Portraits of the Past: Artist Lawrence Pitre Continues to Preserve the Legacy of the Central District

(This article originally appeared in Real Change and has been republished with permission.)

by Lisa Edge

Lawrence Pitre is booked and busy. On any given day, you can find him painting in his studio while the sound of jazz surrounds him, fielding offers from galleries and collectors interested in his work, or renovating the Central Area Chamber of Commerce building. Many days he’s doing all three and then some.

When this reporter talked to Pitre a little more than a year ago, he’d just graduated from Seattle University with a Master of Fine Arts and the first showing of “We Are One,” a vibrant series of paintings documenting the Central Area from 1851 to today, was in its last days of hanging on the walls of A/NT gallery. After serving in the military and a career in government, Pitre was back to creating art and loving it. His work has been embraced on a larger scale than he expected.

“I think every artist, or any artist — whether you’re dance, music or whatever — you just hope that your artwork or whatever it is you’re doing as an artist takes off,” said Pitre. “I don’t really know how to explain it.”

“Earl’s Barber Shop” by Lawrence Pitre.

He still marvels at the level of interest shown in his work, specifically for “We Are One.” Since the initial showing, the series has been on display in the mayor’s gallery at City Hall. Now, it can be viewed at 4Culture through the end of the month, then it’s off to Shunpike in Bellevue. Pitre said audiences have felt a connection to the series and say it’s a long-overdue documentation of the Central Area. He’s received offers to buy individual paintings, but Pitre isn’t quite ready to break up the series. To him, it’s more powerful when viewed as a whole, much like “The Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence, an artist who encouraged Pitre to follow his voice and honor his talent.

The Central Area is known as the Black neighborhood of Seattle. Redlining and restrictive covenants shaped the demographic, but it was never 100 percent Black. People of other ethnicities also lived there, and Pitre’s series reflects that. In addition to covering gentrification, Japanese internment and the legacy of long-time activist Bob Santos, Pitre has now added new pieces, “Earl’s Barber Shop” and “DeCharlene Williams,” that capture more history. Williams opened her first beauty shop nearly 50 years ago and in the following years she became well known as a business leader, activist and pillar of the community. She passed away in May.

The third new piece Pitre is adding to the series is about William Grose. According to Blackpast.org, Grose was the second Black settler in Seattle; when he arrived in 1860, Seattle was a small village of about 300 people. Grose ran a successful restaurant and hotel in Madison Valley. When he died, he was one of the wealthiest men in the city.

Because of his work on “We Are One,” Pitre is partially a historian in addition to being an artist. After the first showing, he met a Jewish man who lives in the Northgate area. Pitre later went over to his home and he shared photos of his grandmothers dating back to 1889 and 1909. At the time, they lived in the Central Area. The man’s collection was a treasure trove of information and Pitre wanted to see it all.

“To me it didn’t matter who they are,” said Pitre. “I’d like to be able to find as much historical information on people — and I think that’s who I am. I love history.”

“DeCharlene Williams,” by Lawrence Pitre.

Talking to relatives of people who lived in the Central Area is part of his research process for the series. He’s eager to get back to doing more of those interviews before information is lost for good. Pitre wants to eventually expand the series to between 75 and 100 paintings. It’s a feat some consider ambitious, but Pitre is confident he’ll be able to complete them. He’s also begun work on an accompanying book for the series.

It’s all part of preserving the legacy of an area of which he has many fond memories. On opening night of his show at 4Culture, Pitre led a group of about 60 people through the gallery telling the story behind each person and landmark featured. That same night, one visitor left the following note in the guestbook: “Gorgeous, so beautiful. Also an incredible timeline of Seattle.” A few days later another wrote that it was “Nice to see so many layers of meaning and of technique. And such a generous and inclusive spirit.” Viewing the series goes beyond skillful renderings of the past, it’s an opportunity to educate visitors where books fall short.

Pitre has two favorites from the series: “20th and Yesler,” because he spent so much time there playing basketball and hanging out; and “Edgar & Ella Pitre,” which features his parents. Much of who Pitre is comes back to them. The story of how they came into his life doesn’t begin at birth. Instead, it starts when he was about 5 years old. Pitre was in foster care and was staying in a home where he was not being treated well. A woman who lived across the street alerted authorities. A short time later, Pitre’s caseworker took him to meet with three families in the hope of finding a permanent home. The final family he met with were the Pitres. He made the decision quickly.

“I’m there for about five minutes,” he said. “Crawl up on Dad’s lap, said, ‘Will you be my Dad?’ Everybody just cracks up. The case manager says Larry are you sure? Yep. This is it. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Pitre found a new home and later found out the woman who helped him get away from his last foster home was his paternal grandmother. He vividly recounts meeting her again.

“I literally clung to her neck,” said Pitre. “For about three hours I sat with her. I’m not going anywhere.”

Today Pitre is finishing up two paintings that will go into the new Liberty Bank Building. He’s also begun work on a new series that will highlight influential women of the Northwest. It begins with his wife and he’s experimenting with painting on a nontraditional surface.

Pitre’s dedication to documenting important, if not lesser known, people and places of Seattle is an asset to all of us. His genuine love for the area shines through with each brushstroke.

Featured Image: A section of Lawrence Pitre’s “DeCharlene Williams.”

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