Identity portraits: Leslie Barlow: Multicultural and racial issues

Leslie Barlow (Photo by Rik Sferra)

Leslie Barlow paints life-sized people that you can stand face to face with and look right in the eye. 

“Seeing women of color in a cornfield should be normal, not something strange. But that’s not who we typically see represented,” Barlow says. Historically, people of color are missing in portrait paintings or art displayed in galleries – and Barlow is out to change that representation. 

As a portrait painter, she’s creating more works of art that include people who look like her. “People of color weren’t typically the central subject of paintings. I’m definitely aware of that. I like to turn that notion on its head in my own work.” 

For her portrait “Authentic, Illusory, Mosaic, Nowhere,” featured on this month’s cover, Barlow says she was thinking about how the environment where one is brought up contributes to your personal identity. She put two of her friends, who were both raised in Minnesota, in a typical Minnesota landscape – a cornfield. 

“I like paintings that make us ask questions, not just about the painting, but about ourselves,” she says. 

“Why are these two women out in a cornfield?” is a question that Barlow’s painting begs the viewer to ask. They are not dressed like farmers so why are they in this landscape? “What are our preconceived notions about who belongs in different environments?” she asks. 

Barlow describes the scene as being like a family portrait, with the corn at the center being like a member of the family, having its own identity and personality. “I wanted to play with that idea of them really belonging to the corn and the corn belonging to them.” 

The portrait is part of a four-painting series that is furthering the question of visual identities of races and people.

Designing her own path 

Although Barlow had gone to summer camp at the Minneapolis Institute of Art when she was a kid, and taken a painting class during her last semester of high school, she hadn’t thought of art as a sustainable career path. She enrolled in 2007 at the University of Wisconsin, Stout, planning to major in design. But as she took foundational art classes she realized that fine art kept tugging at her. “I just kind of gave into it at that point. I’d try to make it work,” she says. 

And she has. She graduated from Stout in 2011 with a BFA in studio art and a minor in business administration. She moved back to the Twin Cities, got a studio space, started working in a few galleries and as a studio manager in the art department at Anoka Ramsey Community College. In 2014, she began a two-year Master of Fine Arts program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which she completed in May. 

She recently was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant that will culminate in an exhibition in 2017. She was one of 34 artists commissioned by the Minnesota Vikings. She will create portraits of six former football players for the new U.S. Bank stadium. 

Standing up on issues 

Her path as a portrait artist seems clear, guided by her talent with oil paints and brushes. Her determination to make change in the art world shows in her passion for social justice. 

“I’m always thinking about these larger issues and have the additional layer of the personal in all of my work,” Barlow says. Her portraits reflect issues related to multiculturalism, otherness and ethnicity. “Mostly I’m questioning pre-established hierarchies. I’m trying to break down stereotypes that are embedded within our society and culture.” 

Through her artwork Barlow encourages people to look at issues in new ways. “To allow people to think more deeply, instead of thinking that’s just the way it is,” she says. 

“I’m very passionate about social justice. I think when you’re in an environment where your mind, your eyes and your ears are always open to what’s going on, it’s hard to not want to make [your] work about it. And, because my work is personal,” Barlow says, “I reflect on things in my own life and use it as inspiration.” 

Minnesota Original story about Barlow: