Leslie Barlow is hesitant to personally take up a lot of space. “I’m more interested in supporting all of us in creating space for our images, our storytelling, art making, and knowledge sharing,” says the artist, curator, and University of Minnesota educator. “Everything that I do is connected.”
In all that she touches, there’s a through line tied to the amplification and liberation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. She’s the program director of Public Functionary’s new Studio 400 program. Based in northeast Minneapolis’ Northrup King Building, the multidisciplinary arts incubator provides studio space and mentorship to Black, Indigenous, and artists of color.
In response to George Floyd’s police killing, Barlow began collaborating on a massive public mural project with a decentralized collective called Creatives After Curfew. In addition to organizing for the collective, Barlow is a lead artist on several murals, including a gorgeous triptych of portraits of Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor—all victims of police violence—at the intersection of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue in south Minneapolis.
But even as she goes deep into community as part of her work, Barlow finds energy in the solo practice of working with a canvas. She seeks to uplift BIPOC identities through her signature portraiture, employing pastel colors in joyfully realistic interpretations.
“I really do just love painting,” she says. “It’s my favorite form of expression, and I feel so blessed that the work I do connects to so many folks. It’s incredibly healing and affirming to be able to spend my time doing this kind of work and also to have it experienced by community here and everywhere.”
Recently, Barlow has been in preparation in her own studio for Within, Between, and Beyond, which begins at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in March of 2021. Part of the Minneapolis Artists Exhibition Program, the show will include a video collaboration with videographer Ryan Stopera and mental health professional Lola Osunkoya, who will engage Barlow’s subjects with questions.
Barlow says she’ll be coming full circle when it opens. “I’m really looking forward to sharing something I’ve been thinking about and wanting to see represented in a museum for so long,” she says.
How has Studio 400 evolved since it started at the beginning of 2019?
I think the really beautiful thing about the Studio 400 program is that it’s led by an artist, so it’s artist-centered. And because of that, we let the artists drive the direction that they want to see the studio going in, and we just provide a container for that and guidance.
Our goal is that it becomes something new with each cohort, that it meets the needs of the artists in the room, and we’re not there to tell the artists what their needs are.
This first cohort is so incredibly talented and inspiring. I have this theory that if you provide artists with space, and connect them to mentorship and different opportunities, that their practices evolve that much more quickly, but I hadn’t actually seen that happen before. To be able to actually see what that looks like, with our inaugural cohort, and that it actually worked was pretty powerful. The fact that it is a kind of communal space allows them to collaborate with each other. Outside of a school, it’s hard to find that kind of community.
How have you been doing that during the pandemic?
For a little while there in the beginning of the pandemic, we recommended that nobody go into the studio until we had a better understanding of what this looked like. We didn’t place any sort of restrictions because it’s all about artists’ autonomy. We recommended that they don’t go in or if they went in, wear a mask, practice social distancing, but we ultimately left it up to them. I know for the first month and a half, we had nobody really use the space. But then we slowly started getting back to it. And what it looks like now is that at any given point there’s not really going to be more than two or three artists in the space.
What is the relationship between Studio 400 and Public Functionary?
I’m the program director of Studio 400 and it’s a program of Public Functionary, meaning that Public Functionary is the home that Studio 400 lives in. Public Functionary is fiscally sponsored, so we can apply for grants through that. Tricia Heuring and Mike Bishop have been incredible mentors as well throughout this whole process, because it’s almost like we got to combine our strengths. Tricia and Mike have run a space, and I have not. But also, I’m an artist and have operated a studio and they have not, so it was a way that we can really combine all of our strengths to create something that was more sustainable.
Studio 400 will always be a part of Public Functionary, at least as far as I can see it. The hope is that at some point, it can just continue to grow and other folks can run it. It doesn’t have to be Leslie Barlow’s program, even though I started it. I hope it grows to be more than that.
Is Creatives after Curfew an initiative of Studio 400?
No, although several Studio 400 artists have been a part of Creatives After Curfew murals. Creatives After Curfew is its own thing. It’s a collective of a bunch of different artists and actually it’s growing all the time. It’s not a closed group. It really started right after George Floyd was murdered. There was a text thread of street artists and muralists who were like, “Hey, we have these skills, and we want to make sure that we can be useful during this time in documenting our stories.” I got included on that text. I don’t know how because I’m not a street artist, but I was so happy to be included because the last thing I wanted to do during the uprising was paint in my studio.
We started to get a lot of support from people wanting to donate food, wanting to donate paint, and sometimes also monetary donations. We knew that having that nonprofit access would be really helpful so that not one of us got like a sack of a bunch of taxes at the end. So Public Functionary helped get the funds out to the artists that are involved in the work. But really, it is a decentralized collective of artists.
What was your favorite mural that you were the lead artist on?
Oh, that’s so hard because I love them all. I really, really love the one we did at Roosevelt. It felt incredibly collaborative. But I think as far as portraiture goes, being a portrait artists, my I think my strongest work was on Lake Street and 4th. There’s three windows. I painted portraits of Tony McDade, George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, and I’m really proud of those. It feels like when you step onto that street that you’re stepping into a sacred place. It’s a quieter street, but it’s right off of Lake Street. It kind of ends up being a little bit of a destination.
Meanwhile, you’ve got an exhibition opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in March. Whats is that going to be like?
It’s hard to imagine what March 2021 will be like, to be quite honest with you. It’s storytelling at its center, and it involves paintings and a video installation. You have 16 community members, some people from Minnesota, sharing their racial identity development journeys with me, and with my collaborators, in video. I also capture them in painting, too. These are folks who identify as a variety of different racial identities, but often use the words “mixed race” or “transracial or transnational adoptee” to describe their experience.
What I’m interested in with this body of work is complicating the traditional silent portrait subject. I’m elevating their likeness, their complexity, and their stories through painting, and filling the room with these life-sized paintings of Black and brown folks, which is, I hope just going to be moving in and of itself. By having the video component, you begin to connect with these people in different ways. It becomes much more personal. And hopefully, if we can do this safely, we’ll have a self-care reading space that’s going to have books and other kinds of resources for folks who make their way through the exhibition.
I’m working with my collaborator and friend Alissa Paris, who’s the director of MidWest Mixed, to develop a series of community programming and dialogues related to the work as well. We’re approaching this project from multiple areas because it’s a really deep and complex body of work. Maybe I’m saying that because I see myself in each painting and the stories are incredibly vulnerable.
Learn more: lesliebarlowartist.com