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Elevator Chat: Herbert Massie, Director of Community Engagement, Baltimore Clayworks

Elevator Chat: Herbert Massie, Director of Community Engagement, Baltimore Clayworks

March 03, 2016Arts Across Maryland

Herb Massie, a community artist, organizer, teacher, sculptor, mosaic artist, and Director of Community Engagement at Baltimore Clayworks received the "Sue Hess Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year Award" at the 2016 Maryland Arts Day, February 17.

The award is in honor of Sue Hess, MCA’s first Chair of the Board of Trustees and the longest serving member of the organization. It recognizes an individual whose advocacy efforts have significantly increased support for and public recognition of the arts in Maryland. 

While Massie is a professional artist best known for his functional and sculptural clay works, mosaics and mask making, he is also an experienced educator, facilitating workshops in various recreational and PAL Centers, libraries, museums, and schools. Massie, known as a master of engaging people of all ages in the art-making process, has the particular ability to help middle and high school students reach their full potential through the arts.

Massie uses clay as a vehicle for healing, relationship development, advocacy and community building utilizing a diverse pool of participants. For more than 25 years, he has worked to bring dignity, voice and strength to young people, teens, students with disabilities, senior adults and people experiencing addiction recovery, through hands-on arts experiences.

MSAC: What or who, inspired you to become an artist?

HM: Actually, I inspired myself. Drawing was one of those things that came naturally. My family and friends heard me say, “I always wanted to be an artist.” In sixth grade, a teacher thought I was taking notes, but I was drawing. He liked the picture so much; he made sure when I got to Junior High that they set me up with art classes.

I went to Northwest High School; they had a curriculum program for those interested in the arts. I ended up taking credits in arts, fine arts, drawing. At that point, I realized my determination in becoming an artist. I also realized I had to have an income. After graduation, I got a job at Match Copy, where I was designing matchbooks.

I said ‘if I am going to work for a living, I might as well do my dreams.’ At that time, I went back to school, and I had taken classes at Community College of Baltimore, now CCBC. There I met an art instructor; he showed me many techniques in clay, and I assisted him in the studio.

I did a little freelance on the side, at that point, but my spirit was never right. About 25 years ago, I told my employer (where I was on shift work), that I wanted to teach art or work in the community.

I did it the old-fashioned way, going door to door. I asked if I could teach art at a local recreation center. The center employees all said ‘we don’t have money to pay you,’ my response was if I would get a good recommendation, I could go farther in my career. My teaching style was talking, drawing and doing demonstrations. Even today, I do a lot of drawing while I teach.

My sister took me to Baltimore Clayworks. At that time, they had one building. I took a couple of classes to get back into clay. They invited me to a meeting one day, and I introduced myself, and they asked for my work, and then they hired me. One of the things that threw me was the fact that it was more of a relaxed family environment instead of corporate culture.

I started teaching at Clayworks. Folks would always call to say they enjoyed the class, and could I come back? They didn’t want to lose me, so they created positions for me. In between semesters, they were trying to make me a better teacher. At some point, I was asked to be co-director of community arts. I started working in that capacity and have been at Clayworks for 11 years.

MSAC: What forms of media do you like to use when you work?

HM: I work in clay and mosaics. On occasion, I will teach drawing and painting. I like mosaics because there is something spiritual about bringing the little pieces together and creating a picture or design. Regarding working with students or the community, you can bring everyone together to create a work of art, for private or public use. When using clay, I am a person who likes to take a drawing and work in 3D when doing clay.

MSAC: Would you please share a success story regarding your relationship and community- building advocacy? 

HM: My students range from 5 year-olds to the mid-80s, so for the past ten years I have been teaching elementary, middle, high school, seniors, men and women in recovery, in the methadone program and ex-offenders.

When I work with kids who have physical or mental disabilities, or if they have shortcomings, I can work around them. I had a student in my teen class; he was about 15, and the mother was a little overbearing. I casually mentioned that when we put music on, he sings. She stopped me and said she had never heard him sing.

Ex-offenders I worked with are always looking at learning as an opportunity for a job. They have also said how therapeutic art is. Also, they would not be as sociable if they did not come to class.

MSAC: What does winning the Sue Hess Arts Advocate of the Year Award mean to you?

HM: It was a humbling experience, yet it is satisfying and rewarding. I carry that energy with me every day walking out of my house.  Many people helped to make this possible. My life changed, once I started thinking about my fellow man. It is about a hug; you’d be surprised how much you can share through a hug. I didn’t put a lot of thought into my acceptance speech; I wanted it to come naturally.  God told me that I should have everyone hug (in the audience), and they did. That was nice.

MSAC: What are your plans for the future?

HM: Because of the recent unrest in Sandtown and the culture of people today, we need to reach out to the organizations that work with troubled kids. I think our program will fit well with these institutions.  Nevertheless, I plan to work still with Clayworks and do the work that we are doing. This past summer, we worked with many of these kids down in Sandtown. All the artists and myself worked with groups of kids through the youth works program. They learned what an artist does and how to experience art in their life.

We made a mosaic in the 1200 block N. Stricker Street and made flowerpots for residents. It was a real intense program, and the University of Baltimore opened their doors for us. We were knocking on doors making the residents aware of what we are doing. Everyone that was home, they went out to their neighbor’s house to talk about the flowerpots. When I was growing up, everyone knew each other’s kids, and this brought back a real feel good feeling.

One of the things that we do at Baltimore Clayworks is we do not measure the artistic ability of the student as much as we do of teaching life skills. Through the art, we have done a good job of making the students experience love, understanding, helping your fellow man and to have an appreciation of life itself.

Three years ago, the Forza Institute people were going around the country and world, seeking love and forgiveness in artists work. I was invited to Assisi, Italy; they brought 500 artists who showed love and forgiveness in their works. They chose me as an exemplary artist sharing love and forgiveness in the arts. If we treat people with respect and dignity, we, ourselves, should expect nothing else.

For more about Herb Massie, watch here.

L to R: Herb Massie, Sue Hess and John Schratwieser of Maryland