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Academics Fine Arts

Paintings come to life through the work of Leslie Barlow and accompanying videos at SJU Art Center

To Leslie Barlow, a portrait reflects a triangular viewpoint. There is the participant, the subject of the image. There is the painter, who brings it to life on canvas. And then there’s the viewer and whatever their emotions at the moment they view the artwork. Until someone looks at her paintings, Barlow said, they’re not finished.

It’s a concept that is bedrock to her experience as an artist growing up in Minneapolis and later obtaining her bachelor’s degree in fine art more than a decade ago at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She went on to be a gallery manager as she got her master’s of fine art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, then became an instructor, lecturer, curator and mentor before becoming a presidential postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota in 2022.

Through it all, she’s had a half-dozen residencies, become a frequent figure in Twin Cities media and had her works shown in collections at General Mills, Hennepin County Medical Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), the Minnesota Historical Society and at U.S. Bank Stadium. The site of her 10th solo exhibition will be the Alice R. Rogers and Target Galleries in the Saint John’s University Art Center beginning Tuesday (Jan. 23) and running through March 1. She will conduct an on-site panel discussion and workshop from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Feb. 21, when approximately 40 students will have the opportunity to listen to the panelists, ask questions and then break into smaller groups to talk about identity and how they see themselves.

The display, titled “Record of Home/Hearts,” combines six paintings and accompanying documentary videos from a 2021 show at MIA (“Within, Between, and Beyond”) with 19 new works completed in the last few months. In her work, Barlow often celebrates polyvocality, the power of many voices to shift and sustain narrative change while exploring presumptions about race in Minnesota.

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t an artist,” said Barlow, who turns 35 this year. “For my birthday when I was 3 years old, my parents got me an easel. They have pictures of me in my gingham dress painting away. But it was only a hobby or a pastime, something that was there when I needed space to process the world around me, until I was in college. I thought I would go into interior design, but my professors encouraged me to do studio art. So often, it’s like we need permission. Someone has to tell you that you can do it before you really believe you can pursue a career as an artist.”

Her medium of choice has long been oil painting, although that often includes mixed media – including acrylic underpaints, quilting and textiles.

“We love looking at images of ourselves as people and they raise natural questions,” Barlow said. “Who are the people in the portrait? And who are we as people viewing them? There’s a relationship, an exchange. Your interpretation of the work can be affected by the colors used, or you can draw conclusions based on the representations, symbols or relationships, but inevitably we’re going to bring our own experiences into that process.”

She explores themes of ancestral and familial bonds, identity creation and reformation, and the power of representation and reclamation of space through art. Her new series, which is intended to grow by another 10 pieces, has a working title of “Tracing (admiration, conversation and seeing).” Among the new works, she has created portraits of women of color in her life, emphasizing what she calls “admiration, conversation, seeing and setting free.” Each person in the series identifies as an artist and maker of their own path in a society that minimizes the value and autonomy of Black and Brown people and the feminine. The portraits share stories across time and space, provoking connections and questions between them.

Together, her goal is for the works in this two-part exhibition to become monuments to community members, and spaces to hold complexity, care, and power.

“These are regular folks,” Barlow said of the subjects in her paintings – often acquaintances from the Twin Cities area. “Just like I imagine it’s regular folks who are going to be viewing the paintings. You may not know who is actually in the images, but my hope is that they’ll perhaps feel familiar, remind you of an uncle or grandma in your own life. With my work, there’s often a conversation component with the art between me and the people I’m painting. In “Within, Between, and Beyond,” you can see those conversations come to life on video.”

Barlow, who has taught at Carleton College, Metro State University and is a current faculty member at the University of Minnesota, was awarded the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship in 2019 and the Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship in 2021. In 2022 she was selected to be the Minnesota State Fair Commemorative Artist.

Her studio is located in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, where she has been director of PF Studios since 2019. There she mentors BIPOC artists in a practice-based platform to develop their craft, skills and careers in relationship with other artists. In 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd, Barlow helped start the collective Creatives After Curfew, creating public art with community in solidarity with the uprising, calls for police abolition, and #AllBlackLivesMatter.

Leslie Barlow's portrait of man, woman and child

This is one of Leslie Barlow’s featured works from “Within, Between, and Beyond.” It will be on display through March 1 at the SJU Art Center.

A portrait by Leslie Barlow

This is one of Leslie Barlow’s works from “Within, Between, and Beyond” that will be on display through March 1 at the SJU Art Center.

Leslie Barlow

Leslie Barlow is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota.