“The difference between a good life and a bad life,” begins a line attributed to psychiatrist Carl Jung, “is how well you walk through the fire.”
Artist Mike Henderson Knows the cleansing and clarifying effects of fire. In 1985, a fire broke out in his studio, damaging much of his work over the previous two decades. But that moment of destruction was also the moment of creation.
says the 79-year-old via Zoom from his home in San Leandro near Oakland, California. I would have died if I had stayed there. I started to look at my life in terms of relationships and what life is. Raising a family: I wouldn’t do that. I decided to take my life away so I could find this person.”
Henderson did and has now been married for more than 30 years, though he waves his finger at the camera to show that he recently lost his wedding ring — he removed it to put on some rubber gloves and believes it was stolen by workmen at his home.
The painter, filmmaker and blues musician is now preparing for his first solo exhibition in 20 years. Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965-1985 It opened last week at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California, Davis.
It’s a rare opportunity to see Henderson’s large figurative “protest paintings” depicting racial violence and police brutality in the civil rights era. The display includes many pieces that were thought to have been lost in the fire but have been recovered and restored by the museum. There is also a slide show of damaged artwork to shed light on dozens of paintings that were far from salvage.
It’s been a long journey here. Henderson grew up in a home that lacked running water Marshall, Missouri, during the Jim Crow era of apartheid. His mother was a cook. His father worked in a shoe factory and as a janitor. “We were poor,” he remembers, leaning back in a chair under a blue baseball cap. “We couldn’t even spell ‘poor.’ We couldn’t get a P.”
But attending Sunday sermons at church with his grandmother, Henderson was moved by religious paintings. “I was a weirdo because I was still a dreamer. I had these dreams of something else like wanting to be an artist or wanting to play guitar. It didn’t make much sense. You have to be a soccer player, an athlete, go to the army, get married, And you live two doors down from your parents, and it repeats itself all over again. Sit around and tell lies in the barbershop etc. 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 the Vincent Van Gogh Gallery in Kansas City proved inspirational and life-changing. In 1965, Henderson rode west on a Greyhound bus to study at the University of Michigan San Francisco Art Institute, then the only racially integrated art school in America. He found a community of artists and kindred spirits from very different backgrounds than his own.
I went as an empty container. I had no opinions on anything so I was like a sponge just soaking it all up. I was around students whose parents were artists from New York, kids who had traveled the world. Real Diverse: Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and various Native American tribes. I got used to mingling with everyone I could know that I didn’t know.”
This was also a turbulent era of civil rights demonstrations, protests against the Vietnam War, and, in Oakland, the birth of Black Panthersa political organization that aims to combine socialism, black nationalism, and armed defense against police brutality.
Henderson recalls that the parades were culturally and ethnically diverse. “There’s a common thread here; everyone feels something here. Everyone was questioning everything and saying why are we fighting? It was like a magnet sticking to me and I was taking everything in.”
He smiles when he thinks of an 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!” The singer-songwriter was Joan Baez. Henderson, tongue tied, manages to point out, “I’m not Harry!” Baez apologized, got back in the limo and drove 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 budding Symbolist painter who was like Goya, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. “In the ’60s, painting was dead. Conceptual art, filmmaking, new things were coming. How was I going to make a living from it? I don’t know.”
“I knew one thing. I wouldn’t be on my deathbed wondering why I didn’t try. I knew my protest paintings wouldn’t hang in anyone’s living room, but the paintings were coming right through me. There was a deeper calling. It wasn’t about, did you? Will it sell or is it famous? It’s getting out of me and I had no control over it. It was controlling me.”
It was a financial struggle. Henderson would occasionally eat popcorn at dinner and depended on student loans or the kindness of strangers. But in 1970 he joined the leading company University of California, Davis College of the ArtsHe taught for 43 years alongside Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arnson, Roy de Forest, Manuel Neri, and William T. Wiley (retired in 2012 as Professor Emeritus).
In 1985, he took a leave of absence from UC Davis to play in a band that toured Switzerland. But during his first weekend away from home, he learned his San Francisco home had been destroyed by fire. “It was as if the rug had been ripped from under my feet when the landlord called me and told me everything was gone,” he says.
“Wow, the first thing I did was get rid of all the booze around me because I wanted to rebound and it would just fog my brains. I was in shock. When I came back, I found out later that things weren’t that bad. There were some plates saved.”
Fortunately, the fire stopped at the door of a cupboard containing Henderson’s prized films of blues musicians such as Big Mama Thornton. “When the owner told me the whole building was gone, I thought first of this movie. Paintings I could do again, maybe, but I could never replace those movies.”
Henderson did not resume work on protest panels after the fire. Instead, his later works explore black lives and utopian visions through abstraction, afro-futurism, and surrealism. “I didn’t want to draw figures anymore,” he says. “I felt like I was going through numbers.”
His house is gone and he can no longer afford to live in San Francisco – “I’m not Rauschenberg! — so he found a place in Auckland instead. “It was a big change and I did a lot of research on why I was there. I knew there was only one way to move forward and that was to move forward.
“I remember thinking I’m in a ditch. I can’t get over the right or left side. I can’t go back. I have to go forward and keep going forward, see where this leads us, and maybe I can get out of this ditch. Eventually I moved out and got married and had a baby.” Papen: He’s a wildlife biologist. I couldn’t complain because I chose art. So whatever he chooses is OK!”