Portland State University and the department of fine and performing arts has created a new professorship in tribute to Oregon Symphony conductor James DePriest in an effort to expand opportunities for minority artists.
Portland painter and PSU professor Isaka Shamsud-Din is the first James DePriest visiting professor in ethnic art and looks forward to using the new position to continue what he describes as a life-long endeavor, expressing the African-American experience through art and helping young students and artists to express their visions.
“He’s a life-long Portlander and a great artist. His work hangs in the Portland art museum and he’s collected around the region,” said Jeff Morgan, director of marketing and public relations for the department of fine and performing arts.
The initial $100,000 in funding for the new position has been donated by the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE foundation, and Arlene Schnitzer has committed to raising an additional $400,000 to maintain the professorship.
Shamsud-Din worked with Arlene Schnitzer on the original Artquake committee and underlines the debt the Portland art community owes the Schnitzers.
“They are in my estimation the best thing that’s happened to the Portland art scene,” Shamsud-Din said.
Shamsud-Din’s ties to Portland State reach back to the 1960s, when he was president of the Black Student Union at PSU and later worked to introduce scholarship opportunities for minority students.
Though he left Portland to be involved in the civil rights movement in the South and to work in the San Francisco area, Shamsud-Din found himself in Portland again in the 1980s.
When he returned, he involved himself in mural projects at local high schools and government buildings in an attempt to create a self-perpetuating sense of community among African-American artists.
Programs like the Albina Mural Project were successful in reaching out to the community at large and giving voice to local artists, as well as gaining national recognition. But it was ultimately short-lived due to budgetary and logistic concerns.
Shamsud-Din hopes the new professorship will allow him to continue these sorts of projects without having to restart from scratch every few years.
“Art has the power to portray hopes, ideals; portray goals, to portray history, to evoke a kind of grace and presence,” Shamsud-Din said.
“We have a lot of talented people, but they don’t know where to go,” he said.
Shamsud-Din’s plan to provide that support network includes high school outreach and recruiting, mentoring current students, and drawing in artists who may have felt alienated by higher education.
“We’ve established contact with Jefferson High and would like to develop a scholarship program,” Shamsud-Din said. “[The program] is really based on what I didn’t have.”
Shamsud-Din feels reaching out to high schools is key.
“It allows youngsters to see an artist that looks like them and cares about them,” he said.
While Portland State is the Oregon University System’s most diverse campus, Shamsud-Din sees a real under-representation of African-American students, and African cultural studies in the art department.
He hopes to address this problem of representation through his classes, underlining the importance of African art in the tradition of modern art.
He cites Benin sculpture, a style of African bronze, as a prime example of something that begs examination.
“It’s still such a rich repository of material for the making of art,” he said.
“There was a need to make the department more diverse, and this professorship is a way to do that by offering mentoring as well as studio training at the highest level,” Morgan said. “This isn’t a separate track, it’s an innovative way to get students of color involved in the department of art.”
Students interested in portfolio critiques or discussing projects with Shamsud-Din should contact the department of fine and performing arts at 503-725-3105, or Shamsud-Din’s studio at 503-284-8262.