Detroit’s Been Cool: The Transformative Art of Tiff Massey
Detroit’s most celebrated young artist is Tiff Massey, and she cannot find a studio.
If that surprises you, you probably haven’t lived in the Motor City. Yes, there are acres of vacant industrial buildings just begging to be activated by an installation artist with a metalsmithing torch and a dream. But for every think piece about how the Michigan metropolis is the hottest new arts destination, there are a dozen landlords who can’t—or won’t—install a ventilation system in a room where they’d house the next generation of art luminaries mixing oil paints.
The night before her interview with ALIVE, Tiff Massey wasn’t making art at all. She was dealing with a landlord who refused to fix a sewage backup. Tomorrow, she might start on a mural she’s been commissioned to paint in Eastern Market, or put some time into prepping her installation for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (for which she won a $200,000 grant to produce), or any number of the other projects the art world is clamoring for her to create.
But first, she has to call the building inspector.
“Right now I’m just trying to process and figure out the best way to maneuver, because it’s not like there are art spaces in abundance,” Massey says. “I just can’t act like someone’s doing me a favor by renting me a space where the toilet’s flooded.”
Massey grew up in Detroit. She knows all too well how to navigate life as a working creative in a city that hasn’t fully escaped centuries of destructive policy and development practices. In fact, she’s made an art of it. And she’s been doing it since long before the national magazines started telling coastal artists that Detroit was a vast, vacant space just waiting for outside forces to fill it.
“I really don’t understand the narrative surrounding a lot of it, because Detroit’s been cool,” Massey says emphasizing “been.” “Before people start putting a development context to it, a gentrification context to it, whatever you want to call it, there was always stuff happening here. We just didn’t have a lot of resources, and that’s institutional and by design.”
Massey had to go outside of the city to gain access to the tools she needed to become an artist. She took her first metalsmithing classes at an all-girls school in the suburb of Farmington Hills. Her parents encouraged her passion—and her father’s penchant for custom jewelry introduced her to the world of ‘80s hip-hop bling—but they also made it clear she “wasn’t supposed to choose it as a career.” Massey listened long enough to get most of the way through an undergraduate degree in biology with designs on being a veterinarian, before metalsmithing electives reignited her love of fire and metal and she decided to pursue a studio art career.
“And then I encountered an obstructionist,” she says.
A teaching assistant in one of Massey’s classes helped the young artist with a technical issue on an end-of-semester project and, Massey alleges, he then became jealous of the professor’s attentions to her final piece. He claimed that he had created her work himself; outrageously, the professor believed him. Rather than entertain the controversy, Massey transferred to another college.
“I guess he was kind of in his feelings,” she laughs about it now.
The role that institutions play in stifling the Black American thriving is a major theme in Massey’s work today. She’s covered gallery walls in artistic reimaginings of the kind of wallpaper that covered Detroit homes in black neighborhoods before urban renewal erased them wholesale. She’s blown bracelets up to the scale of the human body, locating the exact moment when a delicate chain morphs into a shackle. And then she made it bigger, and then bigger, and then had performers carry her creation through the streets.
It was years before Massey’s work engaged the political so explicitly. When she enrolled at the Cranbrook Academy of Art for her masters, she was still drawing inspiration from her biology degree. “I was doing projects about lichen,” Massey laughs. “But then one day I was like, ‘This shit is so fake.’ I realized that I don’t have the luxury of making pretty shit. Jewelry has to be about something more than the viewer just being seduced.”
She thought back to the custom jewelry she’d watched her father buy as a kid: “I was just thinking about bling, the characteristics of the scale, the weight.” She made huge, exaggerated necklaces out of wool and powder-coated steel warped into the shape of enormous diamonds, in colors that evoked traditional African handcrafts and titles that provoked a deeper dialogue (“They Wanna Sing My Song But They Don’t Wanna Live It”). She made a series dedicated to Detroit itself, out of the materials of the streets themselves: copper wiring, broom bristles, caution tape, rope.
Soon, Massey found herself scaling the forms she’d discovered in her jewelry practice into larger spaces: steel facet-cut diamonds laying in fields like they’d dropped from the mouth of an alien ship, the sinuous shape of a pendant transposed into a wall-length wood carving encoded alongside symbols from the Black Power movement. “Oftentimes, I’m not satisfied with things being on the body,” Massey says. “I want more.”
It’s hard to think about the motive power of dissatisfaction when you talk to Tiff Massey. She is rightly dissatisfied with the conditions in which she often finds herself making her work— sewage backups, indifferent landlords, obstructionist colleagues and all—even though it’s evident that she loves Detroit fiercely. “Growing up here, there’s nothing like it,” Massey says. “It’s the blackest city in the nation. You’re surrounded by people who look like you who are doing amazing things at every level.”
But art can remake broken cities and institutions—at least if artists like Tiff Massey have anything to do with it. She’s acquired two buildings in the past few years, and while it’ll take her time to summit the mountain of red tape to open them, she has a clear vision. One will serve as her personal studio, and the other will serve as a community art center where local makers provide the kind of instruction to area kids that Massey had to go outside the city to find. It is a project inspired in part by watching the way children reacted to her work.
“There was a group of high school kids that visited my show ‘Proud Lady,’” Massey says, speaking of a recent resident artist exhibition at the Red Bull House of Art. It’s a stunning show that centers images of black hair: walls adorned with intricate braids and twists and locks, pink plastic barrettes blown up to enormous size and hung boldly on the wall. “And all the kids of color, who had the biggest hair and all the curls you could probably never count, they all sat up under there. And you could tell that for them, it was like, ‘Yes, somebody gets it. Yes, this is a portrait of me; this is an experience that I have. Somebody is talking to me, finally.’”
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.