Name: Michael Massenburg
City of origin: I have lived in L.A. most of my life. I was born in San Diego. I’m a Navy brat; my dad was in the service. We moved to Long Beach and then we settled in Los Angeles and we have been in Los Angeles the rest of the time. I went to school here. I went to California State University, Long Beach and Otis Art Institute. Just pretty much an Angelino true and true.
Did you study with Charles White? No, that’s interesting because the time I was just starting college was about the time that I was greatly influenced by him and by a lot of his friends that I am friends with now. I always studied his work in calendars, books, and going to see his shows. So he had a great impact on my life.
How did you find yourself in the arts? Oh wow. It’s been an interesting journey. I did it in a roundabout way because it wasn’t a straight line. I was always into the arts but I didn’t know anything about how to make a living at it. As I went to school I did take some art classes and later on while I was at Cal State Long Beach, I was taking art classes but I became a business major. At that time I wasn’t sure if I would be doing art because I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any kind of relationship with artists at that point in time. So I got involved doing business with my dad. After that chapter closed I decided I was really interested in art, but how was I going to do it? I went to Watts Towers Arts Center and was introduced to John Outterbridge. So that was the beginning of going through this art journey: Watts Towers Arts Center.
Where do you draw your inspiration? There are so many different inspirations, but when I think about artistic inspiration, I mentioned John Outterbridge. Noah Purifoy, whom I didn’t meet until much later, but I was impacted by his work with objects even though I’m primarily drawn to painting. I’m interested in other art forms too, so being around the Towers you had that element of object and symmetry. Then later, I was also influenced by Romare Bearden to do collage works. I studied his work and the combination of Realism through the narrative works of Bearden, inspired by Charles White’s works, and the spontaneity and the mixed media and the colorizations of Beards work; I was kind of impacted by both, so it gave me a hybrid way of higher power communication. Pretty much everyone from that era; Betye Saar, John Riddle, David Hammonds. I got a chance to study and meet with them during the 60s, and I was a kid during that time so I was too young to be a part of it but later I was old enough to appreciate it.
Certainly. You mentioned the 60’s and as you know, during the late 60s and 70s there was this huge explosion of mural art in the city. So here we are in the heart of the city, The Pico House at Olvera Street, the birth site of Los Angeles, and also the place where Siqueiros painted the first mural in 1932.
Yes I have seen it, covered, but I have seen it.
Well it is going to be unveiled October 9th of this year. That’s why it’s so important to us that we are interviewing you, because we know that you have suffered a little bit of what he suffered, when his mural was whitewashed; same as what happened to your last mural. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Well first off, I have seen some of Siqueiros’s work and it has impacted me as far as doing mural work. In regards to the piece I did years ago for Century Avenue Jazz, right near 42nd Street, I was commissioned by the KFC manager for the history of jazz and they also had a festival at the time. I always loved history, especially history of Los Angeles. I love to illustrate stuff like that. So I did a little bit of the personalities who were very influential, like some of the teachers who taught summer school like Forest Tabscott, Dexter Gordon, and so many others. Also, people who are not being recognized like Carl Wright. It was one of those things where I just wanted to illustrate and create so that people could see who they are, and some of these people are still here. That was done in I think 2000 and then a few years ago it was graffiti’d. Then eventually the management decided to white it out without even contacting me, even though they had my information so I couldn’t understand why they did that. So what’s happening now is one of the key people who helped get me the commission; he’s doing an investigation but because of the mural ordinance, everything’s on hold.
What was the most memorable response to your work? Oh wow there has been so many great experiences. One of the great things about when I’m in the process of creating paintings on the streets or murals, people come by and stop to talk to you. That’s really, to me, the jewel of it. They offer to donate money on the spot or they bring you something to eat or just the conversation or talking about who’s in the mural that they know or talking about “we’re going to protect this because this is ours.” It’s great to get recognition through newspapers, magazines, critics, and the commissions are great but when you connect with the people that live with these pieces everyday, I think that’s really what the heart and beauty of it is.
When you aren’t creating works of art, what can you be found doing?
Who were some of your mentors? John Outterbridge, as I mentioned earlier, Cecil Furguson, former curator at the L.A. County Arts Museum. And artist William Pajaud. Those are the main ones that I have communicated with on a daily basis or weekly basis. I like to work with Judy Baca and everyone one over there at SPARC. There’s just so many. Even now as far as some of my artist
friends that are closer to my age like Richard Wyatt, I have had the chance to work with him a lot. Charles Dixon who does sculptures and my friend who just passed away, Willie Middlebrook. We did a lot of stuff together.
What are you current/future projects? Right now I’m currently exhibiting at the California African American Museum in an exhibit called “Shared Threads.” It’s six artists all together and I have a large installation. One was a twelve-foot painting I did. I’m used to doing large stuff with murals but this is the first time I have done a large piece for an exhibition. Recently designed the artwork for a metro line, Farmdale Station that opened up this year.
Oh I’m so glad you got that commission. That’s fantastic, and so did Willie Middlebrook.
Thank You! Yes, he’s at Crenshaw and I’m at Farmdale so we’re still like side-by-side friends.
Which of your murals is your favorite? Why?
It’s hard, there are so many of them. One of the first I did, it was actually out of town. After I had done a few small things, the biggest one was for American Jazz in Kent City, the history of Jazz, called Jazz Era that was in 1995-96. That was my first time doing that. So that was great. I did a mural in LA for Greenwater School, on Manchester near Vermont. Another one getting a lot of positive feedback is “Visions,” at Leimert Park; it’s a little history of Leimert Park.
What themes/messages do you convey through your work?
It is one of those things where I was growing up; I felt those stereotypes and separations, as far as communities and stuff. I wanted to use art as a tool to break down those barriers because when you see an artwork, and it speaks to you, you got it. As opposed to seeing the news, you turn it on; you turn it off. To me it’s sort of like, I remember years ago, Chuck D. from Public Enemy had said his music was like seeing him. I wanted my work to do that. No matter who is looking at it, no matter what kind of background, working people, academia, different country, I want a sense of what it is I am trying to convey, what kind of storyline I’m trying to convey. Sometimes it’s political; sometimes it’s social; sometimes it’s personal.