By Keri Luise
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Knowing he wanted to be an artist even before starting school, Herb Massie has centered his life around pursuing his passion while helping beautify the Baltimore community.
“Personality is everything,” Massie told the Baltimore Watchdog while working on a project wearing his signature hat. “I love life. I love my life and I try and bring that to any situation that I’m in.
“I truly believe that as a community artist, it’s not so much the art making, it’s the personalities of the people and relationships that are developed. It’s always about the stories and the people that I work with,” he explained.
Massie is known for functional and sculptural clay works, as well as mosaics and masks. Outside of his community arts projects, he was commissioned by the Walters Art Museum to create a mosaic project to honor a slave housekeeper named Sydney Grant who was locked up by the Union army in the 1800s.
In describing the piece, Massie said, “I wanted it to be done in such a way that when you walked in the room you would see this greatness and ask yourself well who was she? I wanted to focus on the greatness of this individual. So, right when I did it, I did it in mind with having people to walk away wondering who was she and why is she being honored in such a way? And it’s received a lot of response.”
Ever since he started school, Massie’s schoolteachers had recognized his artistic potential and constantly gave him more advanced assignments to help advance his skills.
“By the time I left elementary school and I was going to junior high, my teacher had already sent a letter letting the art teachers know to not let my talent go unchallenged or to waste,” Massie said. “So, by the time I got to junior high school, the teachers were fighting over having me in their class.”
Massie graduated from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland and started taking art classes at the Community College of Baltimore, now CCBC, where he participated in workshops and expanded his artistic interests.
When he was in his 30s, Massie said he started volunteering to teach at art recreational centers, “different schools and, for the most part, it wasn’t about the money. It was about just getting the experience. And that turned out to be the best decision I could ever make.”
Over the past 10 years, Massie said he has taught art at multiple agencies, child services centers, community groups, elementary through high schools, and at programs for substance abusers and ex-offenders.
“I started reflecting on, especially when I was with the school system, how I always had phenomenal teachers and [how] they had the opportunity to always push me,” Massie said. “So, my concentration was on giving kids the skillsets that would prepare them down the line so they can do the best that they can.”
Massie’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
“He’s all about the kids and also making this fantastic project that reflects the work with the kids,” said Nicole Fall, a past co-worker of Massie’s from Baltimore Clayworks. “And so, when he’s in a project he’s totally dedicated to it.” Fall is Clayworks’ community arts manager.
At Baltimore Clayworks, a local ceramic arts center offering a range of artistic classes, Massie worked as a teacher for 18 years. Also, he was co-director of the Community Arts Department, which officials said helps “facilitate and build on not just working with communities but building sustainable relationships.”
Students praised Massie.
“Mr. Massie is like the most inspirational person I know,” said Taniyah Kutcherman, a past student.
“I think as an African American male he’s a role model to kids and specifically to young men,” Fall said. “And then his level of engagement has influenced kids. And I’m sure he’s had quite an effect on them.”
Desiree Mack, the Northwest Community Action Partnership Center manager, said Massie has been teaching his students responsibility as well as opening their eyes to new things.
“He gave them a whole lot more that artwork,” she said. “Just important life skills.”
In July, Massie joined Baltimore Clayworks again to help with a summer mosaic project for the community youth to help beautify Shirley Avenue Park in Park Heights. Massie instructed these students as they created a mosaic mural themed around anti-violence and hope featuring the Safe Streets slogan “There is Hope in the Heights.”
“The reason why I took on this particular project is because Park Heights has a high crime rate and a lot of issues that are going on in the neighborhood, housing and all,” Massie said. “And I wanted to do something to benefit the lives of the young people.”
Massie is now finalizing plans for his next community project for another mosaic mural at CC Jackson Recreation Center.
“I went to Baltimore Clayworks with my project possibly to start another team for a mural project over there so that’s how that started,” Massie said.
Massie also has his own community arts company called Break and Make Mosaics.
“We believe in the community and working with people and we started that company to do more work focused that’s community based,” he said. “We’re just trying to reach a larger audience. The last two years I’ve been working with Break and Make Mosaics and doing work on my own.”
Massie struggled to pick a favorite project among his wide range of works.
“They all have a special place, they all are special to me,” he said. “I don’t place one over the other because each one has a story. Each one has a story and it’s unique to the environment and the people that I was working with.”