I enter this work, Intisar S. Abioto, a Black woman, artist, Southern writer, storyteller, born in the year 1986, working in this world until a year yet to be determined.
I began this work with the deep question and frankly personal need to know who the Black artists were who had worked in this region of Portland, Oregon, in other times beyond my own. It was as personal as it might have been academic. Because I myself was struggling here and I myself needed to know how they had survived, thrived—or if they hadn’t.
So I sought them/us out. It wasn’t hard to do, honestly. There is research. And there are the discoveries that only come on the heels of a determined imagination. And I was imagining us.
I spent my summer and fall listening out for us and listening to us in a variety of ways. I spent this summer and fall desperately trying to listen out for myself.
I passed through a body of our histories, the body of our presences, knowing that it wouldn’t be just the words I wrote here, but what I did and how I did it that might leave a pathway, something of us lasting. Something worthy of us.
I spoke with Black artists in and of Portland. And while only some are mentioned in depth in this piece, it is written with an eye and heart toward all of us.
Author Intisar Abioto photographed dancing as part of her "Black Legend, Black, Oregon" exhibit in the Oregon State Capitol. Photo by Elijah Hasan
I met Thelma Johnson Streat at the corner of North Killingsworth and Albina around 2013. This is where her story met mine. I was speaking with an older Black gentleman I’d often see at the coffee shop on that corner. I was photographing him for The Black Portlanders, a project I’d started a few months earlier about people of African descent in Portland, when he began to tell me about a Black woman artist, a painter and dancer who had lived in Portland in the 1920s and ’30s.
I looked up Thelma Johnson Streat on the internet that night and was greeted by the black-and-white image of a smiling dark-skinned Black woman, hair parted at the center, smoothed back from her face in a low chignon. Sure, certain eyes gazed back, shoulders squared at a slight angle against the camera’s eye. She looked to be in her early thirties. I read that she had been a painter, textile designer, dancer, and muralist who had found fame and acclaim during her time. In 1942 her painting Rabbit Man was the first work of art by an African American woman procured by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I tucked this information about her away in my mind. It would be five years before I would hear her name spoken in Portland again.
From 2013 to 2018, from the age of twenty-seven to thirty-two, I was working on making art in Portland. I kept on with the project about Black people in Portland. I was learning how to be a working artist, learning by doing, often through challenges. I came to this city in 2010, at twenty-four years old, a year out of college, with a bachelor of arts in dance. I’d been photographing since I was fourteen. I knew that I was a photographer, knew I was a dancer, knew I was a writer. I came to Portland with my sense of myself fully intact. I came with my dreams and a lot of can-do steam. I knew solidly that much, though not all, of my art had to do with Black life, creativity, possibility, continuance. How I’d do this, make these big arts dreams happen, was my working question. Nevertheless, I really believed.
I was having some success and finding some acknowledgment of my artwork in the process. But living in Portland, I was also coming up against specific pressures and challenges: dealing with structural inequities, seeing and experiencing how minds of color could be tapped to fill spaces in organizations and endeavors, without those endeavors doing the necessary work themselves.
I swiftly learned that not every opportunity, every ask, every offer was a blessing or an honor to my community. While I had studied art, the politics of being a public artist weren’t in the course of my study. And what it means to be a Black artist moving with power, with her own impact, with an art that, as Ossie Davis said, “can not only move us, it makes us move.”
I sometimes found myself in situations where the power of my art and voice was wanted, where Black faces and Black artistic power were wanted, but a Black voice speaking about enduring inequalities, structural racism, the histories of Oregon, histories of White supremacy—that wasn’t wanted. I found myself censored in public speaking engagements, witnessing up close Portland’s “white nice.”
For those of us working in arts, Black culture, and memory, there can be a double kind of lift, particularly in a place like Portland. There’s the ongoing practice of continuing to hone your craft. For some Black artists, there can be the ongoing work to create and inspire new possibilities for Black life beyond the constraints of white supremacy and historical oppressions. Amid the art production, the swirl of being a public-facing Black artist was immense. The pressure and the process can take a lot from a living body. Sometimes the pressure of it all, the experience of the thing, can burn.
The success of The Black Portlanders came with a lot of self-imposed pressure to not fail. It came with the internal and external pressure to not misrepresent. Given both national and Oregon histories, it came with a lot of pressure to not be a source of harm.
