“The difference between a good life and a bad life,” begins a line attributed to psychiatrist Carl Jung, “is how well you walk through fire.”
Artist Mike Henderson knows the purifying, clarifying effects of fire. In 1985, a fire tore through his home studio, damaging much of his work from the previous two decades. But that moment of destruction was also one of creation.
“I realized that the fire was a changing part in my life,” the 79-year-old said via Zoom from his home in San Leandro near Oakland, California. “I could have died if I had stayed there. I started looking at my life in terms of relationships and what life is all about. Raising a family: I wouldn’t have done it. I decided to clean up my life so I could find that person.”
Henderson did just that and has now been married for over 30 years, although he sadly wags a finger at the camera to show that he recently lost his wedding ring – he removed it to put on a pair of rubber gloves and believes was stolen from his home by workers.
The painter, filmmaker and blues musician is now preparing for his first solo exhibition in 20 years. Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 opened last week at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis.
This is a rare chance to see Henderson’s large, figurative “protest paintings” depicting the racist violence and police brutality of the civil rights era. The show includes many pieces that were thought to have been lost in the fire, but were recovered and restored by the museum. There is also a slide show of damaged artwork to highlight the dozens of paintings that were beyond saving.
It’s been a long journey here. Henderson grew up in a home without running water in Marshall, Missouri, during the era of Jim Crow segregation. His mother was a cook; his father worked in a shoe factory and as a caretaker. “We were poor,” he recalled, reclining in a chair under a blue baseball cap. “We couldn’t even play ‘weak’. We couldn’t find the P.”
But when he attended sermons at church with his grandmother on Sunday, Henderson was moved by the religious paintings. “I was a stranger because I was still a dreamer. I had these dreams of something else like wanting to be an artist or play the guitar. It didn’t make much sense. You have to be a football player, athlete, you go to the army, you get married, you live two doors down from your parents and it repeats again. Sitting around telling lies in the barbershop and so on. I tried to fit in, but I didn’t.”
He was severely dyslexic and left school when he was 16, but returned at 21. A visit to a Vincent van Gogh exhibit in Kansas City was inspiring and life-changing. In 1965, Henderson rode west on a Greyhound bus to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, then the only racially integrated art school in America. He found a community of artists and kindred spirits from backgrounds very different from his own.
“I went as an empty vessel. I had no opinions about anything, so I was like a sponge that just soaked up everything. I was around students whose parents were New York artists, kids who traveled the world. Truly diverse: Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, and various tribes of Native Americans. I made a habit of mixing with everyone I could to find out whatever it was that I didn’t know.”
It was also the tumultuous era of civil rights demonstrations, protests against the Vietnam War and, in Oakland, the birth of the Black Panthers, a political organization that aimed to combine socialism, Black nationalism and armed defense against police brutality.
The rallies were culturally and racially diverse, Henderson recalls. “There is a common thread here; everyone feels something here. Everyone questioned everything and said, why are we fighting? It was like a magnet that glued me to it and I just took everything in.”
He smiles when he recalls one anti-war protest where a limousine pulled up and a woman got out, kissed him and exclaimed: “Harry, I haven’t seen you in years!” It was singer-songwriter Joan Baez. Henderson, tongue in cheek, managed to point out, “I’m not Harry!” Baez excused herself, got back into the limo and headed to the civic center, where Henderson watched her perform the Lord’s Prayer.
But it was also a revolutionary moment in art – bad timing for a young figurative painter who idolized Goya, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. “In the 60s, painting was dead. Conceptual art, filmmaking, the new stuff was coming in. How am I going to make a living out of it? I do not know.
“I knew one thing. I’m not going to be on my deathbed wondering why I didn’t try. I knew that the protest paintings I was doing weren’t going to hang in someone’s living room, but the paintings came through me. There was a deeper calling. It wasn’t about, will it sell or is it popular? It came out of me and I had no control over it. It controlled me.”
It was a financial struggle. Henderson sometimes had popcorn for dinner and depended on student loans or the kindness of strangers. But in 1970 he joined the pioneering UC Davis art faculty and taught for 43 years with Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri and William T Wiley (he retired as professor emeritus in 2012).
In 1985 he took a sabbatical from UC Davis to play in an orchestra touring Switzerland. But during his first weekend away, he learned that his home in San Francisco had been destroyed by fire. “It was like the rug was pulled from under my feet when my landlord called me and told me that everything was gone,” he says.
“Wow, the first thing I did was get rid of all the booze around me because I wanted to bounce and it was going to miss my brain. I was in shock. When I came back, I later found out things weren’t so bad. There were some paintings that were saved.”
And luckily, the fire stopped at the door of a storage cabinet containing Henderson’s treasured films of blues musicians like Big Mama Thornton. “When the landlord told me the whole block was gone, I first thought of that film. I might be able to do the paintings again, but I could never replace those films.”
Henderson did not resume work on protest paintings after the fire. Instead, his later work explores black life and utopian visions through abstraction, Afro-futurism and surrealism. He reflects: “I didn’t want to paint figures anymore. I felt I was done with numbers.”
His house was gone and he could no longer afford to live in San Francisco – “I’m not Rauschenberg!” – so he got a place in Oakland instead. “It was a big change and I did a lot of soul searching as to why I was there. I knew there was only one way to go and that was to go forward.
“I remember thinking I was in a trench. I can’t go over the right or left side. I can’t go back. I have to go forward and just keep going, see where it leads, and maybe I can get out of this ditch. Eventually I moved on and got married and had a son: he is a wildlife biologist. I couldn’t complain because I chose art. So whatever he chooses is fine with me!”