Nestled in the Central District is Pratt Fine Arts Center, a non-profit arts education and resource center, just on the edge of Pratt Park. Both share the same namesake—Edwin T. Pratt, a man who was the Executive Director of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle during the civil rights movement. A champion for the black community here in the Northwest, Pratt was murdered in front of his home in Shoreline in 1969. The killers were never found.
The Pratt Fine Arts Center was founded in 1976 to provide visual arts education to people of all backgrounds and skill levels. In observance of the 50th anniversary of Pratt's assassination, the Pratt is planning many tributes to the civil rights icon, the first of which is an exhibition in the gallery in their main building of local artist Jite Agbro's work called Blue Shades of Blue. Agbro is a Seattle native. She grew up in the Central District and actually started coming for classes at Pratt when she was nine after randomly wandering in one day. She told me that the CD was much blacker then and that most people who were taking classes there were white, which made her hesitant about entering the space as a young girl.
"There was a black woman working the front desk and she was really friendly," Agbro recalls. "She told me that [Pratt] was named after a civil rights activist. It made me feel more entitled to be there." It also helped that Pratt's image greets visitors upon their entry into the space, serving as a beacon to let people know that everyone was welcome to take classes and be a part of the space. "In many ways, it was fundamental for my interest in art, and having the tools to make art."
Agbro's work, more generally, deals with clothing, printmaking, and large scale multimedia works. For this space, Agbro worked with kozo, a type of strong fibrous Japanese paper. When sewn together, kozo behaves much more like fabric. She stitched together long and wide strips of this paper, dyed various shades of blue and decorated with floral patterns, and hung them from rods higher up on the wall. The strips of paper are graced with shadows of a man and a woman.
"That’s a silhouette of Edwin Pratt that I cut out of a magazine and blew up," Agbro told me. "I also wanted to inject the narrative of his wife and his daughter and show how those struggles are important and significant as well."
And now, for all that blue. It's in reference to Miles Davis's album Kind of Blue. Specifically the song, "All Blues" which her sister used to sing along to all the time. "I have a special relationship with that song and I thought that idea of it being all blue would reference how when you’re fighting for civil rights there’s not really a triumph—there's just perseverance. And that’s really all you can do."
My eyes kind of welled up when she told me this. I'm a total sucker for emotional connections to Miles Davis. My grandmother, a jazz singer, once told me that when I don't know how to feel to put on Kind of Blue. She said it won't solve my problems but that I'll have a better sense of things after I get done listening to it. And it's true. There's something about those 45 minutes that encapsulates melancholy, struggle, persistence, blackness, in such a way that I think makes it forever relevant. We are constantly inspired by and standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. I quickly blinked back my tears, so I don't think anyone saw.
Most of the information available online about the civil rights leader's life and legacy is in connection to his assassination. The Black Heritage Society of Washington State recently acquired the family's archives and is set on releasing an online history of Pratt sometime in the next year or two.
"I just wanted to pay homage to the fact that he struggled, that he was threatened throughout his life and he died for it," Agbro said. "Like many who died for it between '65 and '69. We are here because of them but we don’t get to know about them."
You can check out more of Agbro's work this Thursday at 4Culture Gallery where she will be opening her show /Scap-got/. The Pratt Fine Arts Center is open to the public from 9 am - 9 pm where you can check out the exhibition or look into taking a class. They'll be debuting the work of the Edwin T. Pratt scholarship recipients at the Northwest African American Museum in May.