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Black is Beautiful

Public art project draws on positive messages

Danny Peterson | 9/5/2018, 11:30 a.m.
The historic heart of Portland’s black community is receiving the finishing touches of a new urban beautification project that celebrates ...
10 year-old Dominique Stewart (left) and Tryston Birdges, 12, help build flower and vegetable planters along the North Williams and Russell Street corridors as part of an Urban League of Portland project to celebrate the historic community contributions of African Americans in Portland. The project was made possible by a grant and partnership from the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Photo by Danny Peterson

The historic heart of Portland’s black community is receiving the finishing touches of a new urban beautification project that celebrates the contributions of African Americas to the city.

Black kids from the community, graduate art students and local seniors worked to create artful benches, decorative tiles and planters for flowers and vegetation as part of a project spearheaded by the Urban League of Portland and aimed in part to combat the displacement of public art by African Americans in the wake of gentrification. A grant from Portland’s Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) helped fund the effort.

Decorative tiles that reflect positive messages of the black community were hand painted by Portland kids of color and residents of a local senior center for the Urban League of Portland’s beautification project.  Graduate art students helped facilitate the completion of the project.

Decorative tiles that reflect positive messages of the black community were hand painted by Portland kids of color and residents of a local senior center for the Urban League of Portland’s beautification project. Graduate art students helped facilitate the completion of the project.

Many community partnerships coalesced to make the project a success, including the black-led nonprofit housing provider Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives (PCRI) and two Portland art schools, the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts.

Graduate art students held workshops to determine the designs. The youth proposed benches that can rock back and forth, which the graduate students used their schools’ equipment and resources to create. In addition, decorative tiles were hand-painted to reflect positive messages of the black community.

“Black is Beautiful,” “Do it for the Culture,” “Black Power,” “Support One Another,” and “Honor Those Before Us” were some of the positive themes created for the tiles, which were donated by the nearby nonprofit ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Avenue.

A local African American husband-and-wife artist duo, Cleo Davis and Kayin Talton Davis, created a similarly community driven public art project back in 2012, called the Historic Black Williams Project.

Artful rocking benches designed in collaboration with community youth of color and graduate art students line North Russell Street next at the Urban League of Portland headquarters.

Artful rocking benches designed in collaboration with community youth of color and graduate art students line North Russell Street next at the Urban League of Portland headquarters.

The couple installed a visual archive of stories, memories and history from black community members with informational signs posted all along Williams Avenue, a once thriving corridor of the black community that included a high concentration of black churches, businesses, social services, organizations and nightclubs. That project was also supported by PBOT and the Regional Arts and Culture Center.

After hearing about the latest beautification project, the Davis’ and Portland architect Matthew Miller, aligned their design program with the Urban League’s project.