For Karena Massengill, do is the operative word. A professional artist who lives next to Sunken City in San Pedro is an accomplished welder-fitter from early on in her career. In the 1970’s in Canada, she was employed in a campaign to recruit women into the ranks as working welders. For many that would be enough, but not for Massengill, who also taught for 24 years and works as an activist.
Massengill is intoxicating. She speaks in a flurry and in that same way, she described several of her recent works while also expressing her feelings on the state of the world.
Alive with motion and form, Massengill’s welding pieces contrast hard metals with materials like glass, found objects, beads or the addition of surprising color manifesting in striking creations. Her new mixed media pieces, Recovery and Hope and Joy deal with recovery, aging and passage of time. Their spiral shapes signify exuberant glee. Each is made of fabricated steel, African beads, wood, metal and fractured mirrors — symbolic of reflective hopes. Shattered Lives connected to Black Lives Matter, a silver/blue based painting, depicts a shattered, yellow rear view mirror, aviator lenses and underneath, a rising fist visually echoes itself in burnt hues emerging from fire while bursts of animated pink hearts, one at wrist’s center, surround it.
“I’m concerned about what’s going on in the world,” Massengill said. “I’m trying to use that seriousness to be able to almost exorcize myself. I feel so concerned for young people. I am encouraged that there are so many young people becoming activists.”
From Ukiah, Calif., she began art classes at Mendocino Art Center as a small child while her mother attended classes too. She didn’t think of being an artist. She was just always making things, walking to school looking for things on the ground to pick up and put together in some kind of assemblage.
“It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I had an epiphany about wanting to be an artist,” Massengill said. “I started taking this crafts class, working with clay. They let me stay however long I wanted to. It made me feel like, ‘this is what I wanted to do with my life.’”
Massengill’s resume is extensive. She attended Goddard College in Vermont, then California College of Arts and Crafts, becoming involved in metal smithing and jewelry. She advanced to Temple University, Tyler School of Art pursuing metal work but began to be frustrated with working on a small scale. Still, she was invited to apprentice working on jewelry but soon realized that she wanted to “work bigger.” She took a sculpture class and discovered that was her niche. Massengill graduated from Tyler with a bachelor of fine art in 1975.
“In those days you were [either] a sculpture, a painter, or a craftsman but I always worked two and 3D together,” Massengill said. “I felt pressured but then when I learned about another artist, Nancy Graves, who did sculpture, painting and drawings, it freed me to pursue my work in any way that I wanted to.”
This was only her start. In 1975 as a “landed immigrant” or permanent resident to Canada she worked as a professional artist receiving grants, exhibiting her work and creating public art projects. It’s also where Massengill met her Australian husband, Graham. While training and being paid by the government as a welder-fitter at George Brown College, Massengill worked alongside convicted felons seeking a job on the pipeline. Welder-fitters fulfill a range of employment options from aerospace and defense industries to arts entertainment and recreation. The skilled workers shape and join metals and other materials using heat generated by lasers or torches. Massengill’s goal was to be the female David Smith — an abstract expressionist, sculptor, painter and pioneer of sculpting with welded metal.
Describing her process Massengill said she used the welder-fitter experience to become a better crafted sculpture. Upon finishing training, they were to go to work on the pipeline in Canada bringing crude oil down into the United States.
“I had to be better than the men to get respect,” she said. “These guys respected me because I could out weld all of them. I could do flat, vertical, horizontal or overhead. I could spit nails. You just have to be tough to keep up with them. They were not liberated for sure. I felt no different than anyone else working to learn a skill that required much perseverance and endurance.”
Massengill explained that much of it is just plain practice and going through a lot of material.
“I have always worked two dimensionally at the same time as my sculpting and this also allowed me to paint with the different metals on my sculpted surfaces,” Massengill said. “The power I feel while welding is a passion I find difficult to explain other than the risk and challenges of building statements, some of them humorous, heartfelt and abstract is thrilling.”
This discovery — as she attempts to create things that she doesn’t know if she will be able to finish successfully — provides allure.
