Dionne Bonner: A Front Row Seat to History

By Lisa Kinoshita

For artist Dionne Bonner, the history of African-American pioneers in the Pacific Northwest is a vault of living treasure, one that yields stories about some of the region’s most brilliant, courageous, groundbreaking – yet largely unrecognized – individuals who fought incredible odds to leave their mark here. With support from Spaceworks and the Tacoma Historical Society, Bonner has created an exhibition of paintings honoring the legacy of 13 Black historical figures: A Pioneering Spirit: A Fight for Liberty and Freedom Exhibit, on view at the Tacoma Historical Society through June 30. The show, which illuminates the essential role Blacks have played in Northwest history, was exhibited previously at the 950 Gallery in downtown Tacoma, in 2020.

Photo Credit: Lisa Kinoshita

Bonner is a public artist, a graphic designer and a community activist whose mission during this momentous time in history, she says, is to “create space for open dialogue and reflection by creating a community voice through the creative process.” As a visual historian, she has unearthed the stories of Black cultural figures who rose to prominence during their own turbulent eras, to change forever the texture of the Northwest’s political and social fabric. The oil portraits in A Pioneering Spirit include Nettie Asberry, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner who, in 1883, earned her Doctorate of Music from the Kansas Conservatory, and later moved to Tacoma where she was a founding member of the local chapter of NAACP; George Washington, the founder, in 1872, of Centralia; Senator J.H. Ryan, elected to state office in 1933; and Horace Clayton, a third-generation slave from Mississippi who, in 1896, became a Seattle newspaper publisher. The stories continue. 

“Nettie J. Asberry, 1865 – 1968, Tacoma, Washington” Oil Painting by Dionne Bonner

That kind of history was not taught in high school, says Bonner, nor at the Art Institute of Seattle where she earned her Associates Degree. 

“I had not known that some of the pioneers from Washington State were African-American. It was very empowering to learn about people like George Washington in Centralia,” says Bonner. “Art can be healing, and it can restore a person, and it can help you think about your life in different ways.”

Complementing the paintings in A Pioneering Spirit is a collection of 8’ informational panels created by the Tacoma Historical Society. Titled Dreams That Matter: Tacoma’s Social Justice and Civil Rights Champions, the exhibit celebrates a diversity of local heroes whose work for social justice made pivotal and lasting changes in the city and beyond.

With multiple commissions and projects recently completed, Bonner, 49, is having a moment. After being stalled by the coronavirus, In Loving Memory, a mural commissioned by Metro Parks and dedicated to Tacoma youth lost to street violence, now gracefully dominates a wall inside the Eastside Community Center. The innovative art installation incorporates one of the center’s most popular architectural features, a gleaming indoor slide that transports visitors from the main-floor entrance to a spot on the lower level directly in front of Bonner’s art. The boldly graphic, 23’L x 15’ H painting is a stunningly joyous work in which children are silhouetted against a sunflower yellow background; it is only when one sees the inscription painted at the top – “In Loving Memory of Our Youth” – that one realizes that this colorful tribute is to young lives cut short.

In Loving Memory” mural by Dionne Bonner in the Eastside Community Center
In Loving Memory” mural by Dionne Bonner in the Eastside Community Center. Photo Credit: Lisa Kinoshita
In Loving Memory” mural by Dionne Bonner in the Eastside Community Center. Photo Credit: Lisa Kinoshita

The passion behind Bonner’s history-inspired art runs deep: her family migrated from Mississippi and has lived in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood for five generations. The ancestral timeline traverses the city’s notorious decades of “redlining”, when Blacks were segregated through legally sanctioned, discriminatory real estate and lending practices that prevented them from owning homes in white neighborhoods. Bonner’s extended family, which includes visual artists, musicians and singers, persevered through those punishing and unjust times to set down stakes and buy property in Tacoma.

Which makes her most recent project, a mural in the long-vacant Rite Aid building at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and S. 11th St., particularly meaningful. Located in the heart of the Hilltop commercial district, the building sat empty for seven years until it was purchased in 2019 by the non-profit Forterra, in partnership with the Russell Family Foundation and Greater Tacoma Community Foundation. Forterra (formerly Cascade Land Conservancy) is Washington’s largest land stewardship and community-building organization dedicated solely to the region; its vision for the 1.7-acre plot (equal to one city block) is to create 300 affordable housing units to rent or own, combined with mixed-use commercial space. It has pledged to fight displacement by making quality housing attainable for neighborhood residents. The Hilltop is blessed with a rich cultural legacy, period architecture and panoramic views of Mt. Rainier, but it is also part of a soaring real estate market. Residents are closely following the gentrification of the future community cornerstone.

A mural by Dionne Bonner as part of the “Design the Hill” project, located at the former Rite Aid building at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and S 11th Street.
A detail shot of a mural by Dionne Bonner as part of the “Design the Hill” project, located at the former Rite Aid building at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and S 11th Street.

The Rite Aid building will be razed in late 2022; in the meantime, Forterra has engaged arts non-profit Fab-5 to reactivate the building with a project called “Design the Hill”. Fab-5, led by artist and community activist, Christopher Jordan, has commissioned seven local artists – Adika Bell, Breyahna Coston, Jeremy Gregory, Tiffany Hammonds, Gwen Jones, Darrell McKinney, and Bonner – to reenergize the structure with artwork, and to encourage community engagement in the development. Bonner’s mural, featuring five figures holding up a fiery, abstracted map of Hilltop, will adorn the building’s facade. It will be re-sited at a permanent location after the project is built.

“Black folks have been discriminated against in housing in all different ways,” observes Bonner. “What black folks do is deal with it. We thrive and create.” She describes with pride a local environment of “lively and creative people who took the fact that they were corralled in that neighborhood even as they were divested”, and are now poised to reclaim a piece of their material, cultural and economic heritage.

She captured this vibrant historical milieux in Hilltop Stories: Visual and Audio Reflections, an oral history she co-produced in 2020 with sound artist Whitney Brady (audio support from Jordan Pugsley). Hilltop Stories celebrates life on the Hilltop from the 1930s to 2000 through audio interviews Brady conducted with local citizens, while Bonner created paintings for the exhibition, which was presented at the Handforth Gallery at Tacoma Public Library last year. The project will eventually be available online.

Circling back to the larger-than-life subjects in the Pioneering Spirit exhibition, it seems astonishing that these towering Black historical figures – politicians, newspaper publishers, military officers, civic heroes – aren’t better known and celebrated in the Northwest, their names preserved on streets, parks and monuments.

“We do always know the stories nationwide; we don’t always know what’s in our own backyard,” Bonner offers wisely. “These pioneers from the Pacific Northwest really affected the exact location where my family ended up living – migrating from the South and living on the Hilltop. Five generations who were able to to end up buying the land they lived on. Ironically, redlining actually enabled this.” It is a startling insight by a remarkable woman, and a tribute to human endurance. “I would like to help [others] take some of their past back” through art. “I’m using my voice to give voice to the community.” And in that way, Bonner, too, is a Black pioneer carving a place in Northwest history.

“A Pioneering Spirit: A Fight for Liberty and Freedom” is on view at the Tacoma Historical Society through June 30. 406 Tacoma Ave. South. Open Wed-Sat 11-3. 

Dionne Bonner graduated from the Fall 2019 Business Planning Cohort, which is part of the Spaceworks Incubator program.

See more of Dionne Bonner’s work at www.dionnebonner.com

Social media @dionnebonner

Lisa Kinoshita is a Tacoma-based freelance writer