New murals celebrate Portland’s African American history and future

The intricate artworks created by Northeast Portland artists, Arvie Smith and Mehran Heard, will be unveiled on the Natural Grocers façade later this month.

by Emilly Prado

 

The Alberta Arts District has been synonymous with culture, creativity and home for much of Portland’s African American community for decades.

On April 18, 2018, the long-awaited works of artists Arvie Smith and Mehran Heard will be celebrated at the grand opening of the King neighborhood’s first Natural Grocers store. The rigorous selection process was managed by RACC and the artworks will be part of the City of Portland’s public art collection that is maintained by RACC.  Each artist received a generous project budget funded by Prosper Portland to create vivid, community-inspired designs that honor the Northeast Portland community and its rich African American history.

The murals will span two exterior walls of Natural Grocers, a tenant of the Alberta Commons development at NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and NE Alberta Street. Each artist created an original painting that was then scanned, scaled up and baked on to porcelain enamel panels which make up the large-scale permanent artworks. Heard says the process is “archival” and exciting to work with. Smith noted that “[African Americans are] not credited in the history books and we’ve done so much. Being asked to do something like this for my community is very important to me because I can not only find out more about my community than I ever probably would have, but I can express that in a visual way. It’s an honor to be a part of Portland’s history.”

Prosper Portland (formerly known as Portland Development Commission) has worked at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Alberta St., amongst many others citywide, to further economic growth and development. In 1997, the agency secured nearly two full blocks along MLK to revive a thriving, walkable commercial quarter. Now over two decades later, Prosper Portland is bringing the Alberta Commons project to a close.

“The [Alberta Commons] site was vacant for a long time,” says Prosper Portland project manager, Susan Kuhn. “Back when we acquired the property, the community put together a plan for what they wanted for those two sites. This is fulfilling that plan, but it took a while to get there.”

By early 2015, Prosper Portland called for another community vision process after Majestic Realty and Natural Grocers joined the initiative. The public working group collaborated to establish a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as well as several subcommittees to ensure the project’s delivery of goals which include prioritizing leases for existing local businesses and those owned by people of color, hiring neighborhood residents as often as possible, and approaching the project equitably during construction and beyond. The public art subcommittee requested RACC’s support to find suitable artists and proposals for long-term murals.

“It’s particularly important to involve the community in the selection of the artwork [and to] also have that artwork represent the people [in the] neighborhood,” says Kuhn, who was part of the public art selection panel along with John Washington, who served as chair, and six other participants. Washington, a long-time advocate and community activist of the African American community in Portland, has served as the chair of the Soul District Business Association (formerly N/NE Business Association) since 2016 and felt drawn to an art and design role in the project after noticing a divide during the community development process. Although the camps were self-selected, the community engagement subcommittee was predominantly Black while the design side was mostly white.

“I felt comfortable enough [not being] with the community engagement side because there were already people in there who knew their stuff,” Washington says. “I started understanding that what we were all trying to accomplish is that this project was and is designed to send out the message that African Americans exist in this community.”

Other selection panel members appointed by RACC were Alem Gebrehiwot, Diana Moosman, Elijah Hassan, Hilary Pfeifer and Rick Tiland.

Although the public art selection panel originally planned to collaborate with one local artist, impressive presentations from Arvie Smith and Mehran Heard reshaped the approach and resulted in two separate installation approvals. Washington said the panel members were amazed at how visually cohesive each proposal felt while also showcasing unique, distinct perspectives. Both artists have spent more than a decade each living in Northeast Portland but are a full generation apart.

 


 

Still We Rise, by Arvie Smith. The final installation is 18 feet high by 22 feet wide.

Arvie Smith grew up in rural Texas at the height of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in a multigenerational household with his grandparents and great grandmother. His work is notoriously vibrant and bursting with color, yet often impishly juxtaposes nods to historically stereotypical depictions of African Americans and sobering scenes of topics like police brutality, ancestry, and social justice. “My great grandmother who I grew up with was born a slave,” Smith says. “It seems like people want to put that in the past, as though that happened a way long time ago and we should forget all about it, but that’s so connected to my history.”

After spending most of his formative years in the South, Smith moved to South Central Los Angeles to be closer to his mother. Yet even outside of the Jim Crow laws’ primary boundaries, he found himself living in segregation all over again. He witnessed the rise of street gangs and the Watts riots of 1965 and says all informed his work and worldview. Although Smith decided he was going to be an artist after a fateful encounter with a carnival psychic who told him he could be anything he wanted to be in life as a child, it wasn’t until well into adulthood that he seriously pursued his passion.

Portland had been a stopover during travels along the West Coast as a young adult, but the artist chose to make the city his home in the mid 1970s. He’s lived in Northeast Portland for over two decades. After meeting his wife, Julie Kern Smith, while working in a mental health facility, she gave him the push to pursue art school at the age of 42. In 1986, he proudly earned his degree from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. “I was the first American of African descent to graduate from that 100-year-old school in a state that was an exclusion state for people of color,” he says.