Truth be told, in one way or another, I had been drowning under these and other pressures of life, production, the caretaking of family—scared, really, to make mistakes, bent on doing things a “right way.”
If art by Black people has the opportunity to serve community, then how does an individual artist in community do that? And how do you take care of yourself in the process? The transformation that art can bring to our realities, the possibility within this transformation, is surely great. But the load of the work and how we carry it—it can feel like a great burden to bear.
Not being from this region compounded my questions. While ancestrally and culturally of African descent, my immediate familial histories and timelines weren’t in Portland. These histories were mine by virtue of being Black American. I attempted to learn, respect, and acknowledge as best I could the stories of this place.
How had Black artists in Portland worked and lived? How had they made it, borne the brunt of it, or not? How had they lived with the art, themselves, and the work?
I resolved to know more, because I didn’t know. And I needed to know. I didn’t know enough.
I started small and close in the ways that made sense to me. I started with my folks. I remember an early conversation with Portland-based historian and artist Derrais Carter. About how we knew this history, the form of it, the shape of it, but not the contents. We were living as Black minds in this time. You don’t survive and create from a lineage of Blackness without knowing in some sense how we got over, how our communities have lived, loved, thrived, survived, or not.
Living as a Black artist helps you read the possibilities, the purposeful absences, determine the situation, its gifts or its detriments, even when the historical proof in the archive or the canon is not there. The historical record doesn’t conceive of us in our full human expression and possibility, if it conceives of us at all. I knew there had been Black artists working here in Oregon. This was a fact. But many of their names, their lives, their works—that knowledge was missing for me.
MR. BOBBY FOUTHER
Mr. Bobby Fouther photographed for The Black Portlanders. Photo by Intisar Abioto
I’d been meaning to reach out to Mr. Bobby Fouther when I ran into him one day on Hawthorne. He was one of the very first native Black artists I met in Portland. Mr. Bobby, as he is called, and his sister Liz Fouther-Branch occupy a treasured place in that they are Black artists in Portland with real, palpable connections to the city’s present and past. His family of artists is four generations deep in this region. Their grandfather migrated to Portland in the early 1920s. Their mom, Evelyn Wood, born 1927, was a dancer and visual artist, among other things, just like Mr. Bobby. Their stepdad, Sweet Baby James as he was called, was a musician. The Fouthers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Today Mr. Bobby teaches, dances, paints, knits, designs, and continues to create. Ms. Liz was famed Black American choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham’s only dancer from Oregon. When I wanted to know about arts or the Black Portland community, they were the ones to go to.
“My mom and my stepdad were both artists,” Mr. Bobby says. “Kids, you emulate your parents. We didn’t have a lot of money. When it came time for holidays, we had to make things. I didn’t have to think about being. I didn’t have to think about becoming. That’s what we did. And I guess my mom spent a lot of time making sure she supplied us with things and information that would help us develop, because she didn’t trust the school system and her little Black son. She was from here so she really didn’t trust a lot that was going on here in Portland, having grown up here.”
As a child Mr. Bobby knew he wanted to be an actor, artist, dancer, and florist. “At eleven years old, I wrote it down,” he says. “That’s when I started making up my own words. And I shoved it all together and called it an actardancingflo, and I wrote it down, and that was my goal to do each of those things and I have, twice over.
“I had tons of mentors. Going back to my grandfather’s house, my stepdad, he was a musician and he turned the garage into a miniature theater with theater seats, projection booth, stage, piano, a bar. Because my grandfather was not going to let those people in his house, they had to go out back. Everyone came to our house, all the musicians after their gigs. Pretty much it was open twenty-four hours, because people came over twenty-four hours. I had so many mentors. We were known for being Mr. Woods’s grandkids or James and Ellen’s kids.
“If there was a party, I went to it. After I got older, if there was a club, I went to it. That was my dancing ambition, to be at the party and that was it. The only thing that happened along the way was that my mom was a dancer and she never shied me away from it. She let me do stuff. At eleven and twelve, she let me catch the bus to the park bureaus to let me be in the musicals. They used to do musicals in the park in the summer. That was when they did a lot more park-related community things. I was always in productions at school, whenever I could get into them, and when I couldn’t, I would go be backstage. And I spent a lot of time doing that because being Black in high school during the ’60s, you did not get parts that you wanted. I played Helen Keller’s playmate. I was six feet tall, standing over this girl, a good foot and a half, being Percy, her playmate. They just gave me all these little funky parts so I could be in it. I went to Boise and then Humboldt and Jefferson.
