May 04, 2020

It Doesn’t Come Overnight: Mike Henderson and Qianjin Montoya in Conversation

Opening reception of <em>Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness</em> at San Francisco Art Institute, September 20, 2019. Mike Henderson, guitar; Jerry Long, keyboard; Ed Ramirez, drums; John Rodstad, bass. Photo: Keisha Kidd. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute.

Opening reception of Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness at San Francisco Art Institute, September 20, 2019. Mike Henderson, guitar; Jerry Long, keyboard; Ed Ramirez, drums; John Rodstad, bass. Photo: Keisha Kidd. Courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute.

It was a sunny San Francisco day in early October 2019 when I met with Bay Area artist Mike Henderson to conduct a follow-up interview; I’d already met him a few months earlier at his home in San Leandro, after he agreed to speak with me about his experience as a burgeoning artist in the Bay Area in the 1960s and ‘70s. I was interested in his involvement in the social and political movements that, not coincidentally, often included art students and faculty from local universities. The Third World Liberation Front strikes that began at SF State in 1968 and spread to UC Berkeley and beyond were happening as Henderson was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute; he participated in school-organized anti-war marches and rallies while trying to sort out how dedicating his life to art fit in with these movements. At the time of our conversations, I was researching Museum Intercommunity Exchange (M.I.X.), a San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) pilot program that ran for three years in the early 1970s, presenting free community performances, film festivals, and group exhibitions with local artists; Henderson participated in some of these shows, including A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibit (1974), along with Leo Valledor, Carlos Villa, and Manuel Neri. I’d wanted to learn more about what that time was like, how he remembered those events. Over the course of our first conversation we covered everything from his childhood home in Marshall, Missouri, to exhibiting alongside Picasso in Human Concern/Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art at the Whitney in 1969 while still a student at SFAI.

For our second meeting we decided on his alma mater, meeting in SFAI’s courtyard and settling in the Walter and McBean Galleries among Henderson’s recently opened retrospective, Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness (September 13–November 17, 2019). Our conversations — which included Haight street musicians and psychedelic art works, his volunteer work with the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and a cable car injury that led him directly to the office of a university Trustee — were tethered to histories and communities that only a place like SFAI could foster. With the recent news of the school’s decision to suspend regular course and degree programs, I feel keenly that the past I sought to bring into the present is fast becoming part of a San Francisco that exists even now only in memory. What follows is an edited version of these two expansive conversations, knitting together myriad strands while trying to capture something of Henderson’s fluid storytelling style. —QM


 

Qianjin Montoya: You came to San Francisco from Missouri, right — Marshall, I think? What are some of the ways you would describe it, coming into SFAI, meeting these people?

Mike Henderson: The thing that really surprised me were all of these barriers and compartments — the type of paintings they were selling at Fisherman’s Wharf versus what’s in a gallery, and so forth, and then realizing the commitments you have to make to that journey of finding out who you are and what an artist is.

Years before all of that, as a child, it was just the love of drawing, finding art wherever I could. I grew up looking at art in magazines and in churches; they always have religious paintings. The family my mother worked for would give her magazines like Look and Post, and Norman Rockwell covers fascinated me. I remember seeing the movie with Kirk Douglas about Van Gogh. And I remember seeing classmates, drawing or making comic books. “Wow!” When they integrated the schools, I think I was in the seventh grade — I knew the art classes were going to be a little more open. The only other people around Marshall that did art were housewives. And usually I met them through their sons, who played sports: “Oh, you draw? My mother draws.” When I met the mother, sometimes I’d say, “Hey, let’s get together and paint or something on a Sunday afternoon.” Eventually this woman I worked for said, “Mike you should go back to school to finish up, if you want to get into art school.” So I did all that, and then I found that all the arts schools were segregated. When I applied to San Francisco Art Institute, they accepted me, but I had been accepted before I showed up. So I called them and checked. And they said, “No problem, come on out.”

QM: So that was one of the reasons why you chose SFAI —

MH: And the other reason, it was the farthest from Missouri I could be and still be in the States. I wanted to go someplace where nobody knew me, I could find out who the hell I was. When you grow up in a small town, you’re typecast right away. And not being in sports but drawing and painting — that was not a manly thing to do, you know? Of course, I did hunting and fishing and everything, and I wouldn’t let that bother me; I would sit around, make jokes about myself being an artist in a barbershop, how ridiculous, and all that stuff. But I could see there was something out here that I wanted to find out for myself. And it just happened to be that the Art Institute was the perfect place. I sent for the catalogues of all these schools, and I liked the work in it.

Mike Henderson, Cloud Nine, 1977; acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 54 x 100 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Mike Henderson, Cloud Nine, 1977; acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 54 x 100 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

QM: Yeah, the time that you were there, a lot of really amazing artists were coming through.

MH: A lot of those kids were children of artists, they grew up in New York, had seen all the museums and so forth. I’d only been to a museum once. The only show I ever saw was a Van Gogh exhibit. I came out here just with a blank page.

QM: When did you start at SFAI?

MH: 1965.

QM: So you were also probably learning a lot about the different political ideas that were bouncing around — I mean, it just all happened at once for you.

MH: Yes, yes, that was the other thing which really sparked my painting. I tried to paint the model set ups, trying to make the figure look like the figure and the face look like the face, but I just felt so — like I was going to explode and dry up or something. I just couldn’t get into it. I couldn’t find it. I never saw women lounging around in chairs; they were always working. Why would I be painting these models? I remember seeing the Van Gogh drawings at that show: these women working in the fields with these arched backs and humungous tips on their fingers, digging roots when the famine was going on. [Between 1885 and 1889 Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters and the Wheat Fields series — all images of peasants with direct focus on their poverty and overworked bodies/hands.]

I also got pulled into the whole Haight Street scene. When I first came out here, people would say, “hippies.” And I would look — “okay, where, where, where?” I was looking for somebody with green skin —

QM: Hippies in the wild.

MH: And then I went, oh! If I see white kids with long hair, beads and peace symbols and walking a dog or something: hippies. They seemed to be always into music — that was something that pulled me to Haight Street. San Francisco was paradise; you walk down the street and everybody either made art or played music. Doing sidewalk drawings or whatever. Psychedelic art was just beginning to blossom when I came out here. Of course, I didn’t know what any of that was.

There’s a painting of a band and me playing guitar that’s at SFAI now. It was the time that I really had a need for figures. I started learning, you know, how to paint a knuckle — all these little subtleties that artists who work with figures saw. They could find the essence of it. Finding that for me meant people playing music. I began to find how to make the subject matter your own: finding out who you are through your painting. Fred Martin taught art history classes at the Art Institute. And I would say most of my knowledge about paint came from him talking about the lives of these artists and showing their work in his lectures — I loved it so much. I was the person who set up for the lectures, you know, the projector and the chairs, cleaned the library.

Mike Henderson, Me and the Band, c. 1968; oil on canvas, 55 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Mike Henderson, Me and the Band, c. 1968; oil on canvas, 55 x 96 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

QM: Super ready for it.

MH: Yes, because I was excited, you know? Of course, I’d also always have a can of beer in my hand. He would talk about the lives of these guys and I started seeing how what I have experienced, or what I thought I would experience, would contribute to what I’m going to paint. And the artists who were teaching there then, you could go to their house on a weekend, or at midnight, and think about “What does it all mean?” [Laughter]

QM: So then there is this long-standing feeling of community. It’s not just like a professor or a teacher — you’re artists in a community.

MH: If you wanted to be. You had to reach out to that person. Some people did that, and some people didn’t; the people that I began to see doing those things were the people I became friends with. Bob Comes, Katsuo Okado, Michiko Hiro, David Shivetts, George Auxies, as well as Helen Stanley, Doris Feldman, Dennis Hearne, Suzanne O’Neill, and Josh and Judy Prior. They weren’t all painters; some of them were photographers, sculptors and so forth. We would gravitate to a certain group of teachers, and get together ourselves.

QM: Was there a shift from just hanging out to it becoming an impetus for action? Would your artwork or your meetings or your events turn into planning?

MH: No.

QM: No, it was always based on community gathering.

MH: Yeah, and then everybody would go off and do what they would they would do. I guess you could call it a community.

QM: Saying that you’d only been to a museum once before you got to SFAI, was there ever any conversation when you were at SFAI about wanting to be in a museum? Was it a goal, were the teachers trying to get you to be in galleries?

MH: No, the teachers were saying, “I’ve been obscure for years, that’s it, art suffers.” I grew up poor so I’d listen to people when they’d say that, but my dreams were like, “No! [Laughter] I want to be in New York, I want to see my name up in lights, travel the world painting and playing music.” And then I had the late-night sessions talking about painting and art with a couple of roommates — when I first came out, we were living over in the Mission on 15th and Folsom.

There was also Peter Blue Cloud, a Native American poet-activist who had a girlfriend at SFAI, and they lived down at the bottom of the hill. He was one of the main people when they occupied Alcatraz, and he invited me to come out several times; I wanted to go but, I had to stay focused on my work. I would visit him, though, and he would come by sometimes when I was painting and read some of his poems. I didn’t always understand the spiritual depth of his poems, but I felt the passion as he read them to me. He made a necklace for me. He told me he made one for his Chief, one for himself, and one for me.