Smith hasn’t stopped trailblazing since. In the past few years, Smith has celebrated solo and group exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum, in addition to a long list of previous national and international shows. One of his most significant accomplishments, however, came last year as Governor Kate Brown revived the Governor’s Arts Award after a 10-year hiatus and presented Smith with a lifetime achievement award.

Smith’s expansive body of work, no matter the style or era, is always rich in storytelling traditions. In his piece for the Alberta Commons project, a smattering of golden buildings, rapt citizens, and turquoise skies frame an African American man pointing towards the future. Each vignette retells Portland’s Black history like acts in a play: the demolition of Black spaces including the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, gentrification and redlining in Albina, and the city’s fruitful jazz scene. Upon closer examination, Smith can be seen intently playing a flute.

Smith says he looked directly to his neighbors and community members to adequately prepare his proposal and design. Rather than focus on his own outlook, he saw the opportunity as a chance to share the deep history and stories of the area. “I’m trying to respond to the community,” he says. “I’m trying to reach out and [ask,] “What do you want?” My thoughts are important but, in this case, I’m a vehicle.”

Even as the piece acknowledges Portland’s traumatic history, Smith wants his work to uplift others. In homage to Maya Angelou, a flag that reads, ‘Still we rise,’ waves, albeit tattered, with the help of an airborne cherub’s gust. “My understanding is that it’s our ancestors blowing breath and vibrancy into our community,” the retired PNCA professor says. He encourages viewers who study the painting, however, to find their own meaning and story.

 


 

Until We Get There, by Mehran Heard, aka Eatcho. The final installation is 10 feet tall by 17 feet wide.

When Heard looks around Northeast Portland today, he still sees a technicolor world full of possibility, even as he has witnessed significant changes to the city and his neighborhood since moving here in 2006. “It’s where I found a newfound happiness after coming here from Fresno. It was a dream,” he says. “I’m not embedded within Portland’s history as much because I [wasn’t] born here, but it felt like home… It was affordable, and it was green, and it was healing. And it still, to this day, has been.”

Heard says he’s had the need to “incessantly” draw since as long as he can remember. Although he was born in Los Angeles, California, Heard spent most of his life living three hours north in Fresno. “My first show was at a local café by the Fresno State College,” he recalls. When the chance to display his art along the blank, open walls arose, he swiftly tackled the feat with the support of his community. One friend played the music, another friend installed the lighting and a third friend printed flyers at his day job. “If you can’t wait for it to happen for you, you do it yourself,” he says.

Heard continued to host his own art shows throughout California and completed his first mural when he was 19 years old. He has since created public arts across the west coast of the United States and abroad in Japan and Panama. Heard’s work is celebrated for his keen attention to detail and intricate, weaving designs. As a freelance illustrator, he works with independent musicians and large agencies such as Nike and Wieden + Kennedy to create album covers, editorials and more.

For his Alberta Commons proposal, however, Heard had the unique opportunity to exclusively focus on free-flowing creativity. “I took a chance with my art rather than trying to appease my audience with the final product,” he says. “I wanted to paint a mural that I wanted to see, rather than a mural that I thought others would like to see.”

Heard’s mural called “Until We Get There” is an eruption of activity, color and energy. Historical buildings, local flora and fauna, and people of all ages interlace to tell the story of Portland today just as much as yesterday and tomorrow. While some faces may be more recognizable, like the radiantly smiling longtime business owner, Paul Knauls, or stoic painter, Jeremy Okai Davis, others are intentionally lesser known. “I always like the idea of having anybody in a piece,” Heard says. “People that are not considered pivotal maybe to the whole world, but they’re pivotal to someone, to their family and friends. Everyone is important and worth it.”

Even as Heard sees society paying more attention to cultural sensitivity, he hopes his piece will offer solace and a sense of hope. “I wanted to show the world what I saw as a minority and where it would be [if it was] up to us. A world that’s positive. A world where, in the hands of the youth, we can get at least closer to Babylon and the utopia that we search for.”

“When they presented their first concepts, they just both told such great stories of the history from different perspectives,” says Kuhn. “Every time you look at [Mehran’s work,] you can find new details. Arvie’s was just so empowering in how he told the story of the different points of history around Portland.”

“The distinctive visions of Arvie and Mehran demonstrate how public art can expand our understandings of our community,” said Jeff Hawthorne, Interim Executive Director of RACC.  “Sharing of ideas, experiences and emotions are a vital part of the process. We are honored to present these two new public art murals to the city’s public art collection.”

 


The Natural Grocers ribbon cutting ceremony will take place on the morning of April 18 at 8:20 am. Attendees can enter the Natural Grocers grocery giveaway sweepstakes from 7:30 and 8:25 am on opening day for a chance to win free groceries for six months. An ice cream social with dairy and non-dairy treats will follow at 4 pm.