In more than four years of conducting monthly interviews with fascinating people, few have touched me like the artist Mike Henderson. Henderson and I met recently at Haines Gallery in downtown San Francisco, where some of his work is on display. (Sitting six feet apart, this was my first in-person interview in a year!)
Henderson is soft spoken, kind hearted and wickedly talented. His work has been exhibited at some of the most prestigious museums in the world: the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; London’s Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to name a few.
Growing up in the 1950s in Marshall, Missouri, Henderson couldn’t imagine this kind of success in his wildest dreams. As he tells it, he grew up dirt poor and severely dyslexic, feeling like he never fit in.
In 1965, Henderson headed west to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, the only desegregated art school at the time. Here, he found a community of artists and friends and developed his talents as a musician, filmmaker and painter. As a young artist, Henderson created large-scale figurative paintings reflecting the tumultuous political times of the 1960s, depicting scenes of social uprisings, racism and police brutality. Later, his work evolved into powerful abstractions. Prior to retiring in 2012, Henderson taught for more than four decades at UC Davis with other luminaries such as Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, Roy De Forest and Manuel Neri — all friends for life. In 2023, the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis will host Mike Henderson: Before the Fire, 1965–1985, a major survey exhibition.
Meet Mike Henderson.
Let’s start near the beginning. You left rural Missouri in 1965 — On a Greyhound bus.
And you came to San Francisco to attend the Art Institute. That must have been quite a culture shock. Yes and no. I had come to the area the year before, and I realized I didn’t have enough money to make it. So I figured I’d go back and work for a while. I went back, worked in the fields and worked at a hotel as a janitor, a shoeshine — everything you can think of — and saved my money.
And you continued to work on your art? Yes. I’d get to the hotel in the morning when people were checking in, and around noon I did a cleanup. Then there was nothing to do until around 3 p.m. So I had a drawing pad and I started drawing at my shoeshine stand. The woman who owned the hotel was incredible and she didn’t complain, so I brought some watercolors in. And next thing you know, she was encouraging me to keep painting.
Then, one of my customers who was getting his shoes shined told me about the van Gogh show in Kansas City. He had gone to see it, and he told me I should go because the paintings were headed to a museum in Amsterdam. He gave me a ticket to see the show and another customer gave me bus fare to go to Kansas City, which is about 75 miles from Marshall. I saw it and my life changed.
Incredible. I started looking at those paintings, especially the self-portraits, just how piercing the eyes were. It was like they were real or something, you know?
I was hanging out at the museum and someone told me about three women painters at the Kansas City Art Show. So I went to see it. It was Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Mitchell and Elaine de Kooning. Those are the first abstract paintings I ever saw in real life. Then I went to the museum to see the van Gogh a second time and I noticed this woman talking to a crowd of people about this painting [The Potato Eaters]. I listened to her tell the history and I was just … I’ve been changed since.
What was it about that experience that touched you so deeply? His work was about things I saw every day. I saw women working. When I saw those women bending over in the fields, and she was talking about what was going on at the time — everybody was starving and digging for these roots — and the women’s fingers are big at the end from digging in the dirt for the potatoes. It was probably the first I had heard of white people being poor. There were maybe three white families in the part of town where I lived. We knew they were poor. But to hear this whole thing about the starvation because the crops have died and all of this. And the way he painted the painting and the colors that he chose to use, like those browns, all those earth tones. And just how cruel the forks and everything looked at that table with the dim light over it and everything. It reminded me of where I grew up, you know what I mean?
I do. So I applied to the Art Institute. It was the only art school in the country that wasn’t segregated. I just applied and they accepted me. With other places I called to tell them who I was and what I was, and they’d just say no. It was funny when I called the Art Institute, because there was this long silence at first when I said I was Black, and then they said, ‘So do you want to know how many of our students are Black or where they live?’ I came out here and they promised me a job working on the maintenance crew.
To help pay for your tuition? Yeah. I had enough money for one semester, and that’s all I wanted was one semester to see if it was in me.
