Years, vandals take toll on Portland's murals

Isaka Shamsud-Din doesn't like driving south on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It's not the whole stretch that bothers him, it's just where that long drag meets Shaver Street, where his 21-year-old mural "Now is the Time, the Time is Now" comes into view.
What was once a bright, freshly painted tribute to the ideals of African American education, self-knowledge and history has faded over the years. People have written their names across the piece. There's a swastika underneath the central visage of Martin Luther King Jr.

"It's hard to drive down that street," he says. "It feels terrible. It feels hideous. It's an insult, the condition.

"It's a kick in the head, anyway."

If you know where to look, Portland is an art gallery. And somewhere amid this miles-wide showroom is a collection of African American mural art. But there's no glass or alarms to protect what artists have made here; no guards to tell people not to touch. So, while bits have survived, some have been defaced and others have been torn down in the name of development.

Often, what is left behind are scattered recollections and photographs; memories, but not much more.

In an effort to collect those memories, and to educate people about the history of African American mural art in the city, a local club that seeks to illuminate "overlooked facets of Oregon history" will soon release a booklet about more than a dozen of the murals.

"We want to celebrate and preserve that history," says Marc Moscato, the director of the Dill Pickle Club. By drawing attention to the murals, "We want to make sure that the works are preserved -- that we don't lose anymore."

The booklet, "Walls of Pride," is due out at the end of the month. It will offer short histories on the pieces throughout the city, a map for self-guided tours and interviews with two local muralists, Shamsud-Din and Adriene Cruz, "to tell the story from the artists' perspective rather than this outsider's perspective."

The idea for the book, Moscato said, grew out of a collaboration with Robin Dunitz, a Portland resident who has spent much of her career studying African American murals through the U.S.

About 10 years ago, Dunitz co-authored a book about the cultural movement, and that book became a nationwide traveling exhibit. With the show currently at the Oregon Historical Society, Dunitz wanted to organize a tour of the local pieces and approached the Dill Pickle Club. The idea for "Wall of Pride" came soon after.

Dunitz, who has lived in Portland for five years, found herself swept up by murals in the '60s, inspired, in part, by Diego Rivera and José Clemente Ozcuro, two of Mexico's most celebrated muralists.

"It just really changed my life. It's kind of a window to others," she says. And anybody can look through it.

The first piece of contemporary African American mural art in Portland can be traced to the early '60s, and, more specifically, to 70-year-old Shamsud-Din.
He spent his early years in rural Texas. When the racism there became too much, his family relocated to Vanport, a city of public housing near Portland along the Columbia River. He was 7 when a flood hit the community in 1948, killing 15, destroying everything and displacing 17,500 people.
Some 15 years later, he was commissioned to make a mural for a community center in Multnomah. He had never painted a mural before. He says he didn't know what to do, so he painted a couple of basketball players on a wall.
He tried again the year after. This time, the proposal was his own and so was the subject: the Vanport flood.
He wound up painting the piece in three sections, on canvas with oils. "I never would have done that if I knew what I was doing," he says. "I personally glued it to the wall with Elmer's Glue-All.
"It's still there." That's not to say it's in perfect condition. Vandals sliced through the faces on the canvas. The cuts are deep, he says. But still it remains, which is more than can be said for so many other pieces.