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By Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 21 October 2010

Murals have long been a way for a community to tell its story. And Portland's African American community is no exception.

A mural by Adriene Cruz at the Northeast Health Clinic at NE Killingsworth and MLK.

Throughout the next several months, the Oregon Historical Society is hosting an exhibit and other events dedicated to documenting, exploring and explaining the public mural art in Portland – both existing and destroyed. In addition, the "Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals" exhibit contains a component dedicated to wall murals from across the United States, curated by Robin Dunitz, co-author of the book of the same name.

The exhibit opens Nov. 16 at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave.

In addition to the art exhibit at the society's museum, the exhibit's many supporters will be holding a number of tours, artist lectures and other exhibits displaying work by some of Portland's better-known artists, including Isaka Shamsud-Din, the late Charlotte Lewis, Adriene Cruz (whose work is pictured at left)  and Henry Frison, among others.


For years, Dunitz has made the self-study of mural artwork her passion and her career, travelling to cities across the America and Mexico to track down walls and galleries adorned by the pieces. She spent a good amount of time in Los Angeles appreciating mainly Latino murals when the work of a local African American caught her eye.

When she researched and wrote "Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride" with James Prigoff, the book turned into a self-syndicating exhibit of national mural art with a focus on local artists and traditions. Dunitz, who is White, says she lets the artists speak for the art they created.

"The captions that go with each of the photographs has a pretty lengthy commentary from the artists," she says. "I don't want to speak for them. I don't feel I have the right to do that. Given the history of our country, I don't think white people should be judging African American art."

Although many public art installments will only be represented by photograph, there will be at least some surviving fragments of the original Albina Mural Project, which was painted in 1978, but didn't survive to the end of the '80s. The original mural project was front and center on Alberta and Albina in Northeast Portland, with an abbreviated history of Black Portlanders on five 20 X 20 foot panels.

Joanne Oleksiak, of the Oregon Historical Society, says they were able to piece together old photos and original sketches of the project.

"We have all these bits and pieces," she says.

They've even unearthed original archival footage of the mural's creation, which Oleksiak says they are attempting to digitize into a 15 minute documentary.

Touring the Murals

On Friday, Oct. 22, P.C. Perry, in association with the New Dill Pickle Club, will lead a bike tour of Portland's African American murals. The tour will hit about 12 murals and feature talks with artists Isaka Shamsud-Din and Adriene Cruz. On Nov. 12, for those not inclined or able to go on a bike tour, a bus tour will be held. Tickets can be purchase for $10 for the bike tour or $25 for the bus tour at www.dillpickleclub.com or at Reflections Café, 446 N.E. Killingsworth St.

Cruz, who is primarily a textile artist who dabbles in outdoor art, says outdoor art is a "claim on your community."

"I'm glad I did get to Portland to see the Albina Community Center murals before they went down," she says.

Her involvement with Portland mural art was sudden and slightly unexpected. After winning a grant she didn't think she'd get, Cruz says she employed the technical expertise of a painter friend and some younger apprentices to complete the mural that still stands at the Northeast Health Center at the corner of N.E. Killingsworth Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

She says one of the best things to happen throughout the project was the affirmation she would get from passersby. Now when she passes the work – as well as the tile work she completed at the Killingsworth Avenue MAX Yellow line stop — she's reminded of the friendships she forged and the incredible color and beauty she's added to the community.

"Both projects were labors of love," she says.

Charlotte Lewis

Throughout Oct. 29, the North Portland Public Library is hosting a special exhibit of the work of the late Charlotte Lewis in the second floor computer lab. The exhibit is only open to the public during normal lab hours, although several works adorn the walls outside the main exhibit hall.

Coincidentally says Cruz, who worked with Lewis and knew her well, the North Portland Library was the last place she exhibited before her death in 1998. The exhibit showcases only a fraction of her work, says Cruz. There is an unknown number of Lewis originals, including the handpainted thank you cards that came with each work, strewn across the globe.

"Charlotte was so low-key about everything," Cruz says.

Lewis crafted murals in Portland, including a large wall hanging inside the Portland Police Bureau's Northeast Precinct Community Room. Her work will also be presented at the first Thursday opening reception of Gallery 114, 1100 NW Glisan Ave., along with works by Cruz and Thelma Johnson Streat.

In addition, Shamsud-Din will be holding a free lecture at 7 p.m. on Nov. 20 and Arvie Smith will hold a lecture at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Portland Community College Cascade Campus, 706 N. Killingsworth Ave., room 104 in the Moriarty Arts Building. Smith will be discussing his mural project with youth at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Justice Center.

For more information, visit www.dillpickleclub.com or www.ohs.org and follow the "exhibit" links.

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