Hubert Massey slides a metal trowel over a slab of fresh plaster laying the foundation for his masterpiece. At the time, there were about 50 people standing close in the atrium of the Detroit Institute of Arts, watching the great Detroit muralist as he smoothes the stark white sheen of marble dust and limestone. This is his playground. Over and over, his trowel-on-plaster strokes sound as crisp as a sharp skate blade on smooth ice. “Isn’t that a pretty sound?” he marvels as it echoes through the cavernous Rivera Court at the DIA. “You can hear the plaster drying.”
Local recognition is certain when one ticks down the impressive list of Massey’s creations adorning high-profile places in Detroit. Like the 30-foot high oil murals of Greek gods in the lobby of the Atheneum Hotel. Or the two 18-foot-high frescoes in The Grill at the posh Detroit Athletic Club. Or the 72-foot-diameter terrazzo called “Geneology” adorning the rotunda floor in the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The stained glass windows at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. And the faces of African American history, such as Boxer Joe Louis, staring up from a terrazzo in Harmonie Park.
“You see the colors on the wall, they don’t fade,” Massey tells the crowd that swells to 100 on a Sunday afternoon almost ten years ago amid the enormous Detroit Industry Murals painted in 1932 by celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera. “The colors keep getting richer over time.”
As does Massey’s enchantment with art. The former Grand Valley State University, All American-nominated football star and discus record holder graduated in 1981 and studied art at the University of London’s Slade Institute of Fine Arts. He then spent 12 years hand painting Gannett billboards, and began studying classical art in 1989. He fell in love with the lost art of fresco painting during a 1994 workshop led by Rivera’s apprentices, Stephen Dimitroff and Lucienne Bloch, who were in their 80s, at the then Center for Creative Studies (now College for Creative Studies).
“I knew I had found my calling,” says the Flint native, who vowed to master fresco painting.
Sharing is as much a theme in the award-winning artist’s life as his multiple works of spectacular public art in Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids. Each piece makes a permanent and powerful contribution to beautify, educate and inspire people’s lives. And that is exactly Massey’s life mission, he says, as the only commissioned African-American fresco painter in the United States.
“Through my artwork, I want to tell stories in truth and pass that from generation to generation with an open spirit that heals everybody, says the married father of four who lives in Detroit’s historic Oakman Boulevard district.
That spirit is evident in the vibrant mural adorning the modern cement angles of the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge in Southwest Detroit. Unveiled on Cinco de Mayo 2010, it established Massey as the first artist ever commissioned by the Michigan Department of Transportation. Facing the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado, the Spiral of Life mural showcases the area’s rich Latino culture.
“My art celebrates how much I love this city,” says Massey, standing in Campus Martius, describing the historic images carved into his two granite monuments facing the ice rink. “My main ambition in urban communities in the United States is to make a difference by telling the history of our cultural richness. I feel very honored to do this.”
Artistic talent definitely runs in the family. Massey’s parents wanted him to become a teacher, so that he could make a living after his promising football career at GVSU-he was honored as Athlete of the Year as a junior-ended with a knee injury.
“I live in the community I serve. Everything I do is about progressing and moving the city forward,” he says, staring up at the twinkling city skyline. “My talent is a gift. A gift can be used to enrich yourself, or you can give it back to improve people’s lives. I want my art to contribute to a great future for the city of Detroit, to make people smile, feel good and live better lives.”
This story was originally published in 2011 by Elizabeth Atkins.