark on the state of Michigan. In 1992, he produced the 30-foot high Hellenic mural still gracing the lobby of the Atheneum Hotel in Detroit. Painted in oil, “Laocoon and Sons” remains a popular attraction for those visiting the city’s historic Greektown region. In 1995, the same year he studied under Bloch and Dimitroff, Massey depicted the “History of Detroit” in a granite petrograph carving housed at the entrance of the city’s IRS Building. In 1997, he designed the terrazzo floor of the Rotunda Room of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The floor, 72 feet in diameter, hosts ”Genealogy,” a poignant depiction of the struggles of Africans and African Americans throughout history. Massey’s works now appear in or on landmarks throughout the Detroit metropolitan area as well as in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and his hometown of Flint.
“Massey’s impressive lunette frescoes have graced the DAC’s first floor dining space for over 20 years and have become a cornerstone in our fine arts collection,” says Michael Crane, artist and curator at the Detroit Athletic Club (DAC). In 2001, Massey painted the club’s 18-foot high frescoes, becoming the first African American commissioned to create a mural for the DAC. Crane characterizes Massey as “an exceptional artistic talent” and “leading contemporary practitioner of traditional fresco painting” who keeps his process “as pure as possible” in emulating such forbearers as Rivera. “Compositionally, Massey utilizes the frescoes lunette form to its fullest potential. He incorporates visual elements important to the DAC, such as the clubhouse façade and the four athletes, set up in a triangular manner, and places them within Detroit architectural landmarks.”
Crane is far from alone in his high regard. Numerous awards and honors have accompanied Massey’s work and community engagement, among them a 2010 Alain Locke award by the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Friends of African Americans auxiliary. In 2011, he won a Kresge Fine Arts Fellowship for his track record of artistic achievement and his impact on communities within metropolitan Detroit. In 2012, his alma mater, Grand Valley State, recognized his work with an honorary doctorate of fine arts.
In 2014, Massey was commissioned by the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority to create the first large-scale mural completed for the Cobo (now TCF) Center since 1987. Assisted by disabled students and Detroit area youth, Massey completed the 30 by 30-foot fresco celebrating the city and its people, “Detroit: Crossroad of Innovation,” in 2018.
“Hubert Massey is a master storyteller sharing stories of the community, cultural heritage, and history of the region in his work,” says TCF Center curator, Maureen Devine. Devine clarifies that the focus of the art collection at the center is to share stories of Detroit, the region, and the state. “It was fascinating to watch the progress throughout the process,” she recalls, of what became a four-year project. “We consider this fresco one of our great accomplishments.”
Massey’s accomplishments continue. Two months ago, on Juneteenth, the renowned artist led a team of 30 local students and young trauma survivors from the advocacy group, Detroit Heals, in designing a “Power to the People” mural on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. Massey was chosen by the students to lead the project given his work with community youth, his experience, and his superior artwork. The bold message, which covers a major city block, replaces the ‘o’ in “Power” with a giant fist.
Ultimately, for Massey, the magic is in the math. The key, for him, is in the effective division of what others would deem large amounts of blank or empty space.
“In order for me to control a large space, say a 30 by 30-foot mural, where do you start?” prods Massey. “Do you start in the middle? Do you start to the left? So I have to think of segmenting and breaking up space.” He invokes a popular film where a NASA mathematician uses an ancient technique to calculate how to get a rocket to the moon. “The same process she was using, I use. It’s called the Golden Ratio, which is 1.618.” Embedded in the colossal monuments of ancient Egypt and employed by the likes of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, the technique enables Massey to accurately segment any canvas, wall, or floor he adorns. “I’m dealing with visual space and visual emptiness that allows me to build a structure or armature so I can create my compositions.”
Passionately, he continues. “I am constantly thinking about what’s the best dynamic symmetry I can get so I can invite the viewer in to see the artwork, to be inside the artwork and move around and see all these wonderful things as opposed to just having something that’s at eye level, something that’s just one dimensional.”
Consistently, Massey dreams in endless dimensions, beyond space and time, simultaneously in point and wave, ever approaching the infinite. He strives to see the unseeable and reach through the very walls he so masterfully engages.
“When I see a wall, I don’t see the wall physically,” explains Massey, noting you could touch the wall, but “I see a wall that’s infinity, where my hand goes into infinity through that wall because there’s no wall there for me. It’s just space. And that’s what I deal with, from front to infinity.”
“There’s no physical barrier there for me,” reiterates Massey. “It’s only to the infinite.”
START COLLECTING ART
Sign up for our free email course on how to begin your collection.
Would you buy stock in BAIA if you could? Well we invite you to join us in becoming a monthly supporter, starting at just $3 a month YOU become a stakeholder and begin to help us transform lives through art. We are growing the BAIA team and will use your contributions to hire more team members for the purpose of creating more educational and marketing resources for schools and universities about african american artists both past and present.
