New Mural in Pontiac Celebrates First Black Woman to Own Property in the City
(Elizabeth Schanz, Aug. 21, 2022)
Pontiac, MI – The first Black woman in Michigan to own property is now immortalized in a 65 foot mural overlooking the city of Pontiac where she made this historic purchase of 48.5 acres of land.
On the side of the Riker Building’s parking structure in downtown Pontiac displays the image of Elizabeth ‘Lisette’ Denison Forth and draws attention to the even greater impact that the subject had in her lifetime.
The artist of this mural, Zach Curtis, wanted to illustrate Pontiac’s colorful history to the community and memorialize Denison Forth’s significance to Michigan.
Within his work, Curtis hopes to create portraits that are relevant to a particular area in which they are displayed. Typically subjects are active community members, however, Curtis was drawn to the idea of painting real historical individuals. While exploring important people to the Pontiac community he wanted to draw upon a less commonly commemorated, yet largely significant figure.
“I know most people probably would have said Chief Pontiac and that’s exactly why I painted Lissette, I wanted to do something that may have been unexpected,” said Curtis, “I think a lot of people don’t know who she is, and that’s why I love the piece so much. I feel it could be a cool learning experience for some, or a ‘yes finally’ moment for others.”
Denison Forth was born as an enslaved person in Macomb County and was able to flee the United States for Canada. There, she was able to gain her freedom by establishing residency for some time where the law ensured that individuals would not be sent back into enslavement.
Eventually, Denison Forth returned to the Detroit area where she was able to forge a path for herself with a plethora of skills such as housekeeping, math, and money management. She decided to buy property thus breaking ground and forging a path for women of color in the community. The property Denison once owned is now a part of Pontaic’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
The mural is one of various memorials that have started for the preservation of Denison Forth’s legacy. There is a state marker outside what was once her property and in 2022 Oakland County Commissioners set aside money for memorial signs to honor her name.
The mural helps to create a visual to a name that many individuals may have seen and Curtis wanted to use his craft to create this connection. He took his idea to the owner of the Riker Building’s parking structure, Tim Sheppard who approved the plan and the process began.
Curtis began the project with no plans or concepts, however, he knew that this mural was a challenge that he was willing to take on. He created the mural based on an old black and white photo of Forth and worked to add in color to bring history to life.
The project for the mural took about two months to complete including the prep for the Kickstarter, the design, and the painting. However, the process proved to be significant in engaging the community in addition to the finished product itself.
The mural began to draw the community before it was even fully completed. Curtis noted the multitudes of individuals who came up to him while he worked with “coolers full of waters, Gatorades, and snacks” and the laughs that they shared with him during the process.
“This murals’ impact on myself is beyond words, it was a humbling experience to witness the community rally behind me the way they did,” Curtis expressed, “It was definitely physically and mentally taxing and I am very grateful for all the help.”
In addition to the community’s support, the project also received financial support from Main Street Pontiac and Main Street Rocks, who Curtis emphasized helped to make the massive project possible. A ribbon-cutting was held Aug. 18 with elected officials joining Main Street Pontiac and Curtis to celebrate the artwork and the history behind it.
With the completion of the mural Curtis hopes to add to the project by creating a plaque with information about Denison Forth to commemorate her history and give the community more information connected to the art. Until then, he hopes that the mural will hold a special meaning for the city of Pontiac.
Curtis said, “All I hope is that at the end of the day, I’ve made something the community can be proud of.”
(Images courtesy of Main Street Pontiac)