“The list is pretty bottomless, because I did whatever I could to stay in the field. Now I’ve reached the point of project coordinating. As a visual and performing artist that means I dance and sing and act and direct, costume, set dress, coordinate the program, create the program, print the program. Load-in to promotions. As a visual artist, paint, photography, graphics, and the business end of what it takes to put those pieces out like that. I’ve curated shows. I’ve done galleries, theater lobbies, special events at city hall. It’s been interesting as I’ve grown into this sixty-something-year-old man in an area where normally Black people don’t do theater, from back in the day. I came from a long line of people in the arts who supported that.”
Today Mr. Bobby holds a curious place in that at sixty-eight he knows many of the artists of previous generations while being connected to artists of the newest generations. I don’t know any other Black Portland artist who has as much reach between the generations. It was Mr. Bobby who first introduced me to many of the names I would hear later in my research. He spoke of Charles Tatum. Charlotte Graves Lewis. Ray Eaglin. He’s in many ways the living connection to these and other names. And if the artists weren’t living, he knows their sister, brother, ex-partner, so-and-so. There are always Black people in community who keep this place, who can connect you to so-and-so and so-and-so, who can ring them up like it’s nothing. Tell you how it is.
Tell you how it was.
Ray Eaglin with a chainsaw in a family photograph
Mr. Bobby introduced me to one of the arts voices whose presence would be instrumental in my research. In the summers as a teenager, Mr. Bobby would go to the University of Oregon in Eugene for Upward Bound, a federally funded precollege support program. “That’s the first time I met an older Black man who was also an artist. This was during the ’60s. That’s when the Black Panthers evolved. That’s when I met Ray Eaglin. He was very revolutionary. He was like a hunter, dumpster diver. He had been in the service.”
Mr. Bobby remembers the first time he ever saw Eaglin’s art. “The piece that I saw that really clicked in my head was this solid Black person holding a gun. It was such a cool visual that I had never seen before. They were posters. It was about coming to this revolutionary talk. I was like, ‘Who’s the artist?’ And it was this big, tall, very dark-skinned Black man. And I was like, ‘Oh damn. That’s cool.’ And he kind of mentored me. He was my arts dad.”
That night I stayed up till the wee hours on a deep internet dive sweeping from reference to reference researching Ray Eaglin, piecing together whatever information I could into the outline of his story. There was the information from a written remembrance on Eaglin that Mr. Bobby showed me, references in Google Books to his time as an activist at the University of Oregon, revolutionary pamphlets, and other finds. I was able to piece together bit by bit some aspects of Eaglin’s early years in Oregon, that he was a poet and playwright in addition to a visual artist, and that he’d played an important role in the Black Power movement at the University of Oregon. Publications from the time recounted that as he accepted his diploma as one of the eight Black graduating seniors in 1969, that he’d stepped unasked to the mic and addressed the attendees about civil and human rights and to encourage action against the Vietnam War. Ray Eaglin was an artist activist. He was a part of movements, plural.
That first night of researching and following internet rabbit holes about Eaglin, I came across an eBay listing titled “Vintage 1973 Expressionist Nude Portrait Signed Eaglin Midcentury.” Having seen one of Eaglin’s works on a written tribute to him, the style of the thumbnail didn’t seem like his, but after disregarding it several times I clicked on it. At the top of the listing was a nude painting of a white woman’s figure. But as I scrolled down there were words and images describing another painting. On the back side of the stretched canvas, there was the painted image of a man with a face broken into multiple shapes and colors. At the bottom corner the work was signed “Eaglin ’73.” By comparing the signature on the piece to that of the few other works I was able to find online, I was able to ascertain that this painting was by the same Ray Eaglin. In the listing the seller said, “I acquired it at an estate sale in Oregon where I was not told its history. I leave it to the buyer to decide who the artist is and when it was painted.” That morning at 6:25 a.m., I purchased the work for $77. It would be shipped from Albany, Oregon, to Portland. It felt deeply important, prescient, and resonant to be able to locate this forty-five-year-old piece of artwork. We knew this history existed, but finding the painting told me immediately and without a doubt, in a palpable and physical way, that there was something here and that this search was worthy. This would work. We were there. There was work to be found. Doing this was the work.
