Leslie Barlow: Showing Injustice Through Art


Leslie Barlow presenting to Wayzata High School Students in the auditorium on April 24th about bringing attention to social injustice through art. Photo by Elisabeth Oster.

Elisabeth Oster, Web Editor

“Loving” is a series of portraits of Twin Cities interracial families by Leslie Barlow. The series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing interracial marriage, ‘Loving vs. Virginia.’

Artist and social justice advocate Leslie Barlow presented in the auditorium for Wayzata High School students on April 24th about how she expresses her views on social and racial issues through her artwork.
  Barlow was born and raised in South Minneapolis and continues to work as an award-winning oil painter in Minnesota.
  “I always loved drawing and creating art that was figurative and told a story about people. Right away in college, I became interested in the politics of visibility and how social concepts were represented in visual media,” said Barlow. “Basically I was interested in who was depicted, how they were depicted, why they were depicted, and what are the social norms we strive to elevate in visual media.”
  Barlow received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2011 and her Master of Fine Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2016. Barlow decided to pursue art as a career, something she had not thought about in high school.
  “Art was always a part of my life and I think once I realized that it was something I wanted to pursue on a regular basis, I didn’t want it to not be a part of my life anymore,” said Barlow.
  Barlow said having artistic parents and being interracial influenced her desire to speak through art. She has focused on themes of multiculturalism, identity, and otherness, a term for an outsider. Barlow said she started to realize she was different. She saw no one like herself in popular media. She also notice that she was treated differently depending on which parent she was with. This became a basis for her work.
  “[Art is] something that you can’t quiet. You just have to do it. It’s like an itch that you can never fully scratch. That’s what creating art is like, you’re always reaching for something that you can never fully attain. I like that challenge,” said Barlow.
  Barlow said she works roughly 55 hours a week, both in her studio located in the North Minneapolis arts district and in art organizations. Barlow was recently commissioned to paint six portraits of iconic Vikings players to be displayed at the US Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
  “Every time I make something new that’s usually my favorite piece because I feel that when you work, you get better. You’re not really progressing, if you’ve been making the same thing for 20 years and nothing has evolved,” said Barlow.
  According to Barlow, her favorite piece at the moment is Loving, a series tied to the historic court case Loving v. Virginia. The portraits were displayed in February and March at Public Functionary, a gallery in Northeast Minneapolis,
  Barlow strived to commemorate the case’s 50th anniversary that struck down all laws against interracial marriages in 1967. The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple, after being sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other.
  Barlow submitted this concept and was selected for a grant of $10,000 to create 10 large-scale paintings of interracial families.
  Barlow said her biggest inspirations are people, artists, and movements around her. According to Barlow, artists are a source for conversation, inspiration, and reflection upon the social and political occurrences at the time.
  “Artists have always been in conversation with things that are going on around them. I think that tradition has carried on to the present, but what’s particularly interesting is with social media now, there are avenues where people can actually disseminate issues much more quickly and look at art all of the time,” said Barlow.
  “I think artists’ role right now is more elevated because before it was more of an elite thing. Not as many people were able to see as much art. Now you can go on Google and look at as many artist websites as you want to,” said Barlow. “Artists have a responsibility to really use that language or at least use the fact that people can see their work more easily to start conversations.”
  After Barlow became more aware of racial tensions across the country, she said she began to strive to build a path towards empathy and understanding.
  “My process is usually starts when I get an idea. Inspiration fortunately comes pretty easily to me. I’ll just get an idea a lot of times right when I wake up or before I go to bed and I will write it down. Then, I create lists of ideas that I would like to pursue,” said Barlow.
  Barlow said she creates paintings either directly from life or photographs and takes about two hours mixing all of the colors needed with a palette knife before she begins painting.
  “I also need a clean space to work well. I have to have a cleaning day every week where I just literally clean because I just can’t make in the chaos when in my brain, there’s always chaos,” said Barlow.
  According to Barlow, the act of creatively expressing oneself is one of the most revolutionary things we can do as people in society.
  “Not everyone uses words very well. I feel like I don’t really well; I’ve never done a presentation in front of this many people at one time before. I work best when I read off of a script. I’m not a words person which is why I’m a painter,” said Barlow. “That’s the nice thing about art because it allows you to still communicate in a better way or a way that makes sense for you.”
  “I think a lot of times we feel really shy about expressing ourselves in the medium that we really want to. Like people really want to dance, but they’re too scared to dance in public,” said Barlow. “Being able to break that barrier down and just be able to be vulnerable with your work and to just express yourself in a way that’s meaningful for you is already so phenomenal.”