Cal Massey, 93, of Moorestown, who created hundreds of paintings, illustrations, designs and sculptures over a career of nearly 70 years, died Monday, June 10, at Virtua Marlton Hospital. The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Iris.
Calvin L. Massey was born on Feb. 10, 1926, and grew up in Morton and later Darby Borough with his mother, Bessie Mayo Massey, and four siblings.
“I paint because I have to; it’s my way of communicating with the world around me,” he once told an interviewer.
As a young man, Mr. Massey was a jazz pianist whose trio accompanied Aretha Franklin at a show in Philadelphia. As his brother, jazz trumpeter Bill Massey, led rehearsals, he once sketched John Coltrane. (He also was a cousin of the jazz trumpeter and band leader Cal Massey, who died in 1972.)
And as a comic book illustrator, he worked directly with Stan Lee of Marvel Comics years before Lee created Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Black Panther.
“Calvin led a fabulous life,” Iris Massey said. “He was the only black artist that has both a statue that he designed in Valley Forge Park and at Ellis Island, at the Statue of Liberty. He designed Olympic medals. There were just so many fabulous things he did. It would have been unusual for anybody to have done in a lifetime.”
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Massey sculpted a bas-relief showing two French West Indian immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, as part of the Statue of Liberty Foundation’s renovation project. As a result of that work, the Olympic Committee hired him to be one of 13 artists to design commemorative medals for the 1996 Summer Games. His high jump design, featuring a young black woman with knees bent, was the only commemorative medal for that Olympics to depict a black person.
He designed the Patriots of African Descent Monument at Valley Forge, a commission by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority installed in 1993. Charles L. Blockson, founder of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, introduced Mr. Massey to sorority officials. Mr. Massey designed the monument and Phil Sumpter sculpted it.
“He was dedicated and sincere, and he loved his people,” Blockson said. “One thing he was very proud of was the painting he did of those black American Revolutionary soldiers.”
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Mr. Massey was also known for his work with George Beach, founder of Beach Advertising, to create a series of calendars showing African American historical figures. He designed more than 200 commemorative medals during his work with the Franklin Mint, including the mint’s first commemorative medal, that of Gen. Arthur MacArthur Jr.
“Cal was a humble, very gracious man,” said Dane Tilghman, the Exton-based artist. “He was a sage. He filled me with a lot more knowledge than I could handle.”
Mr. Massey discovered his passion for art at the age of 4, his wife said.
“His mother noticed he liked to draw, so she gave him some crayons. He would take comic strips up to the window and trace around them,” she said.
After graduating from the Hussian School of Art, he worked for a number of comic book publishers, drawing mostly science fiction and war stories. His early Marvel comics were for titles such as Astonishing and Journey Into Mystery. He and his wife, now a retired graphics designer, high school art teacher, and occupational therapist, met at a party where many artists were present.
“My date told me he had just met the most interesting person, who was playing music. So I went over to talk with him, and that’s how we met,” she said. They were married for 56 years.
The two were practitioners of Siddha Yoga meditation, which Iris Massey said was important to her husband’s creativity. He completed his last major artwork, a portrait of longtime Temple University basketball coach John Chaney, about two years ago, she said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Massey is survived by daughters Ruth and Lynda; a brother and a sister; and one grandson.
A private ceremony was held Saturday, June 15, and a public memorial is planned for later this year.