San José City College Centennial: Sculptor Michael Chukes

World-renown sculptor Michael Chukes’ love of art began around preschool, when he first saw his mother sewing clothes from her own original patterns. It inspired him to start drawing everything he could, letting his imagination run wild. His mother would call him Michaelangelo, understanding early on that her son was going to be an artist.

Born in Vallejo, he was the second of his parent’s five sons. His family moved to San José when he was only a year old after his father, an electrician, got a job at a large manufacturing company, FMC, that contracted with the military.

Chukes found he had an affinity for running, and he loved jumping over anything he could, so much so that his friends called him Daddy Long Legs. And when he was in seventh grade, his first track

Sculptor Michael Chukes

coach, Mr. Woods, introduced him to the 330-meter hurdles where he was a natural in the event.

He attended Santa Teresa High School where he continued running track under former NFL player, Coach Alvin Haymond. Chukes consistently broke records running at his high school. After graduating, he received an acceptance letter from San José City College to be on the track team – a letter that changed his life. As an art ceramics major at City College, he was able to develop his passion and vision for working with clay. And it was at City College where he had his first art show.

Working with City College Track Coach Steve Haas, and in his second year with Coach Frank Slaton, Chukes became even more successful in track, excelling in both the 110m high hurdles and the 400m hurdles. In fact, he still holds City College’s Men’s Top Ten records in both events, including being second only to gold-medal Olympian André Phillips for the 400m hurdles. Chukes was such a talented hurdler, he was recruited by former San José City College Track Coach Bob Poynter, who was working for San José State University at the time. It was Coach Poynter who helped him realize that he had the talent, discipline and ability to pursue his academic and artistic dreams.

Chukes soon became a famous sculptor, touring his artwork around the world multiple times over. Chukes has gone on to receive a Master of Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University and enjoys teaching others about art wherever he travels. Currently, he is touring his latest collection called Identity Theft, which has a book, catalog and video of the same name.

He currently lives in Altadena with his wife, where his daughter and grandchildren come to visit. He fondly remembers his time at San José City College, where in 2009 he had the honor of giving City College’s graduating class their commencement speech. He donated a piece of his artwork called The Journey to the college, which can be found on the main entrance stairway of City College’s Student Center.

For the San José City College’s Centennial celebration, we had the honor to talk with Michael about his journey at City College, and why it holds such a special place for his development as an artist and an academic.

My connection with San José City College actually started as a result of me being in high school and track. I remember, if you were really good in high school, you’d get a letter from a college. It was a big deal for an athlete to get a letter from a college. And I got a letter from San José City College to come and join the track team.

That was a really big deal for me. I hadn’t heard much about San José State or Speed City then. In my mind, I was still an adolescent. I didn’t know the impact of it at that particular time. My familiarity with San José City College started in high school having track meets and other events there. There were always so many things happening at San José City College.

“…I’ve gone to some incredibly great colleges. But none of them – none of them – compared to my experiences at San José City College. None of them.”

Michael Chukes

Also, my entire family has a connection to San José City College. First, my parents both attended the college, taking classes to advance in their careers. My oldest brother, Tony, was a very incredible athlete in both baseball and basketball there. I would watch him play. He was a lot better than I was. He would tell me how to maneuver around San José City College, what classes to take, and to make sure I took transferable units. He helped me prepare myself to go to school there. He went on to graduate from San Diego State University with a degree in business, and later became a minister.

Then my younger brother, Ronnie, has Down syndrome, and he ran the Special Olympics at San José City College. He did so well there, that as a result, he got to go to the Special Olympics World Games held at the Los Angeles Coliseum. All of that started at San José City College. My younger brother under him, Nathan, attended San José City College, and now he’s a teacher. He teaches auto body shop and was Teacher of the Year a couple of years ago. Then my youngest brother, Jason, who started at San José City College, is now an engineer working at the Cal Berkeley. So, my entire family is tied into San José City College.

