In Conversation with Metalsmith artist Tiff Massey by Taylor Renee Aldridge
Tiff Massey, a Detroit-based metalsmith artist, has been a pioneering figure in Detroit’s contemporary arts community in recent years. Massey, one of the few, if not only Black female metalsmith artists in the city, was awarded the Kresge Visual Artist Fellowship in 2015. In the same year, she garnered the support of the Knight Foundation to implement a one-month residency program for national and international metalsmith artists, and is now gathering matching funds to make this a reality in the city. A Cranbrook Academy Alum, and Detroiter, born and bred, she is known for creating metal work—hand, and neck jewelry—reminiscent of the large gold jewelry hip hop artists used to wear in the 1980’s. She also creates large-scale public installations, that you can find throughout the city.
My first interaction with Massey was not necessarily a warm one. Similar to the hard dark exterior metal pieces she creates, Massey is stoic and hardly affable unless she considers you a close acquaintance. She and I met shortly after I moved back to Detroit in 2014. I came back aware of all of the disparities and appropriating happening in the city, but unable to speak first hand to the things that had happened while I was away for several years. Massey, along with other artists who have stayed in Detroit, have watched people come and go over the past several years to use the “new Detroit” brand to their benefit, much to the exclusion of the greater Detroit (arts) community.
Massey and I found ourselves in some debates shortly after meeting. In retrospect, I believe she wanted to see if I was returning to Detroit with an agenda, much like the people who visit for a short period of time to appropriate the City’s brand and despair. I knew why I came back home, and it wasn’t to co-opt the city for personal gain and then leave. So, it was puzzling to me that I, a born and bred Detroiter, could be looked upon as a gentrifier of my own city. While I never agreed with Massey, it made me consider the intentions around my role in engaging and working in this “new Detroit.” Even as a native of a city, you could easily become a fixture in its gentrification if you are not sincere in engaging with the existing community.
For some time, I have wanted to talk with Massey unguarded, to discuss her experiences as an artist in the Detroit, specifically during the years that I have been away. I think Massey and I are both in very unique positions as minorities in our respective industries, and I was interested in exploring this commonality. It’s now been well over a year since our first encounter, and I think we have moved beyond that space of speculative acquaintances to allies. A few weeks ago, we sat down and had an unfiltered conversation at my local coffee shop, to discuss socio-politics in Detroit, '80s bling, and Massey’s rigorous art practice.
Taylor Renee Aldridge: Who are some of the artists in Detroit that have informed your artistic practice?
Tiff Massey: Iris Eichenberg informed my artistic practice. She exposed me to the world of contemporary art jewelry and has helped shape the way I use and view materiality. Richard Bennett showed me that through metalsmithing you can have longevity. Nick Cave is influential in how I aspire in my creative practice to move and travel. The scale and the community involvement imbedded in his projects left lasting impressions. All of these experiences have shaped the way my creative practice operates and all of this has happened in Detroit.
TRA: I recall you mentioning that you were the first Black woman to graduate from Cranbrook's metal department. Can you tell me about this pioneering experience and how that influenced your perspective of the greater art industry?
TM: My experience at Cranbrook was enlightening and very informative to my practice. Cranbrook was a defining moment in my life. It’s where I discovered my creative language and I realized I was no longer limited to body-jewelry. I could make everything. To me that’s powerful and with that power I hope to share with the world on a larger scale, hence the sculpture. Yes, as far as I know I am the first Black woman to graduate from the metals department. In this experience I knew it was important that my story was told from the medium in which I choose to translate my ideas and to the fine art world.
TRA: I’m curious about your studio process, which as a metalsmith artist, can be quite labor intensive. Do you like working in solitude? What inspires your creative process most?
TM: Color has been a big thing in my previous work and I just started to totally take it away and just concentrate on the form, and more on the color Black. I’ve been particularly working on Black and Blackness, signifiers of Black, and materials that suggest Blackness. It’s really nice and refreshing to experiment and write down visually what it is I’m trying to convey to my audience. I keep going back and forth to the use of the mirror, the cameo, this oval shape [points to massive rings on her fingers], and these distortions within the reflections which are ongoing themes with how the audience is included in the work. There’s this distortion of history, distortions of Blackness. So I’m adding all these elements together, and whoever the viewer is will also be incorporated in the work.