Mike Henderson ca. 1970s. "At the SFAI working on the biggest painting I ever did, during Christmas break. Around about two or three in the morning." Photo: George Auxier.

Mike Henderson ca. 1970s. “At the SFAI working on the biggest painting I ever did, during Christmas break. Around about two or three in the morning.” Photo: George Auxier.

QM: When did you start feeling that the politics around you were starting to infiltrate your work?

MH: I put the pieces together slowly. It wasn’t like, “Boom! I got it.” The painting that really just broke loose into all of the political and social issues, that didn’t come until I went back to Missouri after the first semester, during Christmas break — in Marshall, a lot of people I knew had gone to Vietnam or moved away or got married. I said, “Oh God, I gotta get back to San Francisco. I want to go back and paint.” I felt something was about to happen. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I knew that I wanted my paintings to be looser and I wanted more light in them, and how to do that? I left the day after Christmas. I couldn’t take it no more.

QM: Were there people you could talk to about that feeling?

MH: Yeah, I had already done that. But like I say, it doesn’t come overnight. It didn’t happen to me, until that drive coming back. I think it was in Utah. And it’s New Year’s Eve and there’s so much snow on the highway — you know, driving maybe twenty miles an hour. I’ll never forget that the sky opened up — it was blue — and I was coming through these mountains, all covered with snow. It was probably getting around to four o’clock and there was this orange, pinkish light. I’m coming through this little valley and all of a sudden it was just like, pow. I know what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I can make it another semester at the school [Laughter] but I’m going to take all my money, stretch out the biggest canvas I can, buy all the paint I can, and do one “last hurrah” painting. You couldn’t get a student loan out here until you’d been here a year. Now I’d only been here for what? One semester. But I had a little money. And I knew the school would be empty, so I took over this whole room and stretched out this canvas, twelve feet long. I thought about the biggest problem as I saw it with the African American community. The first thing I thought about was Santa Claus calling us niggers during Christmas. Wouldn’t talk to us, give us no candy. Then you go to church and you see this Jesus on the cross, who’s white. And I’ve learned through our history how a painting works and how subliminal it can be; a painting’s no longer a painting anymore. So I decide to do a painting called The Last Supper. And the gate opened. I was going up on Haight Street to watch the political marches. I’d go to the rallies to hear Angela Davis speak and so forth. I’d ride the bus in the Mission to North Beach and I’d find a newspaper; before I got to the school I’d find an issue to paint about. Maybe it wouldn’t be about that issue.

Mike Henderson, from The Last Supper, 1970/1973. Courtesy of the artist.

Mike Henderson, from The Last Supper, 1970/1973. Courtesy of the artist.

QM: But it would inspire something.

MH: Right. The war in Vietnam was going on, you’d see the casualties: ninety-five percent African Americans. And you’d hear this stuff, when the Black Panthers would have a rally or a peace march, listening to these speeches, Eldridge Cleaver and so forth. Plus Sun Ra was hanging out at the school. [Laughter] That, too. Everything’s different, you surrender to it and let it take you. Wally Hedrick, the registrar of the night school at the Art Institute, was also very politically involved; he’d get a truck and we’d all get in the back. We got the banner hanging on the truck and we would be playing music: “Stop the war in Vietnam, stop the war!” A bunch of people would boo us and we would be like all the others, just getting louder. I never saw anybody else from the Art Institute there except some of the humanities teachers. But I also know that there’s different ways that people get involved with communities, and there were so many people at these things, I can’t say who wasn’t there or was there.

I remember talking once to a student after I did my first political painting. He said, “Mike, hey. If you really want to do something for your people, this ain’t the way to do it. Become a lawyer or a doctor.” And I said, “You’re right, you’re right. That’s the only way to help people.” The rest you’re just talking. But still I had this drive in me wanting to be a painter, you know? I’d seen enough armchair revolutionaries sit around and talk in coffeehouses. When Dr. King was killed, I went down to Civic Center to listen to the speeches and I felt helpless, like everybody else did. I’ll never forget about this. When the last speech was made, everybody just sort of turned and walked away, a hundred thousand people down there. I remember walking back to the Art Institute, thinking about my painting.

Goya was one of the artists that I looked at a lot, those etchings he did of the Inquisition in Spain, and James Ensor, he was another. I would open up any art book and find something that I felt like I needed to know. Like, how they made a face when the person was being tortured. What do the muscles in the jaw do? What did their eyes do? All of those little subtleties you could pick up from their work. I remember coming back from the march thinking, “I want my paintings to move, I want them to move, I want them to move.” And they were just frozen. I was also at the point where I was wondering did I need to do another one of these political paintings? All of a sudden you’re getting attention, and you see people who are doing it just for the attention. I got a full scholarship at the Art Institute now — they’re giving me my own private studio, and no other student had that. I didn’t have any money. I’d been working on a maintenance crew, and after I’d been out here a year I took out student loans to live on, so I wouldn’t have to work. I quit school when I was sixteen and came back to high school when I was twenty-one — when I come to the Art Institute, I was like twenty-four. So there was this need to be a workaholic, because I didn’t know when it was going to end. I wanted to take it all in. And at this time, conceptual art was coming in. The big articles in Time and Look, Newsweek: “Painting’s dead. God is dead.” I knew somebody who worked in each department. I didn’t take photography classes and maybe I wasn’t in the printmaking class, but I’d meet somebody who was taking one! I would just buy the stuff and say, “Hey, show me how.” And I’d learn. And then I got into filmmaking.

QM: So what year is this?

MH: This was my second year at the Art Institute. I was in a show called Human Concern/Personal Torment at the Whitney. So this is when dreams of grandeur start coming in. They come out, they crate up the painting, they treat it like royalty. I was feeling very good. [Laughter]

QM: Would you describe the painting?

MH: It was a political painting of a cop, police brutality. It was called Non-Violence. [The work was on view at the de Young Museum as part of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983.] And I remember everybody asking, “Mike, how come you named that painting Non-Violence with those pigs?” And I said, “Well, they consider themselves non-violent.” “You put a peace patch on those cops’ uniforms. Why’d you do that?” I said, “Well the same reason; they think they’re peaceful.”

Mike Henderson, Non Violence, 1968; oil on canvas, 72 x 120 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Mike Henderson, Non-Violence, 1968; oil on canvas, 72 x 120 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

QM: That’s their version of peace. So now it’s 1969 and you’re in the Whitney.

MH: Yeah. Picasso was in the show, a lot of my heroes were in the show. I had gone to Skowhegan the previous May. I got a scholarship to go there for summer school. I met Jacob Lawrence, Philip Pearlstein, they were regular faculty there. I also met Chrissy Schlesinger, the daughter of Arthur Schlesinger. I heard Buckminster Fuller speak about the universe. He did an eight-hour lecture, non-stop. [Laughter]

QM: What?

MH: It was incredible.

QM: Oh my gosh.

MH: These big New York artists like Lichtenstein would come there and I’d listen to all the questions the students would ask them and listen to their critiques. Anyway, all this stuff began to pull together. One day, Fred Martin gave us an art history assignment. “Okay, you’ve got to write something. I want you to go to the de Young, pick an artist and write about them.” I remember going with a bunch of students. Everyone’s picking somebody. I see the Wayne Thiebaud paintings, there were watermelon stands. I grew up looking at those: we’d raid the watermelons when we were kids, put gin in them and so forth.

QM: You can’t put that in your essay.

MH: So, I see this sculpture by Bob Hudson. All this time in school, I could understand creating an illusion of a three-dimensional object, but I could never understand three-dimensional shapes. I realized this guy is breaking ground, he’s changing the rules; this is what I want my work to do. The thing to do was write about his sculpture — since he teaches at the Art Institute, I could meet him and find out what his thesis is about and, who knows, get a B-minus, maybe. [Laughter] Depends on how generous Fred is going to be. Remember, I set those chairs all up! So I stop this guy which turned out not to be him (everybody had a beard back then, long hair); it turned out to be Bob Nelson, the guy who taught filmmaking at the Art Institute.

Now, two days before that, I was coming to the Art Institute. I rode the cable car to school every morning because I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was coming over the hill.

QM: Yeah, I’ve taken that before to SFAI. It’s such a treat.

MH: Yes! I did it every day, regardless of the weather. I’d see all that gorgeous beauty and I would get to the school and I’d have my plan. But that day, a truck backs into the cable car, hits me, and knocks me off. They took me to the hospital and they said, “Who should we call?” Oh my God, I don’t know who to call. Call the Art Institute! Of course they sent this guy Chauncey McKeever, one of the trustees and a lawyer. His office was the top penthouse of the Wells Fargo building down in the Financial District. He walks in and they think I’m the king of Siam. He says, “Get this guy in a private room! Do x-rays! I want him checked out!” The next day I get this note from him: “Come on down to my office. I got the settlement for you.” It’s a check for like, two thousand dollars. [Laughter]

QM: That’s a lot of money!

MH: So the day I mistake Bob Hudson for Bob Nelson, I got $200 in my pocket. And at that moment, this woman walks up to him and says, “Bob, you know anybody who wants to buy a 16 millimeter camera?” She wanted $150 for it. I bought it and he showed me how to use it. I wanted to make a film called The Last Supper. That was the painting that opened it up to me, and I wanted to see what film was going to do.