Ray Eaglin's son, Abdi Al Sherif, with the painting the author found online. Photo by Intisar Abioto
I learned more about Ray Eaglin. I reached out to one of his children, Kari Turner, who was living in Boston. In September I had a phone interview with her.
“My Dad was legit and people weren’t ready,” she says. “They called him the underground general. My father was a brilliant historical-thinking and forward-thinking person. He was a humanitarian. His mind was like a chess player’s. He was always thinking about strategy and the long term and how the past affects the future. He was a constant nonstop worker. He always had on a field jacket. His fingers would always have paint on them. He was that kind of person.”
After moving to Portland in 1976, Eaglin kept up his art and his commitment to community. He would sell pieces to help fund different needs.
“His work was always up somewhere,” says Turner. He mounted art shows at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center and sold and created work in support of the Urban League of Portland and the Eritrean Community Center. Eaglin worked with the Harambee Group, teaching about Africa, and was friends with acclaimed Portland-based Ghanaian musician and drummer Obo Addy. And Eaglin didn’t limit his community impact to artwork. Turner says her father also built community gardens and started Portland’s first farmers market.
I ask Turner what she believes to be at the core of her father’s work. “There’s an emotion of pain and suffering at disenfranchisement, joblessness, poverty that Black people across the world have felt. A lot of the faces show this pain,” she says.
Ray Eaglin died on June 19, 2004. Turner believes he might have created around a thousand pieces of work or more in his lifetime, but that a lot of it was missing upon his death—some stolen, some lost in a house fire, some loaned out for exhibits and never returned. After his passing, she says, friends, community members, and artists came to speak about her father’s contributions. “At his memorial a lot of his friends wanted to put together an African American Art Museum of Oregon,” she says. In her early twenties and studying at Wellesley College in Massachusetts at the time of his death, Kari was too consumed with grief to follow up with the many people who wanted to carry this idea forward, or to regather his lost artwork and continue to bring forth her father’s wisdom and message.
But today she is ready. Turner kept his materials—his writings, sculptures, paintings—and is beginning to figure out how to reactivate his philosophy of activism and community through his story and art, especially the message that art should be for the community. Turner tells me how upon finishing a piece, her father would have her and her siblings sign their names on the piece alongside his own. “‘This is our art. This is what we do with our art,’ he’d say. Now since he died, I feel like it’s my charge. The message is still there.”
THELMA JOHNSON STREAT
Thelma Johnson Streat in an undated photograph
In the five years between when I first heard of Thelma Johnson Streat and the start of this research, I’d not heard her name spoken. In her time, Charlie Chaplin, Langston Hughes, Katherine Dunham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others were among those who owned her works. I had questions. Why hadn’t I heard of this acclaimed, Northwest-born, Black woman multidisciplinary artist? Why didn’t I, we, know about her? Where were markers about her in Portland? Where was she acknowledged within the histories of American art?
I reached out to the Thelma Johnson Streat Project based in Lake Oswego. Founded by Streat’s family members in the early ’90s in response to the obscurity of her legacy, the Thelma Johnson Streat project aims to educate the public about Streat and her contributions to arts and culture.
In many ways, Kari Turner is where the family members of Thelma Johnson Streat found themselves in 1990. Speaking of the project’s beginning, one family member, who declined to be named in this essay, recounts how a man in San Francisco contacted Streat’s sister Juanita to ask her what became of Thelma’s artwork. “That was kind of a catalyst for Juanita to look under the bed, in the closet, and in the garage to check on the paintings. Juanita, her younger sister Lois, their brother Carl, and his daughters (Carlene, Evelyn, and Betty) all got together to inventory the artwork in the hopes of letting people see it again,” she says.
Born in 1911, Thelma Johnson started painting and drawing at the age of seven with the guidance of her father. The family moved from Yakima, Washington, where she was born, to Boise, then Pendleton, before finally settling in Portland. There Streat studied and graduated from Washington High School in 1932. She painted throughout her youth and received community support for her gifts. One of her first major supporters was Portland civil rights advocate and cofounder of the Oregon Chapter of the NAACP Beatrice Morrow Cannady. It was Cannady who recommended Streat for what was to become her first major accomplishment as an artist, an honorable mention at the Harmon Foundation Exhibition. A Priest depicted a priest at Portland’s National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother (known as the Grotto) and was exhibited in New York. This wasn’t the last time Streat received encouragement and support from Cannady. Cannady also hosted an exhibit of Streat’s early works at one of her interracial teas at the Portland YWCA. Early support from those in the community, including the congregation at Portland’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, would be an early foundation and sign of Streat’s later success.
In the mid 1930s, Streat later briefly studied at the Museum School of Portland (later the Pacific Northwest College of Art) and the University of Oregon before moving to San Francisco in 1938 with her first husband. There she was able to work with artist Diego Rivera as one of the few assistants tasked to paint directly on his Pan American Unity mural. Diego later praised Streat, saying, “The work of Thelma Johnson Streat is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting manifestations in this country at the present. It is extremely evolved and sophisticated enough to reconquer the grace and purity of African and American art.”
Her work with Rivera would influence the creative understanding she would develop in her work thereafter. Of the impact Rivera had on Streat, her family member says, she learned two things: “the power of murals and that it’s okay to present your minority culture through that mural, the power of that.” This understanding of the importance of multiculturalism would be present in her works for the rest of her life.
It also became a tool for her to understand how art could have an impact on society. After moving to Chicago in the mid-1940s, Streat began to focus on producing work that could speak to children. She began conceptualizing how art and murals could be used as teaching tools, to teach about the contributions of Black Americans in the United States. Streat’s family member says:
She could see that in the greater white society people didn’t think that African Americans had made much of a contribution. African American history was just slavery. That was kind of all the credit Black people got. She could see that with the meatpacking industry in Chicago—that was mainly Black people. People were adding a lot of wealth to this country and not getting any credit for that.
Streat began an education mural project. She saw a way to teach, to try to get over bigotry and prejudice, to help white kids and Black kids overcome that, to make sure that all kids in America knew the contributions of African Americans. What she did was create huge posters. They were mural scenes but they were posters that were reproducible. She created one big mural poster that she could reproduce and move from school to school, library to library, community center to community center.
She looked at the bigotry and racism and prejudice around the country and the world and kind of shook her head and said, “Adults are not hopeless, but to change the hearts and beliefs of an adult—that’s a heavy lift. But children are an open palette. They can have tolerance, acceptance, and the appreciation of different cultures.”
Streat herself continued to seek understanding and knowledgeable appreciation of different cultures. Throughout her life she was known to spend months in a location—Mexico, Ireland, England, Hawaii— painting her way through culture and place. In 1946, Streat traveled to British Columbia to study with the indigenous Haida community. While there, she not only studied the visual culture but learned their dances.
Upon her return to San Francisco, she broke the perceived two-dimensional plane of her work and began dancing in front of her paintings, bringing new dimension to the experience of her work. Streat began to travel extensively with her exhibits and performances. She performed for the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many others.
With the breadth of her accomplishment, it would make sense for Streat to be a well-known figure in the art world today and a lauded figure within the Pacific Northwest. However, after her death, her work and name fell into obscurity. Streat passed away in May 1959 at forty-seven from a heart attack.
In an era predating popular conceptions of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary works, Streat merged the visual arts with dance and movement in profound and innovative ways. She was a forerunner to art forms that we largely might not have witnessed until decades later.
While her work is beginning to again find recognition in the visual arts arena due to dedicated work on the part of her family, her innovation in dance and performing arts has yet to be appropriately included in common archives and curriculums. She is simply not documented within accessible histories of American dance and performance work. If any films of her dance performances have survived, they are yet to be discovered.
Black artists often created and continue to create beyond popular or accepted notions of what art can be. Further, Black artists always were and are producing beyond the limited conceptions and interpretations of what Black people can and do produce. In Streat’s time, there would have been few people ready to properly recognize, document, and give context to the extent of her contributions to American art forms.
One of the family researchers recounts the experience of reading the initial reviews of Streat’s dance work. “We got the reviews from when Thelma first started dancing and performing around California and they were all really negative. And I was so upset. Then I realized the people that make their living writing dance reviews are people who are used to a certain kind of dancing. If you’re doing groundbreaking work, if you’re changing the paradigm, if you’re doing something really significant, those good ole boys, they’re not going to get it, they’re not even going to understand what you’re doing, they’re not going to accept it. Then I got really proud. That showed me she was doing something truly significant. Eventually she started to get good reviews. But those first performances . . . the reviewers were used to the same old thing. It took them a while to catch up.”
Her family is steadily working to bring her life back into prominence. In 2016, Streat’s Medicine and Transportation was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The family hopes to secure funding to support the preservation, restoration, and exhibition of Streat’s work.
