Silver is the Perfect Color- Mike Henderson

Mike Henderson, Painter.

Quick History: Notes from an Interview.

During a lecture this past winter at Whitman College, Paul McCarthy, made a reference to a painter that had made an early impression on him. Influencing him to spray paint everything in his yard and everything he owned silver.  This man, Mike Henderson, who painted in silver because “it was the answer,” was a classmate at San Francisco Art Institute before Paul left for the University of Southern California.

Apparently Mike Henderson did not really know, or register Paul until a few years ago. In March 2008, Paul curated a show of important influences, “Low Life Slow Life” at CCA Watts Institute for Contemporary Arts. Although he looked for other work, he ultimately showed, Nonviolence, 1965, 72 x 120 inches and Castration 1968, 72 x 120 inches. “Both works depict aggressive violence perpetrated by men in uniform, one wearing an arm band with a swastika.” Around the time of the show, Paul reminded Mike of a story from school. Mike had came back to his studio at SFAI and, found a painted silver paper with christmas lights on the floor of his studio, in front of his paintings. That, Paul pointed out, was him. 

This July I approached Mike for an interview, to further my own explorations into silver. 

Although accepted into other programs, Mr. Henderson attended San Francisco Art Institute.   Ultimately, SFAI was the only school that did not reject him after finding out the color of his skin.  This, among other influences led him from a small town watercolorist to abstract painter and experimental film maker.

He counts early exposure to Van Gogh, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Georgia O’Keefe. He recollected early conversations, at SFAI with Bruce Nauman. A significant moment with art historian Dr. Miller, rotated Mike's mind around the old adage, "if a tree falls in the forest will anyone know?" This was provocative, in the time of civil rights. And later, a discussion at Skowhegan with Al Held and Jacob Lawrence, were direction changing. Specifically, it was after he spoke with Al Held that he left the political work behind.

Mike’s daily life brought his work into focus. A blues career brought him in touch with community, outside of school. His humanitarian work for the Black Panthers, bringing food to the hungry, and appliances to needy. As an African-American living in a “hub of diversity.” He fed his “desperation to compete”  and to not be treated like a minority. Mike would make over 50 huge paintings each semester to“catch up” with the expectations he set for himself. Ultimately he received his BA and masters in 4 years.

Previously, his paintings were political. He was surrounded by cops, civil rights, listening to Eldridge Cleaver give lectures and demonstrations. He was looking for an answer. He saw for the first time, a white boy be placed in a choke hold, for standing up for a black person. 

He sequestered himself into his mind. Using 80 feet worth of canvas, he stretched 15 paintings. After a week of many 24 hour days of painting, Mike Henderson bought a 5 pound bucket of silver paint. And he began to repaint his canvases, and then his sneakers. Intense in thought, he would interact with society with the flecks dispersing over his skin and hair….  All of these experiences and more, brought him to what he thought was the answer to mankind. 

Mike decided that “silver was the perfect color.” “It remains itself and reflects its surroundings” If you covered yourself in silver, you could remain yourself and reflect another. “Freedom of speech… who you are… the nucleus of thinking… civil rights… this color would some how make it easier” 

“People could loose themselves in another culture.” Thinking about how to not be a “culture vulture.”  And how a person could “…respect community and walk through.”

“I would be you, you would be me.” (And yet still maintain and respect the self.)

There are two of the fifty or so paintings made from this from this era, still in existence.  In the early 80’s, while on his band’s tour in Europe, a fire destroyed much of his work.   His attitude towards the blues, and his practice of performing music brought great relief to his art practice. “Once you’ve got that note, its gone.” He had made the work, and that was what was pertinent.

Two years ago, after 40 years, Mike retired, or quit as he likes to say, from being a professor of artfrom at Davis, University of California. I hope to visiting Mike’s studio to further our conversation, to see the two paintings, and watch a few of the experimental films he was making at the same time as the silver work.


Thanks to Karen and Paul McCarthy for clues on how to find Mike, and thanks to The Haines Gallery for the introduction.

The Conversation, with Mike Henderson, was by phone. August 7th, 2016

Paul MacCarthy, presented by Whitman College and Walla Walla Foundry, Artist Lecture Series. February 16, 2016

 Erik Bakke, “Low Life Slow Life” at CCA Watts Institute for Contemporary Arts. March 2008