Robert Colescott

Dear Liza,

Our trip to the Portland Art Museum (PAM) was both interesting and challenging. We spent quite a bit of time learning about American artist Robert Colescott.

Mr. Colescott was born in Oakland, California, in 1925. He studied at Berkeley and then traveled to Portland, Oregon. His work during World War II was abstract, like another artist we enjoy, Richard Diebencorn.

Untitled, 1949 by Robert Colescott

After the war, Mr. Colescott’s art changed and became more representational, using a new, brighter color palette. By the 1970s, he had found a new and controversial way to express his frustration with race relations in America.

Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters becomes Eat dem Taters

He began doing parodies of famous art, replacing the original white subjects with cartoonish, grinning black people, in the style of “happy darkies” of old racist posters. Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” got a makeover as “Eat dem Taters”. This was his way, he said, of “interjecting blacks into art history.”

Another jarring image was his painting of a famous scene from “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, where he swapped the races of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The ‘white’ Robinson’s exaggerated expression looks bizarre but is an accurate reflection of the photograph, shown alongside the painting.

Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White, by Robert Colescott

This brings home how accustomed we all became, from the 1920s onward, to the idea that “black folks“ were happy with whatever they had, always grinning and dancing. This image became a justification of slavery and the segregation of Jim Crow laws, insisting that black people were better off under the ‘protection’ of their white ‘masters’.

This art show was entertaining, and a wonderful way to spend an hour. But more important, in the midst of our trying yet again to come to grips with racism, it was a good shake up for me.

Assumptions that I didn’t even know I had about the Black experience in America, and how white America responded to them, were challenged and are being re-examined. I am grateful for the late Mr. Colescott for his insights.


Grandma Judy

Unfocused Rage, Intentional Joy

Dear Liza,

Our country is a very nervous place these days. People are worried about the Corona Virus, people being out of work, and political upheaval in our cities. I have been upset, too, and am doing what I can to cope.

I have donated supplies to the braver souls in downtown Portland who are standing up to (President) Trump’s Federal goons. I have written my Senators and Representatives to encourage them to use the power of Congress to censure these illegal and unwanted actions.

But other people have other, less positive coping mechanisms. One unhappy soul has been wandering around our dear Lone Fir Cemetery, kicking over beautiful, historic headstones.

Yes, I am angry and wish he (Folks have see him and say it’s a man) hadn’t done it, but mostly I am sad for him. I mean, how bad does your life have to be that you take it out on the dead?

Is this who we are becoming?

But then I see acts of love, large and small, in evidence all over the neighborhood, and I find my faith in my species returning.

People are working in their gardens, writing encouraging words on sidewalks, making beautiful, positive murals, and donating time and money to good causes. People are learning to smile with their eyes over the masks to show folks they are loved and appreciated.

Life is good, it really is. Not always easy, but good.


Grandma Judy

Full-On Portland

Dear Liza,

After weeks of feeling isolated and in my own head, Wednesday was a day that felt very connected, very Portland.

Hooray for Auntie Katie!!!

First, Auntie Katie’s bookshop, Books With Pictures, was voted BEST COMIC BOOK SHOP IN PORTLAND by our local newspaper, the Willamette Weekly. Hooray!

I am sure that her hard work and dedication to customer service in having an online ordering service and door to door deliveries during the pandemic has endeared her to everyone. With so many businesses closing down, it is wonderful to see her thrive.

And in the evening, Grandpa Nelson and Auntie Bridgett walked with me to deliver first aid supplies to the Black Lives Matter protesters. A group of volunteers called Snackbloc collect bandages, gloves, and other useful items in different neighborhoods to be used downtown to support the protesters against the Federal troops.

A beautiful mural along the way!

It pains me so much to see our government beating peaceful protesters. There has been some vandalism, but these troops are not dispersing crowds or stopping it; they are attacking unarmed people, shoving them down and gassing lines of singing women.

Protesters in Portland…. Photo by Beth Nakamura

It is as though they have come to punish these people for standing against the beatings… by beating them, like an abusive father ranting, “Stop crying or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” This is not how I want my country to be.

Police attacking protesters in Portland… photo credit, CNN

But I am a coward. I fear beatings, teargas, arrest and undocumented detention by unknown troops. So I help in a small way so others who are braver can help in larger ways.

Take care, and I will see you soon.


Grandma Judy