All that we currently know about the life of African American visual artist and poet Joseph Cyrus Massey are a few cold facts found in official documents, vintage newspaper clippings, and a handful of letters. According to his World War I draft registration form, he was born on August 9, 1895, in Texas. His entry in the Ohio Penitentiary Register of Prisoners, where he was admitted on March 7, 1939, indicates that he was previously incarcerated in Little Rock, Arkansas, Michigan City (under the pseudonym Lester Brown), and Jeffersonville—two Indiana towns.

 

The long-demolished Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, where “Bugs” Moran, O. Henry, and Sam Sheppard also did time at different junctures—and where an astonishing number of capital punishments were carried out between 1885 and 1963—was the bleak outpost where Massey’s story rose above what was, by all accounts, a dejected life. Whether in the past he pursued artistic endeavors is unclear, but only a few years into his Ohio incarceration, the pioneering surrealist magazine View—whose contributors included Picasso, Duchamp, Nabokov, and Sartre—began printing inmate no. 75209’s drawings and poems.

 

At some point in the early 1940s, Massey started sending letters and submissions, addressed to Charles Henri Ford (“Editor Sr”), to the View headquarters at 1 East 53 Street in New York City. A sample of this correspondence is archived in The Beinecke Research Library at Yale University: some letters are written on blank pages and others on prison mail office forms, always in urgent, scribbled longhand and often embellished with sketches and stamped CENSORED. Massey fastidiously itemized drawings and poems that he had sent, received back (or not) as well as those that had apparently been mislaid—always finding an opportunity to convey his desire to publish a book (“or booklet or pamphlet”) of his poetry.

 

We know from the artist that Ford sent Massey issues of View, checks, and art supplies, but the absence of Ford’s written responses (most likely lost in the flux of prison administration) means that the full dynamics between Massey and Ford or the extent of the race-class divide in the roles of benefactor and protégé will forever be unknown. Whatever the case, Ford was surely intrigued and impressed with the radical otherness of Massey’s letters and creative output; they were windows to a world drastically unlike his own yet very much in tune with the spirit of the avant-garde.

 

Excerpt from press release for the exhibition “Shut Up: Joe Massey's Messages From Prison” (2019) by Alejandra Russi.