“It’s so very exciting for me as I am in my helmet, it’s dark, and the fire is in front of me,” she said. “I calibrate the best way to combine at times dissimilar metals and thicknesses. Today, with my welding on top of my drawings, it’s even more thrilling. The controlled destruction as I use a water bottle to stop the burning, I know is going to lead to another canvas for me to paint another interpretation for my concepts.”
Her work is being appreciated for its uniqueness and creativity. Welding enables her to express in her own voice while addressing universal life concerns and passages.
“In a way this encourages other people to bring their own experiences while viewing the work and at the best of times, pause for self-reflection,” she said
She noted the four positions mentioned previously in which a welder-fitter worked to achieve were skills that help her to create sculptures today.
“What I do now is different, Massengill said. “I always liked drawing, painting and murals but now I‘ve found what I really like is to come up with a concept, work on a drawing on high quality watercolor paper, then I use it as a template on my welding table. I start bending steel and figuring out however I’m going to make it and what the concept is and then I weld it on top of the paper.”
In her paintings you can see the burn holes where she welded it. Afterward she has something to paint. She described the painting and the welded sculpture as different generations.
Only half joking, Massengill says “I’m a pyromaniac, but I have it under control. Because I do love fire. I love welding. It’s exciting and challenging. It’s also engineering. There is a lot of figuring out that is mentally challenging. It’s so exciting when I’m working on the paper and it starts to catch fire.”
The concept is the same but she said some people respond to the element; it’s more tactile, tangible, three dimensional and some people respond more to the paintings. Massengill especially enjoys when people buy the pair and she’ll give a discount because she likes them being together.
Art of Teaching and Activism
While working on large-scale public art projects as a welder fitter, Massengill attended University of Toronto earning a bachelor’s in art education and industrial technology. She married in Canada, moved to Long Beach, then in 1993 she graduated with a master of fine arts in sculpture from California State University at Fullerton. She went on to work as a department chair of visual and digital arts and worked with at-risk students at Long Beach’s Cabrillo High School. She taught in many capacities including three dimensional art drawing and painting, digital art and imaging and teaching workshops for artists with disabilities. From there she was recruited as an adjunct professor at Los Angeles Harbor College, teaching graphic design to at-risk adults who had either been released from incarceration or had dropped out of school and were trying to get their lives together. She retired in 2014 after 24 years but noted art is her first love.
Massengill and her husband are very active – writing postcards to voters, they are involved in the local chapter of Indivisible and they attended the Sept. 21 San Pedro vigil for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“We want to do what we can and we hope it awakens people and gets out the vote,” she said. “Today I’ve been involved in the BLM movement and climate change,” Massengill said. “Going to Africa [in 2017] and seeing people who are the least responsible for climate change and are suffering the most from it broke my heart. We were in Kenya and then Tanzania. I had such an affinity for the indigenous people, the Kikuyu, the Masai and the Samburu. They can’t even do their traditional lifestyle. The animals are so majestic. We wanted to be there to see the mass migrations but because the water dried up the migrations shifted. And now the safaris aren’t happening because people aren’t travelling which has led to the poachers returning. It had a tremendous impact on me.”
On Massengill’s website, you can see works inspired by her time in Africa representing wildlife and nature, among many more. You can also see her work at Rosie’s Dog Beach in Long Beach where she won a competition to create artwork for the leash-free area by the ocean in Belmont Shore.
“I love doing my work and it’s wonderful when I have an exhibition,” Massengill said. “It’s really separate. I’m lucky I have a display area but it’s not the same. When it’s in the gallery, it takes on a life of its own. I just do my work and it keeps me healthy and whole.”
Karena Massengill, Current Exhibitions
Opening Oct. 1, El Camino College will present, Black Lives Matter. Artists respond to the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, www.elcamino.edu.
You can also see Massengilll’s contribution to Angels Gate Cultural Center’s soundpedro at, www.soundpedro.org/soundpedro2020schizophonia.
And Creative Practices group exhibition will open at South Los Angeles Contemporary [SoLA] opening at 11 a.m. Nov. 14.