QM: It sounds like you flipped and flopped between “put your head down to paint” and engaging with more political works. Like, you felt you wanted to do things with the Black Panthers and I know that turned into more of a film project. Can you summarize that for us?

MH: I had a critique with Al Held up in Skowhegan, where he asked, “Hey, what are you gonna have for the people who have been on the front lines of the revolution while you’re going to school?” There was an old song by Funkadelic, “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” [Laughter] and I thought, “I gotta get my life straight so that I could have something to offer.” And to figure out where I fit in. It became real life once I got over there to work with the Black Panthers. In the beginning when I was there — of course you know I was never a member — I was unloading these boxes and food for programs, setting up for festivals and taking refrigerators and stoves to people, stuff like that. And it was the day that we were sandbagging Eldridge Cleaver’s house that it hit me like, you know there’s gotta be something else I could do! I was kind of unhappy and didn’t feel like I was being used. So they said, “Okay, what can you do?” I said, “Well, I’m an artist,” and they said, “Well then go help Emory [Douglas].”

The Black Panthers headquarters was on Fillmore Street then, and Emory would do a painting on the front of the building, seemed like every week or every other day. Whatever the politics were then. So he gives me a brush and he says, “Go ahead.” And I just put the brush down. “Emory, [Laughter] — you don’t need me.” “No, no, no, come on man.” I said, “Listen, all I’m going to do is show up with perspective and this type of stuff — it doesn’t fit this type of work. You’re doing it all, you don’t need another voice.” There was a festival coming up that weekend, so I go back and I said, “I’ll make a film.”

Mike Henderson playing guitar during a Vietnam War demonstration, date and photographer unknown.

Mike Henderson playing guitar during a Vietnam War demonstration, date and photographer unknown.

QM: Because that’s important too, archiving, recording these things.

MH: I had the camera, and the film was all paid for by filmmakers I knew, the processing’s all paid for by a lab. I shot a festival, and I showed it to David Hilliard, who was the only guy who was left that wasn’t in jail at that time, to get his approval. I left it over at Eldridge Cleaver’s house, and we were going to do the soundtrack for it, but we just could not find a way of getting together on that. I don’t know whatever happened to the film.

After the Black Panther Party started falling apart, I said to myself, “Okay, Mike, now it’s time to make social awareness a part of breathing in and breathing out.” I needed to work on the preconceived ideas that I had back in my head. Once I graduated from school, I was changing everything, you know, you change your shoes, you’ve got to change your socks. I thought about all the things that I had ignored in life. I went seeking to find out about conceptual art and abstract painting. I thought people who painted abstract couldn’t paint figurative, so I had to get rid of those biases. That was me carrying on the political work: To say what I want to say about issues and encourage my students to find out that art is more than just making an image on a canvas, that it’s also an obligation to say something about the human condition. Each generation is obligated to address these great questions we’re confronted with. Because you know I didn’t want to make art about art. When you look at the legacy artists leave, to me that’s what it’s about: being able to leave a path that someone else can walk in and then find their own way.

Mike Henderson, Peace Demonstration, 1965; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Mike Henderson, Peace Demonstration, 1965; oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

QM: Do you think this came through some of the teachers you met at SFAI?

MH: Oh absolutely! Though talking about it now makes it all seem so organized. Every day was a struggle — I was completely lost. It was crazy chaos! [Laughter] I didn’t know what was gonna happen, but I knew it was going to be exciting. I was excited for each day and I was exhausted from it when I went to bed each night.

QM: That’s a good combination.

MH: Yeah, it was. In retrospect, that’s when I began to see how things were put together. I spent a lot of time talking with Leo Valledor, who was teaching at SFAI when I met him, and who said to me, “I like your paintings, man.” Leo made the first minimalist painting I ever saw. When I got into trying to find out what minimalist art was about, I’d start talking to Leo. Sometimes he would say something like, “You know, Miles plays trumpet but he’s not a trumpet player.” Because Miles is all about sound. You know, when you listen to Dizzy Gillespie, you hear the trumpet. Miles you just hear sounds, and his whole approach to how he wrote music, it’s about moments, time, sound, things, and words. Leo would do these paintings, they were basically all white except for the edges. Something coming into the canvas or exiting the canvas; questioning you know, what is art and what’s not art, all these things that I’d heard about from the art magazines, but never really experienced. Leo was a great person.

