April 4, 1968: the day everything changed for San Francisco artist and musician Mike Henderson. He was a young man in the midst of a cultural revolution, both personally and collectively. It was the sixties after all – and San Francisco was ground zero for counterculture. Haight-Ashbury, Monterey Pop, the Black Panthers – Henderson was there for all of it, while at the same time studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. For a kid from a small town in Missouri, it was off-the-charts cool and confusing at the same time. Henderson was trying to find his place in this new universe and for the first time really confronted the issue of race in his art, his music and his life.
His life in this brave new world was stimulating and he was learning a lot but had yet to find his “voice.” Then came that day – Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. Henderson remembers the moment he heard the news. He was at school. Immediately, he headed to a hippie hangout where they played music – not really his type of music, more beatnik than blues – because Henderson wanted to be around people. “But even there, it was like someone turned down the volume. Sure, there was music, but no one was into it.” King’s death had a profound impact on so many, including a young artist a half a country away. “From that day on, I needed my paintings to say more,” says Mike. “You know, I spent a lot of time painting from my head, but then I had to find a deeper source, a soul, because the head is so unstable. I don’t necessarily paint what I want, I paint what I have to. Real artists work from their soul.” That was the start of his artistic transformation – his personal journey had begun long before.
Mike Henderson was born in Marshal, Missouri, a tiny town in the central part of the state. It was a mixed race community. As Henderson says, “It was a mix of black and white and we were all poor. Color don’t matter- poor is poor.” He was one of nine children, and he knew early on he was different. He loved to draw and he loved music. “First time I heard music was from a family across the street – the Dennis family. Ira – man, he could sing. I remember he would always sing that song ‘I’m in the Jailhouse Now.’ Good song ‘cause the police were always there ‘cause the brothers were always fightin’, but once a week the whole family would come and play music. We were across the street, so we would listen, too. One had a guitar, another a fiddle, there was a harmonica. Country music they played, you know? At the time I didn’t know the difference. It was just music and I knew I liked it.”
The seed was planted, musically speaking anyway. There was also the drawing. From as far back as Mike can remember, he was drawing – pretty much everything and anything he saw. He was enthralled. His parents were not. “I got whippings for drawing instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing.” Mike says his father wanted an athlete, not an artist. “My grandmother didn’t mind me drawing, but my parents thought it would make me a sissy. You know what I mean? It was the same reason I wasn’t allowed to play music. My sister got to take piano lessons. I wanted to take piano lessons, but they wouldn’t let me. Boys should play football or baseball. Then as I grew older, you know, the desire to be an artist and to play music somehow grew stronger and stronger.”
And as that desire grew stronger, his home life became more and more stifling. By the age of sixteen he had quit school and moved in with an aunt who, unlike his parents, supported his artistic endeavors. “She let me paint in the basement and she let me listen to blues records,” he says with a grin. “My father hated blues. I think it reminded him of slavery.” But for Mike Henderson, it was freedom. He loved it, but he wouldn’t actually start playing for several more years. How he learned guitar is a classic Mike Henderson story. You see, there was a baseball game in town every year between the black team and the white team. Apparently there was enough cheating going on to make it an acceptable, almost expected, way to win. Well, this one year – Mike was 21 years old- he decided it would be a good idea to umpire (plus it paid three dollars and Mike figured he could use the money). It came down to the final inning and the final out: “My cousin slid into home plate and I called him out and the white team won. I wasn’t very popular.” Nevermind that he really was out, Mike was supposed to show his allegiance to his team but decided instead to play it straight. After the game a white boy came up and said he admired what Mike had done (although it might get him killed) and as a thank you, he’d like to teach Mike to play the guitar. “To this day, I don’t know how he knew I wanted to play the guitar, but I learned and we became friends.” That was the start of Mike’s musical career.
There is something a little ironic about a white kid teaching a black kid the blues, but Henderson says at the time it didn’t seem strange at all. He wanted to learn and there was someone there to teach him. Much later he would have the same experience with another “white boy,” the legendary blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a guitarist in the Chicago blues tradition, but he was anything but typical. He came from a rich, Jewish family who weren’t supportive of his interest in music, but like Henderson, Bloomfield found a way. Henderson tells the story: “Growing up, the family’s maids, black women, would cook all his (Bloomfield) favorite foods and take him to clubs and so forth and he just loved them. I teased him that he should have been born in my house and I should have been born in his house.” When it came to art or music, race just didn’t matter to Henderson. “I had a chance to learn a lot of from him. It doesn’t matter what race a person is. When nature has something it wants to bring forth into the world, it just puts it into a human – race doesn’t matter. I never saw myself as a ‘black’ painter until I went to school to study art. I never knew that women, in terms of art, and men, in terms of art, were looked at differently. When I was growing up, it was just a picture. I never thought about who made it, which sex or race they were.”
