Lawrence Pitre is a married father of two, rose to the rank of captain in the Army and is involved with the Central Area Chamber of Commerce. While juggling these various positions, Pitre always found a way to express himself through art. His determination to keep creating despite obstacles goes back three decades to a vow he made to artist Jacob Lawrence, his University of Washington art professor at the time. Pitre recounted one of the last things Lawrence said to him:
“Never stop creating. Never stop drawing.”
Pitre continues to honor that promise.
“I love every essence of what he taught me,” Pitre said. “He would come in and he would show me just little things: perspective how to change something and how to look at something from a different angle, even how to paint with a stick.”
In May Pitre achieved his latest accomplishment, earning a Master of Fine Arts from Seattle University. He enrolled in the program after being prodded by his children. They kept urging him to do something for himself after years of making sacrifices for them.
Portrait of a neighborhood
As part of his thesis Pitre created a series of 28 paintings titled “We Are One.” The artwork depicts the Central Area from 1851 to today. The series highlights Wing Luke, a former Seattle councilman; Sister Gregory, Pitre’s aunt who became a nun at the age of 16; and the Gang of Four, a group of four men from different racial backgrounds who were a powerful political alliance.
He also highlights Hooverville in 1932. Located on the tide flats, it’s where the largest cluster of people experiencing homelessness lived. The four men depicted in the painting are shown among shacks.
“We Are One” showcases Pitre’s range as an artist. The richly colored narrative paintings show the various minority groups living in Seattle and highlights issues like gentrification.
“The idea behind it was really to show how important diversity really is in a community,” Pitre said. “The inclusiveness behind the work was really to show that we need each other again. We have to come back together as a body and to really start standing up for ourselves as a community as a whole.”
The Central Area is important to Pitre — it’s where he grew up. Like many Black people during The Great Migration, his parents relocated to Seattle from the South in search of a better life. While researching the Central Area for his thesis, Pitre said he was struck by the lack of depth written about the area from 1960 to 2000. “We Are One” is his visual contribution to preserving its history.
“The intent behind the research was really to shed light on the lack of visibility, the lack of support and the lack of understanding of a culture that continues to be dismissed as if it means nothing,” Pitre said. “The question is why are we continually accepted for entertainment but not accepted as a culture as a whole.”
The series was recently on display at A/NT Gallery at Seattle Center, but Pitre hopes it won’t be the final stop. He’d like to see it hanging in another public space or possibly take it into schools.
Portrait of racism
Discrimination is an unfortunate reality for people of color in America. Pitre has experienced his share, even in the military. The artist explained he was serving a tour in Iraq in 2005. He was the only Black officer in the unit but said he was told there was no room for him in the officer’s tent.
“I was actually traumatized by that,” Pitre said. “I thought for some reason that we’re in a combat zone that we should be in this together. And we should work together. I was treated worse by my own officer corps than anybody that I’ve ever been treated.”
This wasn’t the first incident of discrimination Pitre faced in life. While studying art at UW, Pitre said his work was often singled out by his White professors as what not to do.
“I would still get good grades but the humiliation that you dealt with in the classroom was just,” Pitre said, before pausing, “made me almost want to give up. Really it did because there were only two Blacks in the school of art at that time.”
Pitre persevered and ended up with a professor who would have a profound impact on his artistry: Jacob Lawrence. It was Lawrence’s last year at UW before retiring. By the time their paths crossed, Lawrence was already an artist celebrity. Lawrence inspired confidence in the emerging artist and helped him find his voice.
“He gave me that freedom to create and define myself because he knew that if I could find myself I would have something,” Pitre said. “I know he knew that because every artist knows that about a young artist.”
Pitre wholeheartedly believes in the importance of documenting life in the Central District, especially now that the landscape is rapidly changing. He plans to continue painting the area and hopes others will join him.
“My idea is to incite other people to tell their story. And that the story continues whether it’s through literature, whether it’s through drama, whether it’s through acting or whether it’s through visual art but to tell our story,” Pitre said. “The urban plight that we’ve gone through.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge Facebook
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