What kind of reception did you get when you arrived in San Francisco? When I walked into the Art Institute the first time, I knew this was where I wanted to be. I heard about San Francisco because of the beatniks and poets and weird people. I thought, OK, this is where I belong, brother. I was definitely weird in Marshall, Missouri, believe me. My parents were glad to get me the hell out of there; I didn’t fit in anywhere.
Not many artists in Marshall back then? Not really. One day, one of my friends I met playing sports said, “Hey, you know my mother does painting, you should meet her.”
So you were hanging out with your friends’ moms? Yeah, Saturday afternoons we’d get our watercolors. There were about three of them, and they were all part of the church socials. They would invite me to come, and they would all show their works together. Sometimes they would ask me to come to show my work and talk about what I’m doing. The women encouraged me to do it all.
Did you have an inkling that you wanted to be a professional artist? That was my secret dream. I couldn’t talk about that at home because my father would probably beat the hell out of me.
Over at the barbershop, they would tease me about it all the time. They would always say, “Here comes Mike, the Black Frenchman. He thinks he’s an artist or beatnik or something.” I just went with it.
Luckily, there was a college there, and the only place open late at night was the barbecue joint on our side of town. The kids from the coasts would come to dance or eat because it was open late. They would see me with my drawing pad under my arm, and everybody wanted to see drawings. Of course, I was ready to show them. A couple of guys one night told me, “Hey, come up to my dorm. I’ve checked out some books at the library …” (because we weren’t allowed to use the library then).
They would show me an artist and we’d talk about it and they’d say, “Hey man, you’ve got to get away from here. I grew up in California and had Black friends, but here it’s so different, man. You got to get the hell out of here.”
So they encouraged you and helped open your eyes? Yes. Politically and socially, too. The first time I came out here, I was staying at the YMCA and there was a demonstration going on about the war. And I was standing around listening to all these different people — hundreds of them — talking about stuff I didn’t even know about, or even what words they were using. As I was standing there, a limousine pulled up. This woman stepped out, and it was Joan Baez. She comes up and kisses me. And she says, “Harry, I haven’t seen you in years.” I was speechless. I mean, this is my first week in San Francisco!
Kissed by Joan Baez! Yeah. I said, “I’m not Harry.” And she said, “Oh.” She just got in the limousine and went back to the demonstration. Nowadays, I think, “Why didn’t I just say I’m Harry?”
You came to the Art Institute at a very tumultuous time: the anti-war protests, the formation of the Black Panthers, civil rights uprisings. How did that affect your work? I was feeling these knots in my stomach. I couldn’t figure it out. And I remember one day I was trying to paint a nude woman, and everybody else in the class was a better artist than I was. I just couldn’t find my way. I painted a dress on the woman and put her on a park bench with buildings in the background. It didn’t look like the model because I used different colors. Somebody walked by and said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I didn’t really know how to speak or talk to people. I had a real Southern drawl, plus I’m so badly dyslexic.
Then I did a painting of something I saw on the streets every day when I walked through North Beach: the tired, elderly men sitting on benches. I painted the people, the buildings in the background … I didn’t really know where to take it. When Dr. King got assassinated, I went down to Civic Center to the rally there and listened to all those speeches. I was walking back to the school and I kept thinking, “I want my figures to move so they have more impact.” That’s when the deluge of protest paintings started to come out. I sometimes did two of those a day. They were 10 to 12 feet long and six feet high.
Did the pit in your stomach start to go away because you were able to better express yourself through your paintings? No, it got bigger. I had this great art history teacher, Fred Martin. I remember him saying, “If an artist doesn’t address death in their work, they’re not worth their soul. You’ve got to address death and human concern.”
You talk a lot about community. Did you draw inspiration from other artists and what they were doing? Who are some of the people that you befriended? Oh, yes. People like Jay DeFeo, Joan Brown, Fred Martin, Bob Nelson … and then people that they knew. I felt that, perhaps, they saw something in me because not every student had that privilege. I remember coming to the sculpture studio, which — I’ve always struggled with three-dimensional stuff, I never understood sculpture — anyway, this guy teaching sculpture there, turns out his name was Peter Saul.