I communicated more with Leo than I did with Carlos Villa [the Filipino-American visual artist and activist graduated from SFAI in 1961 and taught there for many years; he and Henderson were part of various group shows]. Leo didn’t have an agenda. When I chose not to participate as a member of any particular group, I was like, the enemy. Carlos wanted people to agree as a group about the obstacles, and I didn’t see it that way. I wasn’t looking for somebody to guide me through this.

Leo Valledor, Skeedo, 1965

Leo Valledor, Skeedo, 1965

QM: You wanted to figure it out on your own.

MH: Yes! Yes, to make it my own. I didn’t feel there was that sort of “one common enemy” that I’ve just got to oppose… I felt nothing wrong with having different opinions. But it’s just that when you say that yours is the only opinion, that’s where I drew the line. I didn’t want to be beholden to anything or anybody.

QM: Then we get to the M.I.X. [Museum Intercommunity Exchange] shows that took place at the original SFMOMA, back when it was still SFMA; the curator, Rolando Castellón, who was also close with Villa, asks you to be in A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibition in 1974. So maybe in some ways you did want to be a part of these shows that were giving different perspectives at the time. Was that because you also didn’t want to shut anything out?

MH: I felt that was my obligation to my work. You know, like you are one thing and your work is another. There were two so-called “Third World” shows I was in while I was going to the Art Institute. The first show didn’t bother me, it was a chance to show stuff. Then people would say, “Your work is not Black art, your work is too European,” or whatever, and I went through all that too. That didn’t bother me because I studied European art! And I didn’t want to make fake-looking African art; people would try and do fake cultural things — those artifacts from culture were done for a reason and not necessarily for show. They were done for more spiritual things, they have a different meaning. Rolando, it was interesting working with him. I know he struggled to get that show done and I knew what it meant to him and the effort he put into it. When you learn about the art world, you find that it’s also very conservative.

Cover of the A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibition catalogue.

Cover of the A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibition catalogue.

QM: Yeah, he had to do a lot of convincing.

MH: There’s a lot of wealthy people who’ve grown up in their little communities, and that’s been their experience and they’re very protective of that. They want to see what we do, but they don’t want to see us, the artists.

QM: And they don’t want to have to help us do it, they just want to see it happen.

MH: They want to see what they want to see. And I don’t want to be shocked too much — otherwise I’m going to feel guilty because I’ve never done a day’s work for all I’ve got. [Laughter] And you know, I don’t take them lightly, because I know it takes a lot of doing to handle money. It took a lot of brave women and men to stand up and say, “we need art in the schools, as part of education,” and so forth.

But I haven’t talked about two people that were very important when I was in the Art Institute: Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo. They were the only two women artists that were teaching night school at SFAI back then. I really feel that creativity has nothing to do with color, or sex or race or any of that stuff. Creativity is put into an individual and that individual has to have the courage to really surrender to that gift. At that time, people were saying “Black is Beautiful.” And then came the question, is the artist Black or does the image have to be Black? There was this other compartment women artists I knew were dealing with — the blue chip artists in New York all were white males. So the first conversations I had with these women were about that; I wanted to know how they handled that. And they said, “Mike, paint. Just paint. Fuck the art world, just paint. Do what you do.”

Jay DeFeo and Mike Henderson at a graduation party, c. 1970. Photo: Bill Arnold.

Jay DeFeo and Mike Henderson at a graduation party, c. 1970. Photo: Bill Arnold.

QM: Is that what they were doing? They were just putting their head down and working.

MH: Yeah. Corot never sold a painting in his life, you know? As an artist it was my duty to be the oracle for what I saw as far as political stuff, to address that. I did a painting about how people saw abortion, because I wanted to speak about that. When it became about gays and lesbians in the ’60s, when that stuff started coming out in San Francisco, I wanted to do a painting about that.

QM: Castellón has said in interviews something along the lines of, “They are Third World shows, but it’s not a show of a bunch of hands in chains. It’s just people expressing the things that they’d gone through, creating things that are important to them, coming from a culture that is oppressed or whatever it is.” That speaks to what you’re saying, where it doesn’t necessarily have to be Black art if you’re a Black artist making a work, it can just be your experience —

MH: Which is interesting, to think of that in light of the debate that was recently happening in New York, around Dana Schutz.

QM: Yes. They haven’t gone away, the conversations.

MH: Yes. I think we try to make too much sense out of every goddamn thing.

QM: So the stakes seemed high, but you felt like just doing the work was more important than trying to solve —

MH: I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain all this stuff. I had been exposed to enough through playing music and painting at a deeper level, that I knew that it comes through you. I knew drugs and alcohol don’t conjure it up for me, it has to come naturally. I saw a lot of junkies out here, alcoholics and so forth. And I seen them onstage too!

