Seventy-one years ago next Thursday, on May 30, 1948, a railroad berm on the Columbia River gave way and the waters swept in, wiping out the city of Vanport in an overwhelming flood, killing at least 15 people and leaving roughly 17,500 homeless. It was an epic disaster, destroying what during its boom years had been Oregon’s second-largest city, built during World War II to house workers in the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families. And in an almost completely white state, forty percent of its population had been African American.
For the past four years, the Vanport Mosaic Festival has been commemorating the short and fascinating life of the city that was washed away, and its continuing influence on the shaping of Portland. This year’s festival continues through June 5, with events ranging from self-guided walking tours and narrated bus tours of the former Vanport site (it stretches across what’s now Delta Park and other areas) to oral history documentaries about everyday life in Vanport, screenings of documentaries about the murder by white supremacists of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw 30 years ago and the MAX Train killings by a white supremacist two years ago, the performance Gambatte: An American Legacy, and more.
And for the second straight year, artist Henk Pander will have a major show at Cerimon House of paintings about the Vanport Flood. Building Memories: Recent Watercolors, which opens Friday and continues through June 2, follows last year’s War Memories, Liberty Ships and the Climate Refugees of Vanport, much of which later traveled to the Newport Visual Arts Center on the Oregon Coast.
“I find this Vanport project really powerful, so I really wasn’t done with it,” Pander said during a telephone conversation on Wednesday. Many of the paintings from last year’s show concentrated on the destructive power of the flood itself. That’s still part of the picture, but his new watercolors also look at the life of the city. He’d been commissioned by someone whose mother had lived in Vanport to do a portrait of her, and he placed her back in that time and place, seeking “an element of Vanport, and what it was like.”
“A lot of people, a lot of African Americans, thought it was a wonderful place to live,” Pander said. The schools were good; it was less prejudiced than other places. “It did have a kind of grace to it. And then it all flooded.”
Other things connect Pander to the story of Vanport. He was born in Haarlem, in the Netherlands, and as a child lived through the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II. Later he lived and studied in Amsterdam before moving in his late 20s to the United States. He returns often to his native country, and when he was in Amsterdam last fall his brother took him to a neighborhood that had been built, idealistically and well, to house the poor. It became essentially a Jewish neighborhood, intellectually alive, with socialists and communists and an active, involved cultural life. “My brother said to me, when the war was over all these streets were empty because all of these people were murdered,” he said. In 1942 the Nazis moved in and saw all the Jews. “They would haul them out of their houses and put them in the cattle cars. Some of them were murdered within days.” Once one group was gone, the Nazis would move in a fresh group of Jews, and repeat the process.
The story stuck with Pander, and he began to document the neighborhood with photos. Then “I started making big watercolors, except I stripped them” of cars and other signs of modernity, trying to get his images back to the city’s time of trauma.
Laura Lo Forti, co-director with Damaris Webb of Vanport Mosaic, saw Pander’s Amsterdam paintings and wanted them in the current show, too. The connections seemed crucial. Both series come out of wartime. Both places suffered severe trauma. Vanport was built in a lowland and inundated by water from a breached berm. Holland is a country surrounded by water and protected by dikes. In both cases, understanding the past is essential to coming to grips with the present. “I’m a history painter,” Pander comments. And in both cases what he discovers is “a sense of profound loss.”
Vanport Mosaic’s initial task was to bring to the attention of Oregonians who had forgotten about it or never knew about it the story of an epic disaster whose effects had an impact on the future of life in the state’s largest city. But from the beginning the Mosaic has also been about making connections beyond that story, showing parallels and results. It has a great deal to do with the racial makeup of Portland and the way that minority communities have been accepted or rejected or shuffled aside in a predominantly white city.
Two years ago the festival included two plays by African American playwrights about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a kind of Vanport on a much vaster scale. Last year’s festival included From Maxville to Vanport, a Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project that, as Brett Campbell wrote for ArtsWatch, revived “the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state.” Last year’s festival also featured the premiere of Rich Rubins’ play Left Hook, a boxing drama set in Portland’s Albina district in the 1970s, when urban renewal sucker-punched a thriving black community, many members of which had moved there after Vanport was destroyed: history has a way of marching along and mattering, even if we ignore it. In addition to Pander’s blending of Vanport and Amsterdam, this year’s festival includes Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon’s Japanese Americans: Beyond the Wire, about the forced removal of Japanese American citizens to incarceration camps during World War II; a Power to the People Black Panther legacy tour of Albina; and the performance Gambatte, a 90-minute piece by artists Chisao Hata, Heath Hyun, Ken Yoshikawa and Jenna Yokoyama about “what it means to be Asian American in today’s landscape.”
Pander will hold a free public conversation with Portland City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty at the opening of Building Memories, from 6 to 9 p.m. this Friday, May 24, at Cerimon House. Hardesty is the first African American woman to win election to the Portland City Council, and the talk should be fascinating. She and Pander have got to know each other while he’s been painting her portrait: “I have one more sitting, on Saturday, I think, and then it’s done.”
Vanport Mosaic, Pander commented, is “such a wonderful project, and it’s so community-driven. It’s being in America, and doing something good.” Which isn’t, he added, always an easy thing. The parallels between then and now seem clear to him: “It’s a huge country, it’s a powerful country, it’s a wealthy country, and it treats its people like crap.” Anti-Semitism on the rise. Kids in cages. It seems a deluge of a different kind. Vanport may have disappeared seven decades ago, but “it’s, in a way, also a very current subject,” with “a sense of outsiderism” that he shares: “I don’t paint for the 1 percent. I just don’t.”
He does paint for history, and for memory, and the ways that both survive and shape the world. Cataclysms large and small have long formed a major part of his subject matter, from Ground Zero in Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks to the wrecking and burning of the New Carissa freighter off the southern Oregon coast to airplane graveyards in the deserts of the Southwest to war memories from his childhood to the lives of firefighters and other emergency workers in Los Angeles. The story of Vanport, he said, is the story of “a city drowning, a population drowning.” And so he paints it back again.
- See the complete schedule of Vanport Mosaic Festival events here.
- Read Bobby Bermea’s 2018 interview with Mosaic co-directors Damaris Webb and Laurel Lo Forto, Vanport Mosaic: story comes home.