Black Arts Legacies: Visual Arts and Vibrancy

On Union Street in Seattle, between 23rd and 24th avenues, two buildings speak to each other through proximity, history and art.

On the north side is the Liberty Bank Building, an affordable housing development on the site of the Pacific Northwest’s first Black-owned bank. The 2019 building’s facade was designed by Al Doggett, a longtime Seattle artist who incorporated a joyous mural featuring a dancer, a saxophone player and a raised fist trailing the red-black-green of the Pan African flag.

Across the street is the new Midtown Square apartment complex, flush with Black art installations, as well as a color-splashed exterior designed by Seattle artist Barry Johnson, who says he drew inspiration from the energy of jazz and the rich palette of painter Jacob Lawrence. That buzzing you hear is the sound of Black art returning to the historically Black Central District, a neighborhood that has experienced massive displacement over the past several decades.

a close up portrait of two people, both wearing blue tonesa close up portrait of two people, both wearing blue tones
Al Doggett, left, with his partner, artist Esther Ervin (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

Illustrator and graphic designer Al Doggett moved to Seattle from New York in the 1960s after studying graphic design and illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology and working in advertising. In 1967, he opened his own Seattle studio and created illustrations for Seattle businesses while at the same time maintaining his fine art and portrait practice. He also became involved in the performance company Black Arts/West, designing assorted promotional materials for the group, and even performing, too.

With a house and studio in the Madrona neighborhood, Doggett has also collaborated with his wife, Esther Ervin, a sculptural artist who served as co-curator for the art at the Liberty Bank — a project that fostered a community of contributing Black artists, including Aramis O. Hamer, Lisa Myers Bulmash and Inye Wokoma (co-founder of the Central District art space Wa Na Wari.)

Barry Johnson is a self-taught painter and muralist who similarly works in community with Black artists — such as during the summer of 2020, when he joined what would soon become known as the Vivid Matter Collective to paint the powerful “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural on a Capitol Hill street during the protests against police brutality.

Originally from Kansas, Johnson now lives with his family south of Seattle as a painter, installation artist and sculptor. He recently created the bronze statue of Seattle artist James W. Washington Jr. that now stands at Midtown Square. Johnson explores art and identity by changing up his practice, shifting through mediums to find the most true expression of a concept, from vibrant self-portraits to symbolic installations to his 2016 children’s book, Oh What Wonderful Hair (based on styling his own daughters’ hair).

Person on chair in front of black screen, paintings in pink and other bright colors hang on the wallPerson on chair in front of black screen, paintings in pink and other bright colors hang on the wall
Barry Johnson poses for a portrait in his studio in Federal Way. (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

Unlike Doggett, who has decades of experience, Johnson is just getting started. But he has had shows at multiple Seattle galleries, is embarking on a new project as artist in residence at Amazon and continues making public art works, such as a new MoPOP mural honoring music legend Quincy Jones, which he created with fellow Vivid Matter Collective artist Moses Sun. Both Johnson and Doggett are using their artistic skills to commemorate the history of Black art in Seattle, while at the same time making a permanent mark on the changing cityscape.

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