I remember seeing The Potato Eaters by Van Gogh back in Missouri. There was no one to talk about it then, but they were poor. I saw poor white people, a couple families that lived on my side of the street. I learned that everybody suffered. Slavery wasn’t unique to us, you know, which was something that got into my music later. The first time I went to Europe to play music and I’m flying over the ocean — I’ll never forget, it was so clear and blue. I’m looking down, and all of a sudden I see this slave ship heading towards the States and I make contact with an ancestor of mine — and he says, “I survived this so you could go across the ocean with nothing but a guitar. So when you get over there, play your ass off and do what you came to do.”

QM: And you did.

Gallery view of A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibition, 1974.

Gallery view of A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibition, 1974.

MH: Yeah, and so I began to see all of this in a different way; my job wasn’t to linger over the pain that he’d already suffered. My job was to do what he wanted to do, follow his dream. And I wanted to give back to what art has given me. Art gave me this meaning in life, as I look at it. I used to carry around a drawing pad with me everywhere I went. I’d go to the barbecue joint, had my drawing pad. Went to the movies, I had my drawing pad. Rain, shine, snow, I had my drawing pad under my arm. I was just a misfit until I came out here.

QM: Until you got to San Francisco, and then there’s a whole school for you guys.

MH: There were misfits that were A-plus-plus. I was just a beginner.

QM: A misfit castle on the top of a hill there in North Beach.

MH: Yeah, I was normal all of a sudden.

QM: So, the Third World shows are happening in the same era as the SF State Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968 —

MH: That was going on, too. I didn’t really like the name “Third World.”

QM: Why didn’t you like the name “Third World”?

MH: Because it was third place! Not first place, goddammit.

QM: A valid argument.

MH: But I was outvoted, so I just said, “Then call it a painting show.” I think Carlos came up with the compromise, calling it Other Sources: An American Essay (1976). I still felt like that’s a cop-out. But the public was hungry for something new, something that was breaking down barriers. We were seeing work by Judy Chicago about the feminist movement, you know, lesbian and gays and so forth.

QM: Subcultures, yeah.

Mike Henderson, As It Is Now, 2017; oil on canvas, 72 x 87 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Mike Henderson, As It Is Now, 2017; oil on canvas, 72 x 87 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

MH: It seemed like all of a sudden, things were more compartmentalized.

I remember talking to Jacob Lawrence about that when I was at Skowhegan, and I’ve seen little documentaries about people like him and James Baldwin and Duke Ellington during the Harlem Renaissance. I wanted to give back to what art has given me. Each generation seemed to have a way of taking off another layer to find out, to get to the core of what is what. And I wanted to be a part of that.

QM: You had mentioned earlier that one of your pieces in the Third World Painting/Sculpture show had been vandalized.

MH: Someone from the museum had called me and said that somebody had vandalized the piece. They ripped it. It was a collage.

QM: Was that the only piece that was vandalized? Was it just random?

MH: I don’t know. I remember when I was at a museum in Switzerland someone put explosives on a couple of Rubens paintings and just blew ’em up! [Laughter] You know, it’s just people. I didn’t take it personally or in a negative way. I said, “Well, maybe there was something about it that offended them,” which art is supposed to do.

QM: Right, it sparked something!

MH: Yeah, like maybe, “this shouldn’t be here.” [Laughter] Well, okay, but it is, goddamn it! But I just think it was the opportunity for that person to do something in the museum like that, you know? Whether they knew me or not.

QM: Like their own institutional critique. [Laughter] When did you graduate SFAI?

MH: I graduated in 1970. So, in four years, I’d gone from shoeshine boy to a ten-year job at the University of California, Davis.

QM: Wow.

MH: The art department was at Davis because the wife of Dick Nelson, the chair of the architecture department, said, “Davis has no art department,” and asked him to put one together. He went out and hired all of those guys like Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Roy De Forest. He put them in home economics, put them in all these other departments until he got that building done. That’s why the art that came out of Davis was so different than the art that came out of San Francisco Art Institute. The stuff out of the Art Institute was more old school. Davis was on the cutting edge. William Wiley, Neri, Thiebaud — they were in all the art magazines, you know, which I saw when I was going to school. All of a sudden I was around them, and I wanted to learn how to be an artist. I felt like earning the degree was the license to get in the ring to see if I could be a boxer. So I spent a lot of time talking to them, especially Bill Wiley because he played music and we hung out a lot.

QM: So you went straight from SFAI to teaching at Davis?

MH: Mhm. I turned the job down at least three times because I didn’t want to leave San Francisco. But I owed all this money to student loans. I’d already taken a job at Oakland Arts and Crafts, and then they called me one more time at the Art Institute. “Mike, do you want to take this job at Davis? We want you to be here.” William Wiley, he had scouted me out the second year there because he was a friend of Bob Nelson’s and he said he knew that I’d be perfect for Davis because at Davis, everybody did more than one thing. You just didn’t teach painting — you’d teach painting, and sculpture, printmaking, or drawing. He taught ceramics and painting and printmaking. Thiebaud taught printmaking, painting, photography, and Manuel painting, drawing, and so forth. Ray Saunders was the only other African American painter I saw around here. Ray has more of a scholarly approach. And Manuel was never seen as a Third World artist.

QM: No. But all the press releases say, “We have big artists like Manuel Neri in the show.” They always pull him in.

MH: I think George Longfish was in most shows, at least one or two.

QM: I have the exhibition list here. The pieces that you had in the show were called Wasting Time No More and Toy of Gods. Do those sound familiar?

Exhibition list for A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibit, 1974.

Exhibition list for A Third World Painting/Sculpture Exhibit, 1974.

MH: Yeah.

QM: They were both acrylic on canvas. The other people in the show were Ray Holbert, José Ramón Lerma, Alex McMath, Shoko Miyamoto, George Miyasaki, Arthur Monroe —

MH: Arthur Monroe, he used to work at the Oakland Museum. He was painting when I came out here to go to school, I remember running into him and Leslie Kenneth Price at the MoAD exhibition Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!

QM: Jerry Concha was also in that show. And Robert Colescott.

MH: He was very controversial.

QM: Yeah, I’m also finding in my research that not everyone was friends. [Laughter]

MH: That’s the way it is with artists, I would say. All my artist friends, we all were gun fighters. Carlos — he wanted me to wave the Third World flag and I wouldn’t do it, you know? I just said, “No, Carlos, everybody’s got to jump in the water and swim like I did, get lost and come up wherever they come up.” Carlos, he would come when he wants something heavy to move.

QM: [Laughter] He seems to always have been moving around, too. Always trying to get something done.

Installation views of Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, September 13–November 17, 2019. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Installation views of Mike Henderson: Honest to Goodness, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, September 13–November 17, 2019. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

MH: He was good for the students who needed that type of stuff, you know?

QM: The moving and shaking, yeah.

MH: I would say, “Well Carlos, you know, I’m culture wherever I go.” We had this mutual agreement to disagree. I was a trustee at SFAI for a couple years until I stepped on one of the trustees’ toes. Carlos came up with the idea that kids who were going to the Art Institute, since it costs so much, they should be taught a trade, something like plumbing so they could make a living. And I hit the ceiling. “This is an expensive plumbing school!” I said. And he said, “Not everybody is going to become an artist.” But I said, “How can you take that away from somebody? How can you take somebody’s dream?” You come here to get real art experiences. You can’t water that down. That’s why I was so precious about — you know, still am — the Art Institute.

There are tons of great artists who’ve never even shown, you know, they just love doing it and not showing it, not dealing with the rest. The art world is part social and business at the same time, and politics too. It’s all three at once, there’s just billions of dollars in it, and it has all these tentacles. It’s hard to pin down. But I love it! I love it.

Mike Henderson, 2019. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Mike Henderson, 2019. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

QM: I don’t have an art practice where I create an object, but I feel very tied to the ways that the arts have allowed me to study history, to study sociology, all of that happens through the artwork that I’m studying.

MH: And it also created those positions that you hold, it created a need for theorists, for writers, historians, art historians. Wealth is beginning to get to a few more people, you’re finding more people of color coming to the museums, of different cultures, now. In the ’60s, you know, I could count us on my fingers. That was about it. Teaching at Davis, I’m finding more students, people of color, taking art classes. Not just for grades, but seriously wanting to be artists. I had quite a few of them, and they’re very good.

So I’m very happy about that. I’m also very grateful SFMOMA gave me a lifetime membership, you know? When I was there at the Magritte show, seeing all of those different schoolkids coming through, and some people were just parents. All walks of life. Like, walking down the streets of San Francisco, I can see it in the museum now. And going into a bookstore you can see stuff too that’s diverse.

QM: That’s the line that I’m walking, too. I see change and I’m inspired by it, but I do know that there’s still a lot of work to do.”

MH: Snail pace at museums, all over the world, wealthy white women who are very conservative, but with their hearts in a good place. [Laughter]

QM: As long as you don’t make them feel bad — I’m learning that, too.

MH: Well that’s one of the things that I learned too, as an artist — not digging in, attacking them, you know. Because they don’t know. They don’t know. They’re all in that position because they want to do the right thing, but there’s so many ways of doing the right thing. So the right thing starts getting dissected. It’s a very complicated way of living your life, like I say. And I enjoy it because it’s always challenging. It’s never a routine.

 

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