He was showing students how to mix plaster. I said to him, “Hey, you’re doing that wrong.” He said, “Well, show me how.” I said, “You don’t put the water in above the plaster, you put the plaster in above. … Then, you slowly pour water and mix it with your hands and you add more and more.” Anyway, he goes, “What do you do? You make sculpture? You want to be my TA?” I said, “No, I’m a painter. I struggle with sculpture myself.” He said, “How about you show me some of your paintings?”
I sat him down and showed him some of my paintings, and the next week, he says, “Hey, why don’t you come to dinner at my house? I want to talk to you.” He picked me up and then I realized who he was because I remembered the lecture about his work. I guess the other painters on the faculty didn’t want him to teach painting there, so they gave him the sculpting department. He said, “Listen, I know what they did, but hell, I just sold a painting for $10,000 today. None of those guys ever sold a painting for $10,000 in their life.”
Who else was part of that community for you? Stephen De Staebler was another one. I was hungry one day. He was teaching a class and afterward everyone was going for lunch, but I told them I wasn’t going to go. He said, “Well, come on!” I said I’d come, but just to listen to the conversation. We went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and he said, “What are you going to have?” and I said, “Oh, I’m not hungry.” And, everybody said, “You’re not hungry? Come on, get something.” And, I said, “I don’t have any money.” I was pinching every penny for the 15-cent bus ride to get home after school. So, he bought the food for me and another time, too. He would always come up to me and say, “Hey, you doing OK?”
I remember another night I was cleaning up after an opening and I found a jug of wine. I was talking to Jay DeFeo and asked her if she would like a little cup and she said, “Sure.” She asked me what I was doing and I said, “Well, I’ve got this idea.” I realized I’m going to solve all the race problems. She said, “How’s that?” I said, “If everybody were silver.”
I said, “Silver will be the color. You look at me, I look at you, I see myself. There’s no need for race. We just need to chrome plate everybody.” Jay says, “I like it. Let’s start now.” So, we went down to the cafeteria and we painted the cafeteria silver. A little bit more of the wine was gone by now. Then we decided to paint the front doors of the school silver. I did a silver sculpture, I got a pedestal out of the sculpture studio, I painted it silver. I found a mannequin, painted it silver and stuck it out in the school fountain. Of course, there were no fish in the water back then, so I poured a little bit of silver paint in the water.
Is it true that while you were still in school one of your paintings was in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art? Yes, it was my second year at the Art Institute when I got into a Whitney show. That had to do with Peter Saul and I guess William Wiley and Bill Allen. I didn’t know them, hadn’t met them, but I guess Peter knew them and told them about me. [One day] someone came to me and said, “Mike, the man from the Whitney Museum is here and he’s looking for you. Of course I said, “About time!”
What painting did they show? It was one called Non-Violence. That was the one that was in the show out here at the de Young. Anyway, the first big painting I did like that was the one the de Young just bought: The Scream.
So that’s when you got into the large paintings? Yes, I got back to school after [a Christmas break] and I had the school to myself and I got the biggest canvas I could — about 12 feet — and I did a painting called The Last Supper. And I found the freedom I was struggling for. I remember one of the teachers said something about painting being able to brush stroke your size. And, all of a sudden I felt that, because all of my canvases were small, because that’s all I could afford. I just thought, “What the hell. I’m going to go for broke here. I’ll figure it out somehow.”
I felt like an artist’s job was to be like a doctor. A doctor’s supposed to heal anybody that comes to them, so I figured, an artist is supposed to address all the concerns that other people have, not just your concerns. The next ones I saw were women … the Holocaust … Native Americans …
When you moved from figurative to more abstract paintings was that a natural evolution or was that intentional? It was both. All that happened when I got a summer scholarship to Skowhegan [School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine]. Skowhegan was six or nine weeks. I felt like I couldn’t do another protest painting. I felt like if I did, they would come out of me for the wrong reasons.
