Video: Hubert Massey Fresco Painter by Michael Lucido on Vimeo.
The author, a contributor to Deadline Detroit, is a former reporter for the New York Times and Detroit Free Press.
By Joe Lapointe
In his vibrant new fresco at Cobo Center, the acclaimed Detroit artist Hubert Massey depicts a virtual army of arms entwined peacefully across Detroit’s past, present and future.
“Reach out and embrace,” Massey said. “Spiritually, we are all connected as one.”
In the shadows of the lower left corner, one arm carries a lantern to lead a brown-clad man escaping slavery. Above them, a native woman with a baby on her back points her arm, hand and index finger across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
“The Underground Railroad,” Massey said. “Freedom.”
On the other side of the mural — which is almost 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide — two big arms of a shirtless man stretch diagonally across the 13,000-pound work of art made mostly of plaster and paint.
He looks a little like the Spirit of Detroit statue outside city hall and a little like legendary Detroit boxer Joe Louis. In his open left hand is a miniature planet Earth with Detroit on top.
“He holds the world in his hand,” Massey said. “He touches around the world. Detroit is global.”
From above the globe, golden light beams down from a massive robotic arm you might see in a modern factory.
“That’s innovation,” Massey said. “It shines a light.”
Massey’s “Detroit: Crossroads of Innovation” was a three-year project completed in August and to be formally unveiled Friday night at Cobo. It cost $510,000 and stands outside the Riverview Ballroom high up on a wall on the south side of the renovated convention center.
But for a triumph as exciting as Massey’s latest work – so filled with arms and hands and fingers – there is precious little elbow room to view the piece when standing directly in front of it.
It dominates a bright but narrow passage. Windows below and alongside the fresco look out to the river and to Windsor – basically the same view as painted in the fresco. While gazing at the art, a viewer can see the People Mover rumble by above as Great Lakes freighters glide by below.
From right and left of this fresco, across various levels of the vast Cobo interior, a visitor can step back to see it in perspective, a jolting smash of color against sterile white and steel surroundings. But to view it front and center, up close and personal, one must crane one’s neck.
“Well, I guess I would say that’s true, I can’t deny that,” said Larry Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
He is chairman of the Cobo authority that sponsored the project and picked up part of the cost along with a long list of contributors.
“But when you view it from different perspectives and different angles, it makes up for the deficit of not being able to back up and view it straight on,” Alexander said. “Hubert Massey did a phenomenal job. His attention to detail is breath-taking.”
Massey gives a light-hearted reply to the question about neck-craning.
“True,” he says, “but you also have to crane your neck to see the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.”
No, he wasn’t comparing himself to Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome in the early 1500s. That masterpiece is still pretty much the state of the art for this ancient craft, which began back in prehistoric times when cave dwellers used dirt mixed with water to paint pictures on limestone walls.
And, locally, any fresco must compare to “Detroit Industry” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, painted in the 1930s by Diego Rivera. Massey is a fan of Rivera and he studied under two of Rivera’s apprentices.
He points out that he and Rivera both started as commercial sign painters. Another of Massey’s frescoes, “Cityscape Detroit,” adorns a big wall at the Detroit Athletic Club. His tile work “Genealogy” decorates the floor of the entry hall of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History.
At last week’s visitation in the museum, Aretha Franklin’s casket rested next to Massey’s tiles. As is the case with his new work, “Genealogy” at the Wright includes the motif of hands reaching and clasping.
Near the bottom of his new work at Cobo, a young African-American woman dressed in blue holds out both arms to grasp the arms of others. But you can see only small parts of their arms. One is black, the other white.
“Urban and suburban,” Massey said. “Bring those two communities together.”
At the top of the mural, two big bridges reach across the blue river like two arms connecting two nations. The Ambassador Bridge is in the foreground. In the background is the Gordie Howe Bridge, yet to be built.
“I created a composition that sort of tells the history of the city of Detroit,” Massey said. “I like history. I like culture. I like to tell a story. I see myself as a story-teller.”
Another strength of the fresco is its perspective. To mix so many human figures of different sizes with tall buildings and one big gear, Massey used a technique called “dynamic symmetry.” It lets the viewer see a scene as if from a camera mounted on a drone.
“When you see the piece, you’re not looking up, but you’re looking down and you’re getting this aerial perspective,” Massey said. “It’s amazing how you can have a large figure and three smaller figures right next to it and still have a sense of scale. Everything fits and it still makes sense.”
His new work is not a comprehensive history of the city. There is no reference to the French settlers who arrived in 1701 and built a fort. Nor are there even hints of the violence, decay and bankruptcy that plagued the Motor City in recent decades. Massey’s fresco puts neat, tidy, working-class homes on the outskirts of his frame. None look abandoned.
Even a brief conversation reveals Massey to be a relentlessly positive, 60-year-old Detroiter who prefers to dwell on the positive of what was then, what is now and what might come.
“We are a rich, vibrant community,” Massey said. “There are 11 or 12 stories in there. You’ve got to come and see it. It weighs almost six tons. It’s going to be here for a while. I hope this inspires other artists.”
Climbing down from his mechanical scaffolding on a warm, late afternoon in late August after finishing his final brush strokes, Massey wiped his brow and exclaimed “I feel ecstatic. Really happy. Pleased. It’s been a long time coming.”