Right now, [my practice is] pretty much deadline driven. I haven't, for a while, felt like making a new body of work on my own that wasn't designated to a deadline. Usually, time was never an issue, especially with the labor that’s included in a lot of the work, but being that I have so many exhibitions lined up, the time has become an issue, so I’m really not trying to short-change or cheat the possibilities of where the work can move, but I have interns now [smiles] so hopefully I can make all of these things happen. But usually depending on what I’m doing, I start with paper, because whatever I can do with paper, I can translate to other materials, specifically metal, and I can get a quick model. I don’t usually sketch a drawing, I make physical sketches. But now I generally don’t have time, I just go in my studio and make the work; whatever comes out, that’s just how it comes. I’m starting to just trust myself a little bit more in that regard.
TRA: I want to return back to this labor that is required for metalsmithing. I’m curious as to how exactly you got into jewelry making. Making jewelry can be interpreted as a feminine practice, however, the labor that goes into working with metal to create jewelry is very rigorous and could be associated with masculine work, or men’s work. What got you into making your own jewelry?
TM: I remember specifically having my first jewelry class [in high school] and it wasn’t like, "oh this is it." It was just something that I really liked doing. Getting custom jewelry made with my father, and then there was '80s hip hop jewelry and lucite rings that had all the colors in between them. I was really obsessed with the shape and form, so I knew I wanted to translate that design into metal. I became really obsessed with making hollow constructions, lightweight forms that look visually heavy. And yes, the work that goes into it, most people wouldn’t do. I tried to have some of my friends help me out and they tap out real quick.
TRA: In Detroit, we see foundations providing support enabling artists to be more autonomous. Particularly, the Kresge Fellowship, which you are a recipient of, has allowed for more opportunities for this professionalization and agency of artists to happen. What has your experience as a Kresge Fellow been like, and how has it informed your practice as of late?
TM: The fellowship is life changing, really. The fellowship provides you with the tools for you to have longevity in the game and it's also like a punch to the gut all at the same time. You never really see the aspect that this [the art industry] is a business. You know, it’s a business. It functions as one; there’s buying, selling, and making. But I feel like now I’m doing more business than I am making, and so I’m just trying to find a balance. More opportunities are just coming in since winning the fellowship.
TRA: You have sort of become an unofficial watchdog, on people looking to penetrate the art ecosystem here with some integrity. Do you think there is a way for non-Detroiters to become a part of the landscape without looking like a clueless gentrifier?
TM: I feel like there is a way to do it. The most effective way? I’m not really sure. But this commercialized way, where people are really here for ulterior motives, where they only participate in the re-branding of the city; I feel like this is a disservice to actually what’s going on here. That’s really what I have a problem with—people trying to use the name to elevate themselves when they’re really not trying to elevate or help with the issues that are happening around them. Or, they are just totally aloof and subscribe to this "Captain Save-'em" mentality; none of these people [in Detroit] need to be saved. We just need more resources and that doesn’t necessarily translate to a damn art installation or a fucking mural [laughs].
TRA: You collaborated with Jeedo from Complex Movements recently to produce a song and video “Detroit is Black” which is ironically revolutionary even though it’s a factual statement. In the text that accompanies the video you wrote:
"I wanted to comment on what was truly taking place in Detroit at that particular moment, which unfortunately are current events. There's a cover story, and then there's the real thing; what happening on the ground. Everyone is talking about Detroit, but no one wants to talk about the real issues surrounding the city. The Detroit native narrative is missing. The native tongue is lacking in the conversation. What makes a city? What nurtures a city?"
Can you share what issues in particular you are referring to in that text?
TM: We need schools. We need recreation. We need food that is healthy. We need lights. We need water. You know? Detroit is like a “Hot & Ready” for individuals who come here to basically exploit the land; people who feel like it’s cheap and can just make some money real quick—I’ve never seen property values go up so quickly in my life. It’s basically to exclude the people who have been living here. How do we [long-time residents] fit into the equation to become business owners, entrepreneurs, or start a small business? Where are all the Black people, where do they fit in?
TRA: I want to refocus on the arts community here end on a positive note. Can you tell me what artists in Detroit you are following now?
The complete transcript of this interview with Tiff Massey, has been edited for clarity.
Taylor Renee is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK