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Leslie Barlow's mixed-race identity inspires her to paint underrepresented people

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There are plenty of portrait painters in Minnesota, but few have captured such a wide range of diverse faces in the tender and beautiful way Leslie Barlow does. The recent MCAD MFA grad focuses on the underrepresented faces of the Twin Cities, a mission driven by the lack of visibility of stories like hers: people of mixed-race backgrounds.

Barlow first became fascinated by the question of how we define who we are in the fifth grade, when she was asked to label her race on a standardized test. This was before the “other” box existed or multiple choices were allowed. She checked “African-American” (her father is primarily black), but when she went home and relayed the day’s events, her mother (who is primarily white) asked why she hadn’t checked the “white” box.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in two different communities or I feel like I’m not part of any community because of my background,” says Barlow.

This isn’t only about skin color, however; in her work the artist examines multiple aspects of identity, including spirituality, sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, community, and educational background. “Our identities are so complex. You don’t have one privilege or one disadvantage,” she says. “I’m really interested in where different parts of identity overlap or intersect.”

She’s also interested in the untold stories of her hometown. There are two sides to Minneapolis, she says: one that is highly ranked in lists for being among the best places to be fit, start a career, raise a family, and to live a long life. Then there’s the other side: the side that suffers from income and racial disparities.

“If you just open your eyes and speak to people in the community, it’s pretty obvious how segregated it is,” Barlow says. “We’re being told this one story of Minneapolis, but that story doesn’t extend to people of color living in this city, which is problematic in itself but also because we’re being told a lie.”

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Barlow’s paintings aren’t blatantly aimed at social justice; they’re much more subtle than that. Subjects are presented in somber, contemplative, introspective moments. We don’t know what’s going on inside their heads, but the images feel honest, evoking reverence and compassion in the viewer. Skin tones are never monochromatic; they’re multilayered, complex. Many of Barlow’s paintings are large-scale, allowing the viewer to gaze eye-to-eye with her subjects.   

During the early years of her artistry, the painter shied away from self-portraits. “A lot of these things, whether it’s race or identity, it gets so murky and it’s complex, and I feel vulnerable when I’m talking about it, so I didn’t necessarily want my face in the painting. It’s already so personal,” she says.

She’s since overcome that hurdle, including her own visage among those of her friends and family that populate her paintings. As part of her recently awarded MN State Arts Board grant, Barlow will create a series of large-scale portraits of interracial families. The project was inspired by the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court Case, which invalidated laws against interracial marriage.

“I think this is a thing that people either don’t know or is hard to wrap your mind around. My parents lived in a time when they couldn’t get married to each other. That is freaky,” she says. Painting unique family configurations is her way of “celebrating these relationships and normalizing them.”

Barlow was also recently commissioned to create artwork in the new Vikings stadium. She was among the 34 artists chosen from over 1,100 applicants. The project involved depicting six iconic Vikings players and allowed her the freedom to play with lighting, color palette, and style. Some portraits are intimate; others are action-oriented. She’s excited for those pieces to reach a whole new audience that might not otherwise frequent the gallery scene.

But for now, Barlow is gearing up for “A Third Space,” her exhibition opening this Thursday at Flow Art Space. Much of what will be shown is thesis work created during her last semester at MCAD; there will also be two new pieces she completed this summer.

“I pose more questions than answers,” she says of the collection. “‘A Third Space’ is basically combating the norms of binary thinking, thinking we are pretty much taught since birth to think is normal and right.”

As for those racial identification boxes that brought to light racial identity in the first place? Now Barlow says she checks “other,” though the word reminds her of the sci-fi show Lost. And sometimes, she says, “I check all of the boxes just for fun.”

IF YOU GO:

"A Third Space: New Works by Leslie Barlow"

Flow Art Space

July 21 through August 13

There will be an opening reception Thursday, July 21, from 7 to 9 p.m., and an artist's talk Tuesday, August 9