The artist Leslie Barlow, a graduate of Southwest High School, spent a year traveling the world, interviewing family members and processing complex intersections of trauma and love for her latest exhibition, “A Familiar Portrait of Labor and Love.”
The result is her most intimate body of work yet, a visual journal of her and her family’s experiences with race and resiliency over space and time. Weaving mixed media of oil and acrylic paints, wood and quilted fabric, Barlow has created a complex tapestry of her life and the stories within it.
In the opening of her artist statement for the new exhibition, she offers a glimpse into her process and intention in sharing these deeply personal stories by quoting from bell hooks’ “All About Love: New Visions”:
I feel our nation’s turning away from love as intensely as I felt love’s abandonment in my girlhood. Turning away we risk moving into a wilderness of spirit so intense we may never find our way home again.
Barlow said her show’s recurring themes include “the matriarch, the importance of passing down stories, the politics of representation, racial identity development, ‘otherness’ and, at its core, a granddaughter’s relationship to her grandmothers.”
Barlow’s work has always been intentional, personal and inspired by creating dialogue in a time of disconnection.
In 2017, 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage, her exhibit “Loving” explored the ordinary moments of interracial couples in the Twin Cities.
“The Loving case was always a part of my understanding of the history of racism in this country and the aversion towards interracial couples and multiracial individuals,” Barlow said. “There were these beautiful photographs in the ’60s, taken for Life magazine, of Richard and Mildred Loving and their children that are powerful in their simplicity, love and normality. During this time, during the civil rights movement, visual images were an important tool to bring awareness and effect change in the hearts and minds of people who had never seen images like this before.”
Barlow’s parents’ interracial marriage and their experiences with racism led them to raise her and her siblings in a loving and diverse community. Growing up in Powderhorn Park and attending Park Avenue United Methodist Church, she was in a “mixed-kid bubble.”
“It wasn’t until I got a little older that this facade began to crumble,” she said. “By middle school and high school, moving into whiter and whiter spaces, it was clear to me that code-switching was key to survival.”
She found her place as friends and mentors encouraged her to express herself through art.
“I found the confidence and language to talk about the complexities of race and identity and connect with others through my story,” she said.
In her art, Barlow aims to connect the past, present and future. Her pieces challenge us to think critically about the stories we tell each other outside of the conditioned language of racial binaries, while reflecting on our ancestors and our personal history. A distinctive aspect of Barlow’s portraits is the way she captures a subject’s eyes, allowing the viewer to look deep into their personality.
“The centering of my grandmothers in this series comes from the desire to connect intergenerational intersections of race and gender and speak to the complexities of a family’s multiracial relationships,” Barlow said.
While creating the work she grounded herself by reading hooks’ “All About Love” and Resmaa Menakem’s “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.”
The books helped her incorporate the conversations she had had with her family members into her artwork. Menakem’s book guided Barlow’s understanding of historical, racialized trauma passed down in black bodies, and she said it helped her process the difficult conversations she had while working on the series.
In one piece Barlow portrays her grandmothers divided, yet brought together, by a column of quilt swatches sewn into the canvas. The fabric adds a colorful mixed-media aesthetic while juxtaposing the unique lives of her African-American paternal grandmother, Ellen, and her Danish maternal grandmother, Ruth.
Barlow’s work spans art galleries, college campuses and communities. She teaches young artists throughout the state, from North Minneapolis youth at Juxtaposition Arts to undergraduate students in the University of Minnesota’s art department. She’s also part of the team at MidWest Mixed, a group that organizes Twin Cities programming for mixed-race people and their families.
“I enjoy connecting with people through conversations about our history, culture and identities and empowering others to share their stories — whether that’s through the work I do in the classroom, the dialogue spaces we hold at MidWest Mixed, or a collaboration in one of my paintings.”
Emerging artists, particularly artists of color, face a constant battle of sustaining their work, accessing resources and preventing displacement. Gentrification and a cultural shift in Minneapolis has led to the loss of foundational art institutions such as Intermedia Arts, raising questions about the future of the city’s creative community.
Recognizing the risks the artist community is facing, Barlow launched Studio #400 in partnership with the gallery and community space, Public Functionary. Located in a 2,000-square-foot studio space in the Northrup King Building, Studio #400 is designed for emerging artists age 30 or younger working in drawing, painting, collage/mixed media, photography, digital media, textiles, sculpture and installation.
In all of Barlow’s work – the powerful visual pieces, the challenging conversations she’s initiating and the community she’s building – she is driven by a desire to lead people into new understandings of their histories and their collective futures, creating relationships and connections in a time of division.
“I hope to find home in visual explorations that challenge superficially simple narratives and change our perceptions of family normalcy; I find that our visual culture born in white supremacy leaves little room for complex representations that are neither/both, non-binary,” she said. “I am in the pursuit of creating a new language, one that is both improvised and rooted in history.”
Leslie Barlow’s exhibition “A Familiar Portrait of Labor and Love” will be on view at THE Gallery Minneapolis at Le Meridien Chambers from April 17 to June 14. The opening reception is 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17. For more information on the artist, visit lesliebarlowartist.com.
Ryan Stopera is a photographer, filmmaker, educator, and co-director of Free Truth Media. He lives in the Lyndale neighborhood.