The Vanport Mosaic will never be complete. That is the nature of a project that aims to tell a silenced history 68 years after it happened. But that's not reason to stop searching. At least, that is what I tell myself to justify the hours spent getting lost in archives and obscure websites, following leads that more often than not end up nowhere.
On November 11th, 2015, when I came across this photo online, I surely hoped my year-long quest for one of the many missing pieces of the Vanport narrative would be close to an end.
"My Grandma Lillian relocated with my Grandpa from Chiloquin to Vanport," the caption said. Could this discovery lead me to someone finally able to shed light on the experience of Native Americans in the largest WWII public housing project in the U.S.? Was I one email away from connecting with a family who could share the story of one of 40,000 Native American men and women who during the war left their reservations to find jobs in defense industries across the nation?
Little did I know that this unexpected discovery will lead me to so much more than that. It brought color to a story told in black-and-white old photos. It gave me the gift of special encounters, and a deeper appreciation of art as a survival mechanism. That old photo lead me to fall in love with the beautiful paintings by Peggy Jo Ball Morrill, one of the children posing next to their mother in the wheelchair.
The one on the left is "Lillian and the Kids" and portrays Peggy's mother with her 6 children in North Portland. In the painting on the right Peggy leans on her dog, while her sisters Debbie and Evelyn stare at us. It's titled "Vanport," and behind the girls are the apartment where they lived until the flood wiped out the whole city and everything they owned, on Memorial Day 1948. Behind this painting there are many precious stories. Evelyn Bolme, the sibling in the middle, was 6 at the time and shared them with us and we will share them with you, during the upcoming Vanport Mosaic oral history screenings "Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through The Voices of Its Residents."
Some of these memories are hard to listen to, like the experience of her parents and their siblings, who were sent to boarding schools to learn the ways of white culture, their language and culture erased from their memory. Some others remind us how strong the human spirit is, like her Native roots preserved through the paintings of her father, and then through her sister Peggy's art. And some are heartbreaking, like the emptiness Peggy left when she passed away in August 2015, just 3 months before I discovered her art, thanks to that black-and-white photo I found online.
Or maybe the photo found me, so that we could capture Evelyn's memories of her life with her family in Vanport, and discover Peggy's art. All I know is that I am filled with gratitude, for yet another piece of the mosaic we were able to add.
Laura Lo Forti, Story Midwife
Join us to honor this oral history, and buy Peggy Jo Ball Morrill's prints during the Vanport Mosaic Festival!
Join us at the screenings of Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through The Voices of Its Residents, on May 28th, 29th, and 30th, to honor this story, and many more. And if you will be touched as I am by the memories kept alive through art and determination, bring them in your life by buying a print of Peggy Jo Ball Morrill's painting of Vanport, as well as other beautiful pieces she created, through her website, or directly from her husband Dwight Ball Morrill during the Vanport Mosaic Festival, May 27-30th. Prints will be available at several events and venues, as well as the Emerson Street Art Gallery, 1006 NE Emerson St. You can visit the gallery Sunday 29th and Monday 30th, 3-6pm, and every weekend in June.