Henry Frison has been drawing since he was a child in Ballinger, a farming community in central Texas, south of Abilene. After farm chores, he would draw detailed portraits of his favorite cartoon heroes and hometown people and family members.
He was about 25 when an uncle urged him to move to Portland to study art. He enrolled in a commercial art school, completing a four-year course in three years. Then he joined a group of artists who worked on the Albina Mural Project in 1977-78, one of several across the country that was inspired by the 1967 Chicago mural project, Wall of Respect, aimed at uplifting African American history and accomplishments.
After completing the mural project, Frison opened an art gallery. He also designed signs for local businesses. After a few years, he closed the gallery, but the artist, now 77, has continued to work in his home studio, often completing commissions.
The exhibit includes portraits of prominent African Americans from the fields of entertainment, civil rights, sports and politics. He has created several views of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. He also painted Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon who refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus. He also has created views of Prince and Michael Jackson.
One of the most moving portraits, however, is of his mother with her warm smile and sparkling eyes.
“I love drawing people because, to me, it’s a challenge,” Frison said at the opening reception for the greenHaus exhibit. “Everybody is a little different.”
Although he isn’t in the mainstream of Portland’s art world, Frison has a following among those who enjoy his portraits of famous and local people.
Cole Reed, who opened the greenHaus last year after moving from Arizona, said she offered a solo show for Frison because “he hasn’t had his due.”
Reed collects cast-off industrial metals that she fashions into benches and other functional items. In addition, her shop carries an eclectic collection of chairs, baby shoes, aprons and anything else described as vintage or industrial.
Reusing or recycling materials fits into the part of her business name “green,” and accompanies “HAUS,” Reed’s nod to the Bauhaus movement for functional design.
In addition to her vintage and reused items, she wants to showcase local African American artists whose work hasn’t been widely recognized. By celebrating her Portland shop’s first anniversary with a Frison exhibit, she’s also reminding Portlanders of the work he did with other artists from the Albina Mural Project, said Joanne Oleksiak, who has chronicled mural work.
“Cole Reed is recognizing how important this is to Portland history,” Oleksiak said.
The murals, preserved only on restored film at the Portland State University library, depict African American history with an emphasis on local events. The murals became weathered and, with no funding for restoration, were removed in 1983 from the Albina Human Resources Center, 5200 N. Vancouver Ave.
The artists included Isaka Shamsud-Din, the project director and one of the best known of the group. His murals are throughout the Northwest and his huge painting, Vanport, showing the power of the 1948 floodwater, has hung in a stairwell of Smith Memorial Center at Portland State University.
Charles Tatum, a sculptor and the assistant director, removed his panel and cut it into six separate panels “which are dispersed through the Albina community,” according to the website for the artist, who died in 2008. His work, Brotherhood, has been displayed in the Bonneville Power Administration Building.
The other artists included Jenny Harada Allen, Chonitia Henderson Smith, Larry Scott, listed as an assistant mural painter, and Darryl Clegg, project documentarian.
Frison’s early farming background informed one of his Albina murals, Black Cowboys, which also showed a close relationship between African Americans and Native Americans, according to Oleksiak. His Civil Rights mural depicted marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy and the violent police repression they met.
While the 1970s work is gone, one of Frison’s murals survives in the Greater Solid Rock Church of God in Christ, 1705 N.E. Dekum St.