Hubert Massey slides a metal trowel over a slab of fresh plaster. About 50 people, standing close, watch as he smoothes the stark white sheen of marble dust and limestone that tops five layers of plaster, river sand and metal. 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 Detroit Institute of Arts. “You can hear the plaster drying.”
And you can see the pure passion and joy sparkling in Massey’s eyes as he demonstrates the complicated and historic art of fresco painting used by ancient Egyptians and Michelangelo alike.
“This is a crash course in fresco painting,” says Massey, 52, eliciting a laugh from the diverse crowd that’s helping him with the hard work of mixing limestone and water with a hoe, pressing the mix into a wooden frame, grinding pigments and painting the damp plaster.
Fresco painting simply means using colorful pigments, or pulverized stone dust, to paint on plaster; a chemical reaction binds the color into the limestone forever.
“You see the colors on the wall, they don’t fade,” Massey tells the crowd that swells to 100 on a Sunday afternoon last month 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. In 2006, he toured the spectacular murals of Mexico City. Prior to his trip, a friend said: “’You either put your brush down for the rest of your life, or you come back on fire for the rest of your life.’” Massey grins and confirms, “I’m on fire!”
That excitement is obvious at the DIA as he invites children and adults-whose eyes glow with delight and curiosity as Massey speaks-to help transfer a drawing from tissue paper onto plaster.
“Detroit has the largest fresco that Diego Rivera did in the United States,” says the 6’2″ Massey as he wipes sweat from his brow and plaster dust shimmers around him.
Nearby, a TV shows black and white footage of Rivera painting the murals. Massey says he searched five years for the film, which he found at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. “What better way to keep the tradition going than to do this, to share the knowledge,” he states.
Sharing is as much a theme in the award-winning artist’s life as his 15 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.
“I held a series of community forums to brainstorm ideas for this mural,” says Massey, touching the glazed ceramic tiles of orange, blue, yellow, green and red. They include the image of a woman holding fabric that winds across the 40-foot creation showing downtown Detroit and symbols of local Latin American life.
That image-and the title for the work-blossomed in Massey’s imagination when a woman at the forum said, “Life spirals on. Challenges take you to a higher place.” He even shared a draft of his creation to explain his process and get the community’s approval.
“Hubert gets a spark from working with people,” says Regina Flanagan, a Minnesota artist who has managed 140 public art projects and led the national search committee for the mural. She says Massey was chosen from 46 candidates because his work is “high quality and aesthetically strong” and he was “interested in having the neighborhood and the community participate in the design process.”
He also was chosen to create an aluminum sculpture near the mural, which he named “Spiral Kinship.”
Adds Flanagan: “He’s on the cusp of national recognition.”
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.
“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. He beams as brightly as the holiday lights being strung on the giant Christmas tree behind him.
“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.”
Honored is how many describe knowing him and working with him.
“I’m in awe of this man,” says Detroit artist Joya Rush-Keli during the DIA demonstration as Massey begins painting black pigment on the plaster. “He is a master. What you’re seeing is one of a kind. Not many know how to do this at this level.”
Yet Massey-who charges $300 to $500 per square foot when commissioned for projects-exudes humility, kindness and generosity.
“The best part is he’s ready to share and he’s so open. He has no trade secrets,” says apprentice Halima Cassells, 29, after grinding tangerine-hued pigment with a glass mauler at the demonstration. The Detroiter founded the Detroit Mural Factory this year to help young people create seven public murals around the city. “If you ask, ‘How did you do that?’ He’ll show you right away.”
Pryncess Stylz, 32, another apprentice and aspiring fresco painter, helped create the tiles on Massey’s mural in Southwest Detroit.
Stylz says Massey has a way of teaching something complicated, like using geometry to scale a drawing to a painting, in terms that are easy to understand.
“He used the term ‘breaking up space’ without talking about the numbers,” the Detroiter says after assisting with his DIA demonstration. “That helped me understand so clearly how to do this. He makes it simple. And simplicity, I’ve heard from the greats, is the best way.”
Massey is blessed with the unusual combination, for an artist, of creativity and technical brilliance, says his wife of 18 years, Marquitta.
“It’s a gift that he can utilize mathematical formulas to come up with these amazing compositions that he creates,” she says.
He maintains the same balance with putting family first, even while working 16-hour days.
“He balances well,” Marquitta says. “It’s a challenge, but he doesn’t turn off family and other obligations when he’s working on a project. He’s very grounded and grateful; he keeps it all in check.”
In fact, Massey shuttles their children-Jordon, 16, Matthew, 13, and Lia, 9-to and from school, sports practices and games while his wife works full time as a compliance manager.
She stayed home during the DIA demonstration to prepare for Matthew’s birthday celebration after Massey returned that evening.
Artistic talent definitely runs in the family. The kids sometimes join him in his home studio to paint. And Massey’s older daughter, Kyla, 30, is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Massey says his mother, GM retiree Betty, who’s “75 going on 35 because she has so much energy,” showed him how to draw Mickey Mouse as a child. “One day this might feed you,” she said while teaching him to draw. “One day I kept drawing like I was addicted. I couldn’t stop. I’ve had my passion since childhood,” he recalls
His father, Nathaniel, 81, who worked at the U.S. Postal Service, always encouraged him to do his best.
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.
While Massey loves to teach, he says he’s still learning from people like George Arnold, his 91-year-old plaster master who’s been working in the medium for nearly seven decades. He’s partnered with Massey for about eight years.
“Hubert really helps people,” says Arnold after demonstrating the hard work of using a hoe to mix limestone sand and water during the DIA demonstration. “He’s very considerate to everyone, and he’s so dedicated to sharing his gift with the community.”
Detroit artist Yvette Rock, 35, and her husband, Joshua, brought their four children to the DIA to witness Massey in action.
“I love murals and I like my kids to be exposed to art,” Rock said as her daughters, Cedar, 4, and Arise, 6, traced a painting pattern on tissue paper.
Among his many honors, Massey was the Challenge America Grant Awardee of the National Endowment of Arts in 2007. He was recognized by the National Society of Mural Painters of New York, an organization established in 1895. And in 2001, GVSU gave him its Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Massey hopes to one day paint a huge fresco in Detroit’s Main Library, and create an art project commemorating President Barack Obama.
But he has no plans to leave Detroit.
“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.”
ELIZABETH ATKINS IS A DETROIT-BASED AUTHOR AND FREELANCE JOURNALIST.