Detroit is known for its scores of famous residents. Sports legends like Ty Cobb and Joe Louis to titans of the automotive industry to music legends and Motown greats have put us on the map.
But many artists have left their mark on the city as well. Hubert Massey, a master of frescoes, is one. His large-scale color-filled work graces multiple city plazas and public spaces. It’s work that’s hard to miss.
An award-winning Kresge Fine Arts Fellow, Massey learned fresco painting – that done on wet plaster applied to a wall – from former assistants of the legendary artist Diego Rivera, well known for his “Detroit Industry” series of frescoes that lines the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Massey’s work follows the same lead.
Normally huge in scope and ablaze in color, the pieces almost leap out at passersby from their various downtown public spaces. As part of the redevelopment for Paradise Valley in Harmonie Park, he has created a series of large medallions lining the walkways that depict some of Detroit’s more famous African-American citizenry.
Massey also did the Ring of Genealogy terrazzo tile floor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History as well as a large tile mural at the rear of a parking structure on the College for Creative Studies campus.
You can also see his work in a 15’ x 20’ mural in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank on Warren Street; in two granite stone pieces in Campus Martius, and even in private spaces such as the “Cityscape Detroit” fresco that graces the Grill Room at the DAC.
The latest addition to the list is “Detroit: The Center of Innovation and Technology,” a fresco spanning 30’ x 30’ Massey hangs outside the Grand Riverview Ballroom in Cobo Center. Currently in progress, the work will be the topper to the hall’s recent spate of renovations. The original wall was torn out to make room for Massey’s piece. He had to bring structural engineers to perform calculations needed to support the installation’s heft. The fresco weighs more than 13,000 pounds or more than 6 tons.
Massey realizes the impact that his monumental pieces make in public spaces, both from a visibility standpoint and a very real, civic one.
“Art becomes valuable when it’s in a position to be something of importance,” he says. “There’s a difference between hanging a piece of art on the wall and the art becoming the wall. This piece will now be a part of Cobo and a part of the ambiance of the building.”
Massey can attest to the veracity of his statement after having seen his work impact other areas, such as Peck Park opposite the mural on CCS campus.
“The park was in rough shape,” he says, until his mural brought the green space back to life. Massey cites Isamu Noguchi, designer of Hart Plaza, as another artist whose creations have impacted the urban environment.
Massey creates in approximately five different media including frescoes, mosaics, drawings, sculpture and pictographs, the latter of which are granite stone cuts filled with linoleum pieces.
In Flint, he completed a 17’ x 88’ fresco for the Flint Institute of Arts, a mural at the bus terminal, and a very large mural that covers one side of Odyssey House, the building at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and Saginaw Street.
Massey has also done private work in the Detroit suburbs and for a few of the New York Knicks in New York City. His alma mater, Grand Valley State University, commissioned Massey to do a piece, bestowing an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts on him in 2012.
Born in Flint, where his mother still resides, Detroit has been his home though for more than 30 years, 18 of those spent in the historical district off Oakman Boulevard. His studio is a carriage house behind the main residence, which serves as his workspace and storage for his many frescoes, mosaics, drawings, and sketches, “some of them pretty big,” he acknowledges. He takes to frescoes the most because of their challenging logistics.
Massey’s love of figurative drawing came from watching his mother, who drew for enjoyment. Since he was 6 or 7 years old, Massey says, he soaked it in. His father, who played basketball at Arkansas State University, inspired his love for athletics. Massey not only earned an arts scholarship to Grand Valley, he played football and ran track on scholarship there as well. He was all-conference, all-district, a pro prospect and up for all-American as a sophomore, until a knee injury sidelined him.
A semester abroad spent at University College of London’s Slade School of Fine Art, nurtured his love of art. Being in Europe and studying the masters taught Massey lessons that went beyond the classroom. It also taught him art is a business.
“Monet drew the lily pads from his yard – he was well off,” he says. “Van Dyck was one of the highest paid portrait artists and worked for Peter Paul Rubens at his home in southern France. They were well supported.”
To that end, Massey himself has become a working and, as he is quick to point out, not a starving artist. He hires whole crews, as did famous fresco artists like Michelangelo before him, to handle his projects.
“I adopted that idea as my work grew,” he says. “Now I hire artists, architects, and engineers. It’s a whole company.”
His work for Cobo Center is yet another large-scale undertaking in terms of both its crew and its imagery. Depicted in the piece is a central figure resembling The Spirit of Detroit, who holds the world in his hand. The sphere is pulled from the middle of a gear, which represents technology, while a light – the light of innovation – shines down on the globe. Massey’s message – Detroit is at the center of innovation and technology.
To the right are three women who represent three strong industries in Detroit – architecture, business, and education. Massey used The Supremes as inspiration when contemplating them.
At bottom is a woman pulling the two arms of the urban and suburban communities together. The homes shown in the piece represent the neighborhoods while the tapestries over the shoulder of the central figure speak to the different cultures that make Detroit their home. In the background, are the Ambassador Bridge and the new Gordie Howe International Bridge, with a Native American woman at the left pointing to Canada showing a slave figure the way to freedom.
Creating the frescos takes an immense amount of pre-work.
Massey first draws out the work on squares, forming a grid with them that composes the total size of the piece. Frescoes, he says, need to be as accurate as possible. The coloration – almost like tattooing a stone – is not paint but a combined substance made of river sand, marble dust, and oxidized pigments.
The basis for his art comes from community forums that Massey holds around Detroit. He likes involving those who live here in the process and hearing people’s stories. He wants to know how they see their city, and what would impact the community. He then comes up with iconic ideas that support those conversations.
“Sometimes, when I hear what they have to say, I think, ‘That is a great story, and should be turned into a piece of art,’” he says.
For now, he’s completing a section of his work for Cobo every day and expects to be done by mid-summer.
Massey realizes that the hall is a draw for people from all over the world and wants those who view his work to understand the force and ingenuity that’s always been inherent in the Motor City.
“I want people to see that Detroit is the center of technology and innovation and to see the strength of our city. This piece will last for 1,000 years.”