Detroit artist Hubert Massey prepares for another monumental fresco

It’s more than just paint on a wall. To properly create a fresco, you have to first draw a life-sized sketch of the mural, mix nearly a ton – not an exaggeration, 2,000 actual pounds – of plaster and grind all the necessary pigments before you even touch a paintbrush.

“It’s so Detroit. It’s so industrial, which is why I really love it,” Hubert Massey, a Detroit artist who needs no introduction, says. “Even though I’m painting this, it takes a team of people, like the Ford assembly line. It takes a team of people to actually create something like this.”

Massey is referring to the 30-by-30 foot mural he’s currently working on for Cobo Center’s newly renovated space. He was commissioned last year by Maureen Devine, the downtown Detroit venue’s art curator, to paint a fresco that told the story of the city. Funding for the project comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, National Endowment for the Arts and Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority. It’s set to be complete in time for Detroit’s auto show in January.

“I just feel really privileged just to be the artist that actually tells the story,” Massey says. “For African-Americans, and especially for artistry, we’re storytellers. I just sort of see myself on the shoulders of John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White – who were all storytellers that told about their history and their culture through the form of art.”

His piece will include multiple representations of Detroit and its culture – a gear to represent innovation and technology, a bridge between suburban and urban communities, the Underground Railroad to symbolize the city’s importance as a last stop to slaves’ freedom.

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If you’ve been around the area for a while, you’ve probably heard Massey’s name or at least seen his work. Massey is the artist behind the Ring of Genealogy terrazzo tile floor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He has created a pair of granite murals at Campus Martius, and he was the first black artist to be commissioned to create artwork for the Detroit Athletic Club.

Massey’s love for the people of Detroit and the communities they form is evident in his work. He takes special care to ensure that his work is accurate and tells the stories of those in the community.

When creating art for public spaces, he feels it’s important to listen to and embrace the public’s opinion. For most of his work, he hosts open forums for members of the community to come out and share stories. Massey takes the information into consideration when planning for and designing his work.

“Sometimes people just want to have the opportunity to be able to not only express themselves but just have a say-so in the matter, and they feel like they are part of the process,” Massey says. “You’re giving people opportunity.”

For the Cobo mural, however, Massey met with a hand-selected group of leaders from the tri-county area to discuss what important parts of the city should be included.

“The whole thing is about really celebrating the city of Detroit,” Massey says. “One of the most important things that came up was the Detroit River … and about Detroit being innovative in technology and automotive. That’s what we wanted to convey.”

At this point in his career, Massey is dedicated to creating monumental pieces.

“When I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoon drawings and when I saw Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s, they were all doing monumental pieces. How did an artist get their name out? They did it by doing artwork in public places,” Massey says. “When you do pieces in public places, its not just for a small group of selected people, it’s for the world to see.”

Legacy is something Massey thinks about a lot. His completed works across the city are just the beginning of what he wants to leave behind. It’s important to Massey to pass the art of fresco making onto the next generation – otherwise the medium he loves could eventually become a thing of the past.

Massey learned the craft under Diego Rivera’s assistants, who taught the art of fresco to 12 different artists across Michigan in 1995. He was attracted to the art form because, like Rivera, Massey got his start as a sign painter, where he spent 40 hours a week hand-painting large-scale billboards across the city. Massey credits this work as what really sharpened his painting skills after graduating from college.

“I’m really trying to bring fresco painting back and have Detroit be the center of all for frescos. The largest fresco painting in the United States is right here,” he says.

In the future, he hopes to write a book on the art and technique of fresco painting to pass on the knowledge to generations of artists to come. He also hopes to one day have a studio at a local college to teach his art – and keep it alive.

ALANA WALKER IS ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT.

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