When I got there, I did a figurative painting just to get my feet on the ground. Then I thought, “This is the chance to live the life of Picasso. I’m going to start all my tasks and do a painting with no figures in it.”
I started working with Philip Pearlstein. I did a couple figurative paintings, and one was called Freedom. This time, it was the white cops attacking the Blacks, the Blacks were attacking the prison guards. I did one of going to church with my grandmother. I did some about Catholic religion, small paintings.
But I couldn’t do another one. I remember telling Pearlstein, “I’ll see you Monday with something new.” So I went and got two canvases, stretched them up. And I put away my brushes. Every time I picked up a brush, it felt like it was a figure coming out. So, I used my hands again, like I did when I first started out. And I just attacked the canvases.
So, Monday morning Pearlstein comes in. I say, “Mr. Pearlstein, I did a painting without figures.” And he says, “Impossible.” I showed him the painting, and he’s looking at it, and he says, “I see figures everywhere.” And that was the challenge.
Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters never left my mind. How all of the ochres were used, and dark colors. Maybe just yellow ochre for light instead of medium bright yellow. And how it really set the mood. Listening in art history when Fred would talk about de Kooning and Pollock, and all those guys were abstract painters. You can see how this painting thing just takes over you. It’s like you don’t control it. It comes out of you. That seemed to be the way to unfold as an artist and that’s when the knots [in my stomach] began to leave and I felt more comfortable — without overthinking everything. Is it going to be male, is it going to be female, what race is he going to be? I didn’t want to make paintings like that anymore because all these things I had been through were still in my head — Native American issues, gay issues, women’s issues, Black issues, world issues, hunger, pollution.
When people look at these abstractions, do you want it to evoke something in them? Yes, I wanted to take them to a place they’d never been before because I’ve never been there before.
You taught art at UC Davis for 43 years. What did you love about teaching? Oh, everything. The students were all from such different walks of life. I always wanted to communicate with every one of them. And God, it was so much fun being there with Wiley and the rest. When he retired, it was like John Lennon leaving the Beatles or something, you know? It just shifted. Everybody thought that they could take his place, but they couldn’t. He had a different thing he brought to the table. Everybody did.
Everybody there was a character, from Thiebaud, to Wiley, to [Robert] Arneson, to Roy De Forest — who I called “Dad.” He was always correcting me. He’d say, “I need to correct my son.” I’d say, “OK, Dad, what’d I do wrong?” It was funny. I learned something from everybody I could.
Again, that sense of community, right? Yeah, and then we’d get together on the weekends, have a party or something. Wiley and I would sit around with a guitar and play songs. I would sit in his office sometimes at night the first couple of years I was there, and we would talk about the art world. How’d you get from point A to point B? How do you deal with the criticism? How did you and Bruce Nauman hook up? Then you’d look at the clock and it’s 7:30, 8 at night.
Then we’d walk over to a little seminar or something, and we’d sit with the students and talk. Debbie Butterfield, Nancy Rubins, all these people … I felt the same energy that I felt within me. The eagerness that I felt at the school. I always say I never taught anybody anything. I only had conversations with people and tried to get them to find out who they were, you know? How can I relate to you?
That’s lovely. When I got there, I realized a lot of students weren’t art majors. So how do you heat the stove? And I found a way to do that. I found a way of making them see that no matter what business you’re in, creativity is a part of that. And that comes from art, you know? If you’re going to be a parent, you’ll be a better parent. If you’re going to be in a relationship, you’ll realize there’s more than one way to see something. Look at a painting, and everybody sees something different.
You came from humble beginnings — Poor.
Poor. Your work has now been displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, SFMOMA, the Pompidou, the Tate Modern … How does that make you feel? I’ve got more to do. I haven’t reached anything that I want to really do yet. I’d like to have a one-man show. I never had that one-man show in New York, L.A. or in Europe.
What are you working on now? I just finished some works on paper. I’ve got some canvas — I stretched up some big ones. I want to get back to the size I was working when I was in school, you know? I work all different sizes now. You know, you’ve got to learn how to be your own teacher when you get out of school.