While I was there, my major was art ceramics. My last year there, I had a great ceramics instructor Steve Salislan. He also ran track in college. Because of that, he was always at the track training and watching me. He was a really big fan of mine, as a result. We just related so well together – understanding athletics and understanding our education and understanding art. It’s just great that we worked together that way.

We understood clay, first of all. It’s funny because, being an athlete, people think that you’re taking a ceramics class because it’s a simple and easy class to take. Well actually, I was studying ceramics because I wanted to become a sculptor. I was dead serious about what I was doing. So, I was there all the time. Steve just allowed me to further create, to be creative and open up my mind. He didn’t restrain me. He just let me do what I wanted to do.

The connection was serendipitous. It couldn’t have worked together any better. It was just unbelievable how well I fit in to what was happening at San José City College.

TOP: From the City College Times posted May 17, 1982, and written by Marcos Bretón, about Coach Steve Haas’s (middle) success taking over as SJCC’s head track coach. Hurdlers Michael Chukes (left) and Leonard Robinson celebrating with Haas. Bottom Left: Chukes throwing his arms up as he wins the 110m running for SJCC. Bottom Right: Chukes, almost out of the picture, in the foreground right, winning the 400m for SJCC.

There were other instructors who also stood out for me – Charles Murray, my African American Studies instructor, and Leonard Washington taught English. Mr. Murray’s class was the first time I got a B in an academic class, and it was in Black history. I believe getting that B let me know that I could move further in college. That was very, very important for me. Those instructors were very good.

As a Black student, history was not the easiest for me, because it wasn’t being taught about me. I had a hard time relating to it. But when it was about me, and I learned about myself, about my history, and that there was more about us than being enslaved, and that we actually had a history. It broadened my horizons. It really did. It changed my attitude towards academics. It let me know that there are parts of academics where you can truly learn about yourself. You can teach yourself, or you can research to learn about yourself.

Also, there was art instructor Eve Matthias, whom I met later on. We gravitated as a result of Steve Salislan, and she gave me several shows at San José City College. She’d always ask me to come back and show. There is a piece I’ve donated; it’s called The Journey. I believe it’s up in the lobby of the Student Center. That was part of my legacy show I had at San José City College around 2012. It’s a great honor for me to have that sculpture at San José City College, representing who I am and what the college means to me. Because I think it expresses everything the college is to me. That’s why it’s called The Journey.

After my second year at San José City College, I was planning to transfer to Cal State Bakersfield, and I really didn’t want to go there. I had just returned from visiting the campus and was at the Juneteenth festival with my girlfriend. I remember someone yelled out, “Michael Chukes!” I looked around, and I saw it was Coach [Bob] Poynter, who was coaching at San José State at the time. I thought, “Wow! He knows my name!” I didn’t know he knew who I was. I had heard so many great things about Coach Poynter, and I desperately wanted to train under him. He’s just a legend.

He walked up and said, “Hey, I saw you in the Bruce Jenner [Classic] in the mile relay run that guy down.” This guy had a big, long lead on me, and I chased him down and caught him, and we won the mile relay.

“It’s funny because, being an athlete, people think that you’re taking a ceramics class because it’s a simple and easy class to take. Well actually, I was studying ceramics because I wanted to become a sculptor. I was dead serious about what I was doing.”

Michael Chukes on choosing to be an art ceramics major at SJCC

He asked, “What college are you going to?” I said, “Hey, coach, I’m supposed to be going to Bakersfield.” He said, “Come and see me Monday.” I went to San José State on Monday, and Ernie Bullard, San José State’s head coach and Coach Poynter were there. Coach Poynter said, “Here’s a full scholarship.” I said I needed to take it home. I wanted to show it to my father, who said, “This looks good, son.” I came back the next day, and I signed with San José State.

I had already been trying to get in touch with the coach at Bakersfield, even before Coach Poynter saw me, because I needed to know where I was going to go. He had taken off on vacation and didn’t call me until about a week after I signed with San José State. So, me going to San José State was all because of Coach Poynter.  

Coach Poynter had a saying, “the cream always rises to the top.” I knew exactly what he meant by that. Coach Poynter was not just an athletic coach, Coach Poynter was a world coach. He was a human coach. He didn’t just coach you how to run, he coached you on how to better yourself, how to better your life, how to move forward. He’s the one that helped instill in me the importance of education, because he knew I was kind of struggling with it. He saw something in me where he knew to say “hey, you can move forward if you apply yourself. You can be great out here. But when you’re no longer able to run at the speeds and the pace you run as an athlete, you’re going to have to do something else with your life, and academics is going to be that key for you.” That’s what I got from Coach Poynter.

He’s been one of my greatest mentors. Coach Poynter was also the first person to buy one of my pieces. He and Mrs. Poynter bought the first piece that I created. It was $200 at that time, and it was a lot of money for me. I thought, “Wow, somebody actually bought my work.” That let me know I could make a living at this since it was what I wanted to do, but I had to find my way through the arts.

TOP LEFT: Michael Chukes at his first art show at SJCC; TOP RIGHT: Chukes in 2009 with The Journey that he donated to SJCC; BOTTOM LEFT: Chukes giving the commencement speech at SJCC’s 2009 graduation; BOTTOM CENTER: The Journey; BOTTOM RIGHT: Then SJCC President Dr. Byron Breland introducing Chukes at the opening of his 2009 art show.

I missed making the Olympic trials by a tenth of a second. But let me tell you something. I won my gold medal in my academics. My gold medal came as an artist, and it came when I started receiving my degrees. I have a master’s degree now. Those degrees are greater than any Olympic gold medal could ever give me. Ever. Because I can keep those. Those showed me that I started, and I finished. I’ve accomplished something in my life. A gold medal, you put it away and take it out every now and then. A diploma has a whole different scenario behind it.

One of the greatest memories I have of being a student at San José City College was always seeing the students graduating. That was something I really wanted – to graduate from San José City College. Unfortunately, I didn’t before transferring to San José State with a full scholarship. Even though I didn’t get an opportunity to graduate, I remember telling myself that one day, I’m going to deliver the commencement speech at San José City College.

In 2009, I saluted all my coaches who helped me further my education – Coach Haymond from high school, Coach Steve Haas and Frank Slaton from San José City College, and Coach Poynter from San José State. I held the event at San José City College and I gave them all a piece of art. Those coaches were responsible for me moving forward academically and athletically. As a result of that speech, I got a phone call a month later from the college asking if I would deliver the commencement speech. That was the greatest honor. I just couldn’t believe it. It was the greatest honor I’ve ever had at San José City College.

Ironically, the speech and graduation ceremony were right out at the track, right where I would break away from the athletes I competed against. It was where I would run and get them at the last curve, and they couldn’t catch me from there.

“San José City College has always been very, very welcoming. College can be so intimidating. When I went to San José State, I was kind of lost in the shuffle. But at San José City College, I didn’t get that. I felt like it was a community. It was like a village. Everywhere you went, someone was willing to help you in some way.”

Michael Chukes on his time at SJCC

In the commencement speech, I talked about me being at the curve where the others couldn’t catch me. I raised my hands winning the race. I related it to the students that they were now at that curve where they would break away. I said, “Now you have broken away. You have run the race. You’ve gotten to the curve. Now you can raise your hands. You have gotten your degree. You have won the race.”

San José City College has always been very, very welcoming. College can be so intimidating. When I went to San José State, I was kind of lost in the shuffle. But at San José City College, I didn’t get that. I felt like it was a community. It was like a village. Everywhere you went, someone was willing to help you in some way.

I hope the school continues to prosper in the way that I’ve always seen it. I hope it gravitates to students the way students should gravitate to the college. I hope they don’t change in their attitude towards academics and the betterment of humanity. There are very few colleges I can say that about, and I’ve gone to some incredibly great colleges. But none of them – none of them – compared to my experiences at San José City College. None of them.

Share this post:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.