Henderson was able to hold on to that ideal –for a while, anyway. In 1965, he was accepted at the San Francisco Art Institute. Talk about a dream come true: Henderson had a way out of Missouri and into what he believed was the Promised Land. He was like a kid in a candy store. He could study art, pursue his music and hang out with some of the most progressive people around. And this was the sixties – “progressive” took on a whole new meaning. He may have been a “country bumpkin” (his term) but he jumped in with both feet. He shaved his head, got himself some new duds and started to soak it all in. “I got so far away from my cultural roots, I think it was natural to start having some doubts.” The Vietnam War was sparking protests, the Civil Rights movement was taking hold and Mike Henderson was coming of age.
Given the times, it was perhaps inevitable that Henderson would get involved in politics. Henderson was impressed with the Black Panthers. He never actually joined the organization but was moved enough to work with them, “Everyone thinks of them as violent, but they helped a lot of people, did a lot of humanitarian work.” His art was also all about politics and protest. His paintings were filled with anger and violence, sporting titles like “Hot Nazi,” “Castration,” “Infidels” and “Abortion.” He was a black man who, for the first time in his life, was confronting discrimination. The racial tension he felt in his life came through in his paintings.
He often painted with only his hands. He’d cover his fingers in paint and go to it. The resulting images are a far cry from the abstraction he is known for now. Back then it was all about the message. “I was one of those people who hated abstract. I thought a dog could do it.” But that was about to change. His artistic transformation started the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Henderson began experimenting. He worked with film, with clay and at one point, later on, he even started leaving unpainted canvases around the city. After a couple of weeks he would come back and collect them. “Yeah, it was disgusting, but that was the point. A lot of times I couldn’t find them again, or sometimes one was used by a homeless person as a blanket but that only made it better. I’d bring it back to the studio and work with it.” Eventually, Henderson got back to regular painting, but he was a changed man. Abstraction was now his passion. “With art, I feel you have to be involved, totally lost and then find yourself, find the voice within you. And then there is the question, ‘Is it strong enough to stand the test of time?’” Many decades later, he still doesn’t know the answer.
By 1970, Henderson had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the S.F. Art Institute. He immediately got a teaching job at the University of California at Davis. “I loved it. I would have done it for free. I was around these great artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Bob Arneson and Bill Wylie. I wanted to learn from them. I had great teachers in school and wanted to be a good teacher. I had the opportunity to learn from them. It helps to be around people who have achieved. I never thought these people hung around me because they thought I was a great artist. It was because I was committed.”
During the next couple of decades, Henderson’s work evolved. He was now a committed abstract artist experimenting with color. In the 1980’s, he went through his dark/blue stage. It’s a bit simplistic to call the paintings dark. Yes, the overall tone relies heavily on blues and blacks, but the underlying layers are filled with color and every painting offers a hint of something hidden, almost a harbinger of things to come. Mike Henderson was finding his voice – with a paintbrush and a guitar.
Never once in all his years has Mike Henderson considered giving up music for fine art or vice versa. His music has progressed along a parallel path to his art. All along the way he has learned from some of the best and he has become an accomplished blues guitarist in his own right. In 1974, he got the chance of a lifetime – he played the Monterey Jazz Festival. “One of the greatest moments of my life. I played with Sunnyland Slim. To play with someone like that, in that situation, with all those people there – everything comes together in one split second,” Henderson says with a grin and a bit of a drawl. “Yeah, everything.” Sunnyland Slim was like a grandfather to Henderson, or at least his perception of what a grandfather should be. “I asked him the question about being a musician and a painter. He didn’t see why I couldn’t do both. He didn’t necessarily understand the art, but he saw the point in doing it. He encouraged me.” To this day, Henderson splits his energy and passion three ways: music, painting and family.
He finally met the right woman after many years of what he calls “research.” How did he know she was the one? “By saying no to the wrong one,” he laughs. But then he gets serious, “You know, all my life I’ve surrendered at the right moments. I didn’t surrender my whole life, just at the right times. I think of my childhood and I certainly didn’t give in. I made sure I got to a place where I could do what I needed to do. 1965 San Francisco –the right place. The art institute – the right school. The teaching job that brought me into contact with the right people, all those artists. Right house in Oakland, right woman to marry.” He has moved to Oakland. Even though it’s just a few miles away, leaving his beloved San Francisco was traumatic. He just knew it was the right thing to do. Not long after, he met his future wife. They have a son together and the whole experience of having a child has mellowed Mike. “On my new CD I wrote a song called ‘Everyone Needs Love.’ I got the idea coming home from the hospital after Isaac was born, I was driving through Oakland and I saw all these prostitutes and it hit me – way back when, they all started like Isaac. Before that I saw them just as whores – not anymore, so I wrote a song.”
Henderson continues to paint and play music. In fact, on the day we meet he had just spent three days in the recording studio working on his new CD. Sitting in the swanky Haines Gallery in the heart of San Francisco, Henderson looks a little out of place – more cool cat than edgy artist, but then again he has never been big on trying to impress. He clearly likes talking about his art, though. “You see that painting over there,” he says, pointing to a large mass of color and texture hanging on the wall. “I got the idea for that while I was on tour in Europe. You travel a lot on trains and I liked to watch the landscape go by, you know in kind of a blur and then I got to thinking about my childhood in Missouri and the barns I liked. It’s all there, on that canvas.” That’s how he paints – a lifetime of experiences on every canvas, but the message is rarely obvious. He has done a whole series of barn paintings. In some you can make out a vague structure but you will miss the point if you stop there. Color, texture, and layers of paint combine to create a place that requires imagination, from the artist and the viewer. Henderson says the great thing about painting is “looking for the spot where no one else has been.”
A few days later, hanging out in his cluttered, messy studio, he seems much more at ease. His guitar sits in one corner, surrounded by all kinds of music equipment. He picks it up periodically, holding it as if it were an extension of his body. The movement is as natural as a big league pitcher massaging a baseball. A dusty treadmill sits against one wall. Mike chuckles when asked about it. “I’d like to tell my doctor I use it, but I think it’s mostly just a piece of sculpture.” Paintings are stacked up in the far corner, overshadowed by one hanging on the wall – clearly the chosen one of the moment. “When I get an idea, I usually start four or five canvases at once and then eventually settle on one that I will finish.” The “one” is a large canvas exploding with color and texture. Up close, the layers of color, mostly reds, hold your attention and draw you in. From a distance, the texture seems to almost dance across the canvas. “Its about 90% done,” says Mike, “I’m still working on the movement – how your eye will travel over the canvas.” For Mike, every painting is like a child. “You do everything you can to bring it to life and then you let it go,” he says, philosophically. He likes to sell paintings. He remembers his first sale. A woman’s head all done in blue. He sold it for $750. Today his paintings sell for $10,000, but that’s not his motivation. “I do what I have to do (painting and music). There is no choice.” Henderson uses every imaginable size of brush and palette knife to achieve his many layers of color and texture, and these days he paints exclusively in oil. “Acrylic paint is like pop music and oil is like the blues.”
And speaking of the blues, Henderson plans on releasing his next CD sometime in the spring. He has written all 12 tracks, including “Everyone Needs Love.” He’s mulling over a title, “Maybe ‘Big Boat.’ That’s a song about the slaves coming over. Maybe ‘Love and Heartbreak.’ Or maybe ‘Trouble Ain’t no Stranger.’ That’s a good blues title.” He hasn’t made up his mind, but our money is on “Trouble Ain’t no Stranger.” Whatever the title, Henderson is trying to push the boundaries with his art and his music. He says, “Somewhere up there, Sunnyland Slim is looking down saying, ‘What in the hell are you doing, boy?’ But you know what? That’s what I like about the blues and painting. The real fun is finding the cracks and then bending the limitations – just enough.”
Mike Henderson has settled into his life – a wife, a child and living in the suburbs of Oakland. He still drives to U.C. Davis two times a week to teach, but spends most of his time in his studio out back, behind the house, painting and making music. Yes, he has settled in, but certainly not settled. He admits to feeling the pressure of time. He wants to leave a legacy that will, in his words, “stand the test of time.” “In my younger years, I had to go and see and experience. I’m glad I did it. But this is my most valuable time. I want to roll the dice and see what I come up with, put it all on the table. When I was 45, I could have said I’m still young enough to do something else, but now, well, I’m committed. Every mark I make, every note I play, is forever. Gotta make it count.”
Written by: Erin Clark
Artworks Magazine – Spring 2006