Black Mark, Black Legend

Uncovering the lineage of Black artists in Portland

From left: Thelma Johnson Streat, undated; Streat in 1945; Intisar Abioto dancing in the Oregon State Capitol—photo by Elijah Hasan; John Bryant, grandmaster of the Sons of Haiti St. Josephs Grand Lodge—photo by Abioto; Ciara, Makayla, and Toi—Abioto

This is an excerpt of a longer piece written by Intisar Abioto that explores the legacy of Black artists in Portland and the meaning of that history for current creators in the community. The project is part of Oregon Humanities’ Emerging Journalists, Community Stories fellowship program, funded in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Pulitzer Prizes. Click here to read the full article.

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. 

 

 

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 was wanted, but a Black voice speaking about enduring inequalities, structural racism, the histories of this place, 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.

 

Left and right: Mr. Bobby's mother, Ellen Wood, in historical family photographs. Middle: Bobby Fouther photographed sitting in front of his painting Masquerade; Ebony Nights by Bobby Fouther, 1975.

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, 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 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. 

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Also in this Issue

Editor's Note: Pushing Forward, Holding Back

Cultivating Compassion

Meaningful Moves

Opening up Empathy

From the Director: Paying Attention

Process and Privilege

Black Mark, Black Legend

Stand

Reflections on an Icon

Drill

The Life We Pay For

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