Artist Ed Massey has made a career from installing his work in public spaces, often in some of the country’s toughest neighborhoods, and every one of those pieces have withstood the test of time despite tackling some deliberately provocative subjects. Until last week.
Massey’s statue of a homeless man in Santa Monica was toppled recently damaging the work in a way that is unprecedented for the artist.
The piece at the former Savings and Loan building near 26th and Wilshire, called “In the Image,” was decades in the making. About 20 years ago, Massey was on his way to the local FedEx with some recently completed blueprints when he passed a homeless man on the street. The artist said the man’s size belied a calm demeanor and the encounter prompted the creation of the statue. The work has sat in his yard for most of its life but as homelessness became a national disaster he felt the need to put the work into the public realm. When he saw the vacant pedestal at 26th and Wilshire, he called the property owner. After a phone conversation and a visit to see the sculpture, the owner agreed to lend Massey the corner for six weeks. However, the statue stayed at the corner for almost two years.
“This is just a real despicable act,” he said. “My guess is it’s just someone who has so much anger toward a group of people, maybe it was two people, that have so much hatred or animosity towards homeless and unsheltered men and women that they may see on the streets, that they take their aggressions out on some, inanimate sculpture that’s depicting one of the most unfortunate circumstances that we see day to day on every one of our city streets.”
Massey has always taken deep pride in his work and its ability to prompt discussion. He said the Santa Monica sculpture had become a focal point for agencies and individuals working on homelessness drawing classes, tours and interest throughout the region. In the two years it’s been on display and while a vocal minority were unhappy with the work when it first went in, he said the area has been free from vandalism making the sudden destruction all the more puzzling.
“I’ve spoken to many people who’ve slept near and by and around that sculpture over the last almost two years, actually including as of last night even, and they’re very supportive, helpful,” he said. “And no one showed animosity that I could see ever in that immediate area ever.”
The statue was pushed to the ground with enough force to damage its structure in several places. However, Massey said it wasn’t going to deter him and while he’s deeply disturbed by the damage, given his status as a veteran of public art, he is focused on getting the work reinstalled as quickly as possible.
“It’s repairable. I’m going to repair it with our team. We’re going to repair it and we’re going to get it back up,” he said.
Massey is no stranger to controversy in his work, including a previous Santa Monica installation in 1994 of his piece “Morality / Mortality” that depicts two men suspended from their genitals hanging above a rape victim. His work has also tackled issues of racism, school violence, child abuse, homelessness and terrorism. However, he also has a lighter side including work on New York taxis and local lifeguard towers that promote joy, life, youth, beauty, hope, inspiration, and renewal.
He hopes that when the statue does stand again, it continues to prompt a discussion about the issue it illustrates.
“You can’t go a corner, perhaps in Santa Monica, where you don’t see an unfortunate circumstance of the person living on the pavement, or in tents or in a sleeping bag,” he said. “So I’m hoping that people, when it goes back up, will respect it as they have and that the anger is put a better use than to hurt inanimate objects and definitely you know, get the elected officials and everyone that’s involved to make this a priority first and foremost.”
Despite having to make repairs, he said he knows the statue has fans. He said that while his team was removing the work, several homeless people and employees of nearby businesses approached him to offer help moving the very heavy piece.
“So we had several people in a matter of moments offer a helping hand,” he said. “I mean … it shows a little bit about the humanity and the lack of humanity when you get some, basically knuckleheads, who want to destroy something or at least topple it.”