Detroit artist Hubert Massey has been commissioned to paint a new fresco about Detroit at Cobo Center. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
On two large walls of a windowless room in Cobo Center, Hubert Massey moves a charcoal stick over big sheets of white paper. He’s drawing a “cartoon,” but not the kind found in a comic book or on an editorial page.
It is an outline for a large mural, to be painted in the fresco style, about Detroit, its landscape, its commerce, its history and its people. The mural will stand 25 feet tall and 27 feet wide. In that frescoes are painted on wet plaster, there is little margin for error once the final process begins.
“You have to move fast and have a pretty sure hand,” Massey says. “Fresco is such a demanding medium. I love the scale and I love the challenge. In a fresco, so much is happening, and yet it’s so calm. It doesn’t overpower you.”
A major project like this, he says, “is like living your dream, perfecting an idea over a long period of time.”
Even at this stage of production, Massey’s sketch reveals what is to come: Bridges over the Detroit River; Father Gabriel Richard, the founder of the University of Michigan; an Indian canoe and a Great Lakes freighter; and a muscular man who looks a little like the “Spirit of Detroit” statue and a little like Detroit boxer Joe Louis.
But one of the man’s arms is mechanical, like that of a robot in an auto factory. Its hand holds a globe with the state of Michigan on top. Many of Massey’s ideas are inspired, he says, by listening to the community.
“African-Americans are storytellers,” Massey says. “The oral stories come to life in the paintings. Art is about history and telling stories.”
Frescoes, Massey says, are ancient. Long before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, prehistoric cave dwellers used similar techniques on their natural walls.
“They’re all limestone and it’s damp inside,” Massey says. “You take red dirt, add water and start painting. That’s it.”
If all goes according to plan, and if the full funding comes through, Massey will complete his work of art next year and it will be displayed on the water side of Cobo, outside the Grand Riverfront ballroom.
It will be the centerpiece of an ambitious effort by Cobo’s curator, Maureen Devine, to use art to spruce up the recently renovated convention facility.
“I want Hubert’s piece to be the springboard,” Devine says. “It will help define the city to the national and international guests who are not familiar with Detroit or the southeast Michigan region.”
She said it is also the sort of work that may attract local school groups and art buffs.
The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which runs Cobo, has raised about 20 percent of the necessary $510,000 for the fresco. A kickoff for a public fundraising drive is scheduled for Sept. 8 at Cobo, although some contributions may already be in the pipeline.
“The fresco is presently being considered for funding through several local foundations,” Devine said. “This could bring in an additional $200,000.”
In the meantime, Massey works alone, with soft jazz music pouring out of a small speaker next to his laptop — Miles Davis perhaps, or John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk.
“This is peaceful,” Massey says of his work environment. “You can think.”
On the screen of his computer, he sometimes clicks for inspiration to black-and-white film of Diego Rivera painting his “Detroit Industry” frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts in the early 1930s.
It took Massey several years to locate and obtain the movies from the National Archives.
The film is silent, but the pictures tell the tale of a labor of love. It is as if Massey is looking over Rivera’s shoulder across eight decades. Rivera works on scaffolding, his sure hand coloring the wall with a brisk, but feathery touch. His brush flutters across the wet plaster.
“I am inspired by Diego Rivera’s way of creating compositions that tell about the culture and history of a community,” Massey says.
Massey once participated in a fresco seminar conducted by Rivera’s former apprentice, Stephen Dimitroff, and his wife, Lucienne Bloch.
“That changed my world,” he says. “After that, I was on fire.”
His most notable fresco may be “Cityscape Detroit” that covers most of one wall of the Grill Room at the Detroit Athletic Club.
More public and accessible are Massey’s terrazzo “Genealogy” on the floor of the entrance rotunda of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; his “Spiral of Life” mosaic at the pedestrian bridge on Bagley in the Mexican section of the near west side; and his “Paradise Valley” sidewalk circles honoring Detroit’s African-American history in Harmonie Park on the near east side.
And then there is the two-part painting (on canvas made of Belgian linen) from Greek mythology called “Laocoon and His Sons,” adorning opposite sides of a large doorway in the Atheneum Hotel. Each half shows naked men entwined by large snakes.
“It shows the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being attacked by sea serpents,” Massey says.
In a hotel lobby in Greektown, it’s impossible to ignore.
“Guests marvel over it,” says Darnell Archibald, who works in guest services. “Lots of ‘ohhhs’ and ‘ahhhs.’ They want to take photos.”
At the Wright Museum, Yolanda Jack, the coordinator of public programs, said Massey’s “Genealogy” is a teaching tool for school kids and older folks, as well. It lies in the center of the floor, under a skylight dome.
As is the case with many Massey works, the Wright museum installation is busy. Hands reach out to other hands. Chains are broken. The blue of water, Jack says, suggests the passage of Africans in slavery to North America.
A large, dark figure in the center represents the creative spirit, she says. Among the names on the outer circle: Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Coleman A. Young.
“Hubert Massey is an excellent educator,” Jack says, adding that the tile work “connects us to ourselves with homage and honor.”
She is a former pupil of Massey, who has taught at Wayne State University. When she insisted to him she couldn’t draw, he proved to her — in 20 minutes, she says — that she could.
“He has that love, that generosity,” Jack says. “He shares it and he disperses it.”
Like Rivera, Massey began his career as an outdoor sign painter, excellent training for an artist working large-scale projects. Before that, the Flint native hoped to play professional football, but a knee injury at Grand Valley State ended his career.
“The injury was a blessing,” Massey says, because it allowed him to concentrate on “the mental and physical preparation” needed for large works like frescoes.
“I still do watch football,” he says, “and I do think ‘That could have been me.’ ”
Instead, he entertains fans in the local art world like Detroit sculptor Robert Sestok, whose abstract piece “Rock and Roll” occupies a prominent place in Cobo.
“Hubert is quite a guy,” says Sestok, interviewed while sitting in his garden of 29 abstract sculptures next to the John C. Lodge Freeway at Alexandrine. “He is blessed. He just found his way. I have to applaud anybody who has that sense of scale. We are lucky to have him.”
Another fan is George N’Namdi, interviewed in his Midtown gallery on Forest.
“Hubert is one of our most prolific artists,” N’Namdi says. “He’s made a major contribution to the city. Not only does he produce wonderful works, but he brings his community into it.”
Before starting his new work at Cobo, Massey convened a focus group of 18 people from different professions and of different ages, just to get inspired. Some were children.
“A lot of Detroiters have wonderful stories to be told,” Massey says.
N’Namdi, with a rueful smile, says his only problem with Massey’s art is that people have to walk on it when they cross the lobby of the Wright museum.
“It’s so beautiful,” N’Namdi says with a shake of his head. But what else are floors for?