The sunlight streamed into Leslie Barlow’s studio as she painted, illuminating the faces surrounding her. On one canvas, a couple hold hands as they walk. Another pair sits together on a couch. In a third painting, a couple gaze at their two children.
Everyday families doing everyday things. Except that these families, unlike those typically depicted in oil portraits, are interracial.
“I wanted to represent them as they are,” said Barlow, 27, brush in hand, “and question our ideas of family normalcy.”
Barlow’s new exhibition, “Loving,” which opens Saturday at Public Functionary in northeast Minneapolis, was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage, and the couple behind it: Mildred and Richard Loving.
But the show’s 10 portraits are also deeply personal.
The first multiracial couple Barlow ever painted? Her parents. Her father, a musician, is mostly black, while her mother is white. “I never saw families that looked like mine in paintings,” she said.
This exhibition, backed by a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, is Barlow’s most ambitious, displaying her use of vibrant colors, especially in skin tones, and drawing on themes of race and identity that — not so long ago — she was hesitant to explore.
Barlow is “really well-trained,” building portraits in layers of color, said Tricia Heuring, the director and curator of Public Functionary. So it’s powerful when she uses those traditional techniques and materials to portray people missing from the halls of museums, Heuring said.
“It’s almost like a rewriting [of history] when you use methods that come from the past.”
Barlow created the works while trying to make sense of President Donald Trump’s election, between marches in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., while listening to audiobooks about race. On her laptop: “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Focusing on love between the people she was painting helped, Barlow said. “Us coming together, the healing and love, can be just as powerful as going out and kicking ass and protesting Trump,” she said, talking in her Northrup King Building studio last week. “We can celebrate the bridging of these divides.”
She turned to her assistant and laughed.
“That sounds a little Miss America, doesn’t it?”
Playing with color
Barlow has thought about race her whole life. But she hasn’t always painted about it.
“I was too nervous to have it become a part of my work,” she said, “mostly because I didn’t have the language to talk about my experience.”
That was partly because she had never had a person of color as an art instructor. Not at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, where she got her undergraduate degree, nor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she earned an MFA in 2016.
Barlow’s assistant, Hannah Farrell, a student at MCAD, looked up from a canvas to shake her head: “Me, neither.”
“Anna, have you?” Barlow called out to her studio-mate. She, too, shook her head.
“So I wasn’t illuminated to artists of color working with topics I was interested in,” Barlow continued. “We were shown the typical one or two art stars, like Kara Walker, but nobody else making work in between.”
At Stout, where there were few black art students, she felt that people would expect her to make art about race. So instead, she made art about gender. But after graduating, she began to realize that “I didn’t have anything new to add to the gender conversation,” she said.
Then, in 2013, Cheerios came out with a TV commercial: A curly-haired girl with a button nose comes into the dining room with a box of cereal. “Mom?” she asks her mother, who is white. “Dad told me that Cheerios is good for your heart. Is that true?”
Then we see her father, who is black, awaking from a nap. On his chest — a pile of cereal.
The ad ends with a single word: “Love.” But it generated a lot of hate. The ugly, online furor surprised Barlow, who was “obsessed” with the ad and its family, who looked a lot like hers. She wanted to unpack why this commercial — “which wasn’t about race” — could ignite such backlash. “Why are people so upset about this normal representation of this family?”
The world needs more images of multiracial people doing everyday things, she decided. “At that point I realized, ‘There’s something here,’ ” she said. “I could push that conversation further.”
Thus began her “Other/Identity” series. In “Three Black Girls,” a piece from 2013, three women sit together, staring back at the viewer. Their faces, painted in rich tones, pick up the bright colors in their shirts. Barlow, on the right, is flecked in gold.
‘This is your story’
On a recent afternoon, Barlow stepped back from the painting: a woman and her two daughters, standing in the snow beneath a purple sky. She turned her head left, then right. The snow was missing something.
“That’s right,” she said suddenly. “I was going to do green.” Barlow loaded her brush with a light lime green and began sweeping it across chunks of snow.
In the photo of the three figures, displayed on the laptop beside her, the snow is gray. But Barlow plays with color, letting objects and people reflect the hues around them. