One evening late last year, a group of art lovers boarded a bus for a mural crawl. It wasn't long before they pulled to a stop at a vacant building at 1825 Washington Ave., just west of Houston Avenue, where Jasmine Zelaya was hard at work painting her first-ever hand-done mural.
“Now, who is this?” a passenger asked Zelaya after disembarking, pointing at her painting. “This is Naomi Polk,” replied the Houston artist, brush in hand. “She was a longtime Sixth Ward resident, a visual artist, and a writer.”
Though the mural wasn’t finished, it was already apparent just how strikingly beautiful it would be. Commissioned by Arts District Houston, funded by the city, and completed in December, Tribute to Naomi Polk consists of four colorful portraits that follow their subject from infancy through elder years, set amidst vibrant floral patterns that symbolize, per the artist, the beauty of the matriarchy. In each portrayal Polk’s eyes, somehow both forlorn and hopeful, stare out at the viewer from a wall of color.
Zelaya discovered Polk after reading a profile of her in an oral history project on the historic Sixth Ward compiled by Fresh Arts Houston.
“It brought to light a story that is overlooked, of a woman that lived her life here as the daughter of an immigrant, as a woman of color, as a visual artist,” she told Houstonia over the phone. “That she had a story and recorded her history through artwork and her writings.”
The story spoke to Zelaya, especially as a Houstonian artist of color herself, the daughter of Honduran immigrants. She decided to do more research and, at the Houston Public Library, found Polk’s short stories, poetry, and autobiographical journaling, “which is what really drew me in,” Zelaya says. “She wrote on notebook paper, three-hole-punched paper, and filled it top to bottom with ballpoint pen writings. The paper had sort of turned yellow, and just visually it was almost like looking at art to me. The colors, the aged wear on the paper, her handwriting.”
The life, and the oeuvre, of Naomi Polk truly are remarkable. Her grandmother, Seah—brought by force to America from Africa—and her mother, known as Aunt Jo, were freed slaves. Aunt Jo raised her 10 children in a house deeded to her family after emancipation. This homestead, located in the Fourth Ward, was where Polk would grow up—born in 1892, she attended the Gregory School and was a member of the Antioch Baptist Church—and raise her three children, doing so on her own after tragedy struck her family.
In 1935 Polk’s second husband, 40-year-old Robert Polk, whom she’d married after her first spouse passed away, was shot by a Dallas police officer after someone reported that “negro men were associating with white women in the neighborhood,” according to a Dallas Morning News article from the time. When two officers showed up, Polk supposedly resisted arrest—but why? For what? And how? His family would never find out. Polk died from a gangrene infection in the hospital two days later, right as the officer who shot him was being exonerated by a grand jury and going back to work.
His wife dealt with the loss through art. She’d write in the early morning about her faith and family—her father, she wrote, had a “large percentage of Indian blood,” and the family lived under a large oak tree during a smallpox outbreak when she was a baby—as well as the unrelenting racism she faced on a daily basis, Houston during wartime, the city’s first riot, and the opening of the Jesse Jones building at Texas and Main. Ever present is her bond with Seah and Aunt Jo; she often refers to herself as Aunt Jo’s child. Her mother passed away in 1942.
“One part that really got me was her grandmother teaching her mother how she made windows in their hut in Africa—what branches to choose, how to dry them, and how to weave them into the structure,” Zelaya said. Seah had learned this from her own mother, Elnora.
The teachings that the women in the family passed down through generations influenced Polk’s artwork, too. She used a range of household items—cardboard, crayons, scraps of fabric, wood blocks, waxed paper, watercolors, and more—with her subjects ranging from Christ-like stick dolls to vases of heart-shaped flowers. She decorated her home with discarded tin cans that she painted with flowers and butterflies and filled with greenery. These motifs inform Zelaya’s mural, with its bright floral patterns jumping off their corrugated aluminum window siding.
Polk moved to Acres Homes in the 1950s. A decade later tragedy struck again: Her home burned to the ground, taking with it all her poetry and artwork. She spent the rest of her life re-creating it, relying on a meager government check and selling homemade insecticide, bulk cosmetics made for African American women, and her hand-painted, fresh-flower-filled tin cans to make ends meet.
Although Polk gained little acclaim or money for her artwork in her lifetime, after her death—in 1984—her daughter Rosalie, an HISD teacher and poet, had her work evaluated by a research curator at The Menil Collection. Soon afterward Polk’s artwork was featured in almost two dozen shows, closer to home and as far away as Los Angeles. She also was named among “50 Women Who Made Their Mark on Texas” by the Houston Chronicle. Much of Polk’s artwork has been sold, but the Houston Public Library’s African American Collection at the Gregory School now houses two collections from her body of work—including her writing, portraits, even a book of poetry her daughter wrote and published in her honor.
In 2004 the Menil’s research curator told the Chronicle that “finding Naomi Polk’s work was like coming upon a flower.” Passing Zelaya’s mural on Washington Avenue, drivers may get a similar feeling.