Review our list of rewards for becoming a BAIA Patreon / patron supporter. Your monthly contribution has lasting benefits. — “What will your legacy be” – Dr. Margaret Burroughs
Thank you new and recurring monthly Patrons
Deloris and Eddie Young, Esther Silver-Parker, Eugene Foney, Zadig & Voltaire, Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art, National Black Arts Festival, Dr. Leslie Fields, Jim Nixon, Dr. Michael Butler, Matthew Putman, Grant Hill, Frank Frazier, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Joan Crisler, Dee Greer, March on Washington Film Festival, Danny Jenkins, Deborah L. McCullough, Ashlee Jacob, John and Melanie Guess, Tricia Konan, Michael Brinson, Dr. A. Holloway, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, Jeanette D Adeshote, Ja-Na Bordes, Rev. Anita Marshall, Tricia Konan, Robin King, Kerri L. Forrest, Nan, Thomas E. Rodgers, D. Lacy, Jeffery Washington, Brenda Larnell, Helen Oyekan, Jeffery Washington, Letashia Mosbey, Marian Darlington, Roslyn Valentine, Vyonne Diva, Ednarina Blake, Devera Redmond, Reginald Browne, Carla West, Beatrice, Longshore, Abimbola Thompson, Barbara Johnson, Beverly C Smith, Deborah R. Moore, Dr. Skyller Walkes, Ednarina BLAKE, Garr Parks, Gerald Carrington, Jae M, James B Wingo, Jocelyne Lamour, Kevin Smokler, Marion Zweig, Mary Ali-Masai, Michael J. Todd, Nan, Reg Pugh, Shannon DeVaney, Thomas E. Rogers, Tonya Pendleton, D Lacy, Noreen Winningham, Mason Archie, Jill Scott, Cari Jackson Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Rachel Corbray, Cecilia Winters-Morris, Christ Van Loan Sr., Romaine Roberts, Michael Jacobs, K.L. Martin, Gale Ross, Manuelita Brown, Annette, Jamal Love, Glenn Isaac Sr, M. Rasheed, Angela Williams, Dana Todd Pope, Terese L Hawkins, Mark Everett Sanders, Kirby L. Coleman, Harold Moore, Fredric Isler, Dr. R. Locke, Queen Brooks, Charles Bibbs, Diana Shannon Young, Dr. Yonette Thomas, M Belinda Tucker, Karen Y House, Runez M Bender, Duke Windsor, Cheryl Odeleye, Stephen Bennett, Shawn Rhea, Ethnie Weekes, Paul Robinson, Janice Orr, Patricia D Dungy, Jocelyn Benita Smith, Joan L. Ward, Garr Parks, Pamela Carter, Carlton Cotton, Diane R Miles, Jean Ann Durades, Luthetis Carey, Susan Ross, Harry F Banks, Shelia McNair, Lorna Conley, Shelley Byrd, DeLores M Dyer, Stefanie Fe Steele, Marjorie Hammock, Celestine Hinnant, ALKEBU LAN IMAGES Bookstore, Deborah Paige-Jackson, Desiree Dansan, Karen Pinzolo, Sonia Spencer, James Whitten, Shelley Danzy, Linda Eaddy, Wilhelmina Barker, Dorothy Massey, Annie Cheffers, Maddy Markland, Kaileigh Nelson, Kellyn Maguire, Cory Huff, keishua, Megan LaCroix, Sara Friesen, Desirée Stroud, Madison Taylor, Nina Marie, Mina Silva, Whitney, Toni Wendel, S F, Claire Sig, Isabel Engel, Sarah Drury, Elizabeth DeBunce, Hannah Diener, Diane Hughes, Petrina Burkard, Laura Di Piazza, Lisa Dunford Dickman, Jocelyn Greene, Cheryl B Blankman, Nicole Farley, Mitchell Shohet, Samiur Rashid, Sarah Rooney, Marina Kovic, Lloyd Goode, Sara, Pearlie Taylor, Lorna Doone, Ashley Littlefield, Monika Pi, Alison Deas, Carla Sonheim, Nicole Bruce, Brenda Keith, Louise berner-holmberg, Tellis, Pamela Hart, Kim Walker, Jessica Beckstrom, Franklin Jackson, Christina Levine, Curtis Morrow, jacki rust, Sarah Caputo, Freda Davis, cdixon06, Hollis Turner, Laura Pereira, Danni Cerezo, Cooky Goldblatt, Claudia Bell, Gwen Ruff, Teri L Lewis, Emily Hegeman Cavanagh, Judith Bergeron, Suzette Renwick, Beverly Grant, Kathleen Turner, Linda B. Smith, Joy Peters, Jea Delsarte, Reginald Laurent, Rita Crittenden, Michele C. Mayes, Dr. Sandra Boyce Broomes, Dr. Darlene White
We Appreciate your support