Thelma Johnson Streat photographed in Portland in 1945. Photo by Alda Jourdan
Having access to these artists’ histories and works was resounding, inspiring, transporting. But many of the insights from my research were damning, particularly in the midst of the success I was presently experiencing in Portland.
If Streat—given all her adventures, works, and lofty supporters—could fall into obscurity, if her artwork could be so easily and quickly lost to our contemporary cultural knowledge and memory, might not mine or others’ of my generation?
Why are Black artists like Streat, Eaglin, and others largely unknown, here in Oregon or elsewhere, the memory of their work and presence faded? And is knowing and valuing them now enough? What part of me needs to shift in my voice and practice to produce past these outcomes?
The influence of Oregon’s exclusion laws—which kept Black people from living in the state, owning property, or signing contracts—on the histories and lives of Black artists in Oregon means that Oregon Black arts production and innovation is absent not only from American arts histories, but from national histories and dialogues around Black American arts lineages.
To put it artistically, we were barred from leaving a trace, barred from making our mark. The exclusion laws were repealed in the late 1920s but their legacy continued to bear out through redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and other tools of excluding and erasing Black presence.
An Oregon Black artistic presence is absent in exhibits, books, retrospectives, and histories, just as Black people were told and made to be absent on the map. And, because we are geographically distant from the rootstock of the Black American South and the many migration tales lead toward north and northeastern centers of Black life—lauded regions of Black life, perseverance, and artistic production—our impact in Oregon is either widely unknown, ill-documented, or deemed culturally insignificant.
Given all of this, what was the Black artistic and creative impulse in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest? Where can we find its traces now? If Black life is said to be unable to exist in this space, how did we and do we continue to create and imagine, despite and beyond? And if and when we do produce—and let’s be honest, we have always produced—how have Oregon’s exclusionary histories and practices influenced or made impossible the proper archiving, preservation, exhibition, and knowledge of Black artistic production in Oregon? And beyond the life of the produced artwork, how has exclusion directly influenced the lives, careers, and trajectories of Black artists? Particularly, given Portland’s often self-congratulatory celebration of innovation, creativity, and technology, what has been the counterstory of Black creative life in the region when its expression names and calls out the cracks in the story Oregon tells itself?
The common refrain of no Black presence, a descendant of the exclusion laws, hinders the much needed preservation, ongoing research, and contemporary upliftment of the Black artists who have lived, created, and persisted in Oregon. It leaves Black artistic production unspoken.
The artistic production of Black artists in the region speaks beyond that.
The artwork, this creative ledger, speaks and spells otherwise.
The artwork tells our story even as acknowledged histories haven’t, don’t, or won’t.
We bear our own legend. This is the mark.
And, still, there is so more to uncover.
This, here, only scratches a surface.
I spent this research period ensconcing myself in the works of Black, Portland-area artists living and past, imbibing as much art and writing and as many perspectives as I could, reading Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years, writing to Janice Scroggins’s “Transformation,” listening to Pleasure’s “Glide,” and on and on. I purchased the works of Black Portland artists when I could to get a sense of us, a working knowledge, to feel that the knowledge imparted through these artworks was in me, able to be drawn on and out.
I sat with Adriene Cruz in her Northeast Portland home that is itself an art piece. Cruz’s public art works—at the Killingsworth–Interstate MAX station, the Northeast Health Center, among others—are a part of our lived Northeast Portland landscape. I talked with her about her friend and frequent collaborator, painter and textile artist Charlotte Graves Lewis, who passed in 1999 of breast cancer. Cruz pulled out works she had by Lewis. I held them in my hands.
I stood with painter Isaka Shamsud-Din in front of his 1983 Bilalian Odyssey mural, a work that depicts in arresting detail a Black history and presence in the American West from 1805 to the 1920s. I listened as he told me of the many faces and histories in the work. I heard about his own family’s journey to Oregon when he was a child in the ’40s, surviving the Vanport Flood, about his father’s pride in him as a burgeoning artist.
I interviewed Renée Watson in Portland, Mitchell S. Jackson in Harlem, Akela Jaffi on Mt. Tabor. I photographed and was photographed by Anaka Morris off of Times Square.
I was able to be connected—through our voices and our artwork—to this spirit of our work, the visionary investment of lines of Black artists who were doing their work, before many of us working in Portland today had the breath to speak on it. I was able to witness, be a part of this mark that they, we, were/are here.
Many of the challenges I’ve experienced in Portland, I heard echoed in these artists’ narratives, read in articles and histories, felt in their works. Traveling this vast Black artistic impulse, following the trail of it, having access to it, just being near it, was the most precious journey.
I asked Renée Watson, a Portland native and author about the artists she remembered: “Most of the artists I knew were from church, women who could get up and sing the house down. We would do plays. We had someone in our church who would write plays that were very relevant to what people were going through. At an early age I was introduced to grassroots everyday artists. I don’t know if they saw themselves as artists, but I did.”
Artists in our time, maybe in all of time, can be charged with doing so much. We can charge ourselves with doing so much. This is what we’ve seen our artistic forebears do, our mentors, our greats. We know that there is power and transformation here. For Black artists, we know that art can have a role in caretaking for our communities in the United States and in other environments that have worked to obliterate us. We know that Black art is Black life, the work of Black life.
Sitting with these artists, in ways literal and metaphoric, having to do the hard work of writing these words, gave me something visceral and deep I’d not quite had before, something I would not have had alone. It moved me, made me move myself, shift from creating in my own time into a collective time. Our times. A different stratagem. A different artwork toward our artwork. We are part of a shared continuum with all these other Black artists throughout time, working through love and faith, trial and knowledge, regardless of whether we exist in the same time.And in my own time in Portland, there is a cast of beautiful characters, wanderers, compatriots. This is a community of artists that has shared with me and helped shape me, if not in artistic mediums or in instruction, then in their presence. This swell of Black artists and creatives create in and against the backdrop of this geographic, temporal, and cultural space. Who created before it, despite it, because of it, beyond it, in whatever form that might be imagined.
It’s a Sunday in August and I'm sitting in Mr. Bobby’s kitchen listening as he recounts meeting Katherine Dunham at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1989. He says, “Ms. Dunham gave me a sense of time. Did I tell you what she asked me? After talking to her and saying where I was from and so on, she said, ‘Yeah, you’re in the right spot. Do what you’re doing. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.’ We started watching people dancing and about fifteen minutes later she touched my arm and she says, ‘Now, are you ready for it not to happen in your lifetime?’
“And in my head I was like, ‘Hell no. I want everything I do to happen in my lifetime.’ In my head—I didn’t say that to her. But about six months later I got it, what she was talking about. So that’s why I say I got my sense of time from her, in terms of our human expectation versus what’s going on in the cosmos, cause you ain’t in control of squat.”
I take this in. Am I ready for it not to happen in my lifetime? Maybe. Maybe not.
I’ll be ready for it to happen in ours.
4 comments have been posted.
Beautiful and profoundly important! Intisar shining star!
Kaeli Casati | May 2019 | Portland, OR
Intisar... you are us. We are the wild ones. You and your art, my dear, propel us through many lifetimes.
Rukaiyah Adams | May 2019 |
Thanks Intisar! Great job
Liz | May 2019 |
i'm sure--this I know for fact. The truth as I see it each day. How much credit I give to Black Americans. They work so hard, labor indefatigably. I salute you from the bottom of my heart. Not even in Africa among the original people born and raised their I see what I want to see. Please--don't ask me what I want to see--may be I'm not sure either. I don't see who African people are. Africans the originals-they are the beginning of humanity--the real one. I grew up at a small village, left the place when I was getting to twenty. I grew up with the original human beings--they were real--call them like GOD. My (G ) at this hour is not the little g it is the real ONE for this man. Plenty of white hairs on my head. I don't know the number--my children counted my gay hairs when I was 25. They can't count my gray hairs at this hour. My Black people---- you're the original. You would get the truth of who we are --the Black people as the world knows it --meaning dark skin when you let go of the anger towards the other side. They operate on ignorance. In other words, 'forgive them they know not what they do'. You must forgive people you consider to be enemies of the dark skin. Ignorance is deadly--that is what is in the dark is hard to see. They can't see. So if you see it better--show it to me--explain it to me show it to them. I look at your work my sister- it is loaded with beauty--talents but show it to them-it is loaded with incredible blessing. You got it! Please-teach it--share it in LOVE and in TRUTH. Black people are the original. No ego in the recipe. It is real. OSEO-OMO OLORUN!
Oladapo Sobomehin | April 2019 | Portland, OREGON