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  • Making Art, Making Life:The Paintings of Mike Henderson
  • Mark Hain and Michael T. Martin

This Gallery, as a companion to this issue’s interview with Mike Henderson, is intended to intervene in and elaborate upon his artistic concerns and practice. Some visual artists establish a signature style or recurrent subject matter early in their development, with that particular vision a bedrock for acts of creation throughout their artistic careers. Other artists produce a body of work that reflects a transformational journey, devotion to experimentation, and a working through of ideas and foundational principles that initiate and compel the mode and manner of making art. Henderson is an artist of this latter type, whose drive to create is not constrained by a single style, a particular medium, or even one form of art. As a painter, filmmaker, and musician, Henderson rejects the idea that these avenues of expression are discrete, saying he pays little attention to disciplinary divisions because doing so would take time away from making more work.

This Gallery chronicles Henderson’s artistic path over the past half century, observing and defining shifts in both form and content, but always distinguished and recognizable by his color palette, urgency, and instinct. Seeing himself as a conduit through which art flows, he asserts, “You don’t know if it’s good or bad, just that you have to do it and trust what comes through you,” claiming that “art should be more than self-serving, or what will sell.” Rather, Henderson sees himself as “a voice for those who can’t paint.”1

Henderson’s road to becoming an artist was fraught with difficulty. Born in 1943 and raised in Marshall, Missouri, a “predominantly white farming community”2 roughly ninety miles due east of Kansas City, Henderson spent his youth in an economically disadvantaged area among people that he says he “couldn’t relate to.” Indeed, as noted in the interview with Michael T. Martin in the present issue, Henderson’s family was less than supportive of his artistic interests and pursuits. He was, however, encouraged during this period while working at a local hotel as a bellhop and shining shoes, after he posted some of his drawings on his shoeshine stand. School integration, [End Page 91] which Henderson said was relatively smooth in Marshall, also meant the opportunity to encounter others who made music or art. Further support came from an aunt and uncle, and the African American artist Hiram Jackson, as referenced in the interview. During these formative years, the works of Vincent van Gogh were a primary influence on Henderson’s social and artistic vision, although when asked if he had other influences, he replied, “Everybody—I was like a sponge.”

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Figure 1.

Mike Henderson

After finishing high school, Henderson applied to several college art programs and was accepted at the San Francisco Art Institute, one of the few schools, according to him, that wasn’t segregated.3 Initially wanting to work in a photo-realist style, Henderson found himself frustrated by easel painting and sculpture, and felt unsure—largely because of financial concerns—that he would be able to continue on at the Art Institute. Despite this frustration and uncertainty, Henderson said he was “on the brink of something.” After a critique from a professor who told him, “I expected bigger things from you,” he decided to “put away the little tiny brush” used for realist painting: “Since I didn’t know if I’d make it through, I stretched the biggest canvas I could, took all my money and bought paint, and thought, ‘This is it.’”

What came of this daring initiative was The Last Supper (fig. 2). This radical refashioning of the biblical story was sparked, Henderson says, by the connection between religion and prejudice he had become aware of growing up—“all the things you take in as a kid, through your pores, things you don’t even know you’re experiencing,” such as the encounter with a racist Santa Claus he noted in the interview. [End Page 92]

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Figure 2.

The Last Supper (1965, oil on canvas, 71...


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pp. 91-109
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