Overcoming challenges: Accident, homelessness don’t deter artist

by Sonja J. Keith
Mike Kemp photos

Conway artist Bryan Winfred Massey Sr. thought the 501 would be a good place to get started in his career. Nearly 30 years later, Central Arkansas is home as he continues his artistic journey that has included challenges along the way.

Massey’s interest in art was sparked when he was about 7 years old. He recalled that one of his seven uncles who served in Vietnam had just returned from his second tour of duty, and he wanted to do something special for him. He took his father’s new screwdriver and hammer to sculpt on a piece of pine wood.

“I got a pretty close likeness of Uncle John, but it ended up going into the stove,” he said, adding that his uncle did not get to see his work. “My father didn’t like me ruining his new hammer and screwdriver, but I knew then I was going to be involved in the arts.”

Massey said he also enjoyed drawing and recalled that when he was in high school, he convinced his mother to let him draw the Incredible Hulk on his bedroom wall. But there was one condition — he had to draw a 6-foot image of Jesus Christ on another wall. “So when you walked into my bedroom, the first thing you saw was Jesus and you looked to the right and you saw the Incredible Hulk.”

Originally from Princeton, N.C., Massey earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from East Carolina University in Greenville and a master of fine arts from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Massey was finishing up his master’s degree and researching employment opportunities when he learned about an opening at the University of Central Arkansas. He was hired and has been on the UCA faculty for 29 years. Today, he is professor of art, sculpture and design. “I thought it would be a good place to get started, professionally,” he said. “When I came for the interview, I didn’t know a lot about Conway but I saw it as virgin territory for a stone carver, particularly an African American stone carver. They didn’t have anyone doing stone in this area.”

Massey said his wife, Delphine, was impressed with the local school system. The couple has three children; Junia, Bryan Jr. and Javan.

“I liked the fact UCA did not have a true 3D program and I could build it from the ground floor,” Massey said. “I was going to give them five years and then move on, hopefully closer to family on the East Coast.”

Massey explained he got comfortable in the job and never made a move even though he interviewed with other schools. “The more I stayed, I liked being at the university.”

But life hasn’t been easy.

Massey has faced some significant challenges, including injury, homelessness and death threats.

In July 1982, Massey lost four fingers on his left hand in an accident involving a table saw while he was attending East Carolina State.

“I couldn’t do any art or 3D for 18 months,” he said, adding that surgery was performed to re-attach what doctors could. “I could’ve quit, but I didn’t.”

A couple years later, Massey found himself without a home in North Carolina for a couple of months. “Everything I owned was in a 1977 Chevrolet Impala,” he said. “I didn’t even own the car. It was a loaner from a guy I had worked for. I did have a car, but it was taken from me. I would visit my sister to shower and stuff like that. It was a little difficult.”

Having faith in God and being brought up in a Christian home made a big difference for Massey. “I think it makes a difference in anybody’s life,” he said. “I could’ve given up a long time ago on a lot of things, but I just decided not to. I felt if I was going to do something with my life, I had to make the decision to do that. I couldn’t rely on people helping me or taking handouts. There were times I wouldn’t eat for four or five days, but I wouldn’t steal. I’d rather go hungry than steal. That was the morals embedded into me by my parents.”

The artist has also had challenges at UCA. “A lot of people aren’t aware that I was one of two African American professors that were given death threats over an issue back in the 1990s. I had to send my family to North Carolina,” he said, adding that the FBI investigated.

The threats were related to his objections over a clause in the university’s constitution that stated it was established for the education of white people only. “I took issue with that,” he said. “I felt like it was a battle that had to be fought.”

Massey said that when the death threats were made, he had the support of the UCA Police Department and administration. “I’ve been dealing with controversy all my life,” he said. “It’s nothing new for me to take on battles. I pick my battles. I know when to fight and when not to fight.”

Bryan has exhibited internationally, nationally and regionally throughout his career. Some of his completed works include the Sidney S. McMath Memorial in Little Rock, the Silas Herbert Hunt Memorial in Fayetteville and his Nautilus sculpture located in the Riverfront Park.

One of his more recent works is Otis, a bear that he created that is attached to a wall on the new Donaghey Hall at UCA. Art on the Green worked with the architectural firm of Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects and Massey on the project. Massey is complimentary of Art on the Green and the support and assistance he has received through the gallery. (To see more of his work, visit artonthegreen.net.)

While he is primarily a stone carver, Massey has other artistic talents. In fact, he envisioned being a 2D artist with ambitions of working for Hallmark as an illustrator. His first commissioned work was an oil painting.

“I still draw, although people don’t realize I do draw,” he said. “I paint. I do watercolor, but not as much as I used to because I’m busy with more sculptural 3D elements than 2D.”

Massey credits his curiosity in leading him into art. “I was very inquisitive about seeing how things worked and working with my hands,” he said. “I’ve always been inquisitive about creating things.”

Massey shares that his career in art almost didn’t happen. As an undergraduate, he would start a project but not complete it before going on to another one, which his professors did not like. “I was told to change my major,” he said, adding that his professors saw his potential, but Massey was just doing enough to get by. “I knew that was a dream for me to become an artist.”

Massey said he has been described as a Renaissance man because he has so many different skills. “I can do a lot because I had to learn a lot to survive,” he said, adding that in addition to his art he cooks and can do home improvements. He creates custom-made furniture as well as restores pieces. He also turned down a recording contract when he was 23. “Now I just sing in church,” Massey said, adding that he appreciates the support of his church family from Agape Church in Little Rock.

Massey said one colleague describes him as “the man who never sleeps” and another calls him “the James Brown of the art world.”

“I can’t sit idle. I’ve always got to be creating something or making something,” he said. “I’ve always got to be working on something.”
His advice to young people with a dream of being an artist is “go for it.” While he didn’t have support early on from his family, he was determined to be an artist. “I would encourage them to maintain the faith, not only in themselves but in a Higher Being to accomplish their dreams.”

Massey has told his students that he is going to start working on his retirement stone, a large piece of limestone that weighs about 3,000 pounds. He plans to carve it by hand, allowing the art to evolve as he works on it. “When I finish that piece, I’m going to retire,” he said. “It might take me 10 years, so that’s my next big venture. Of course, I will continue to work in art regardless of whether I’m teaching or not. I don’t foresee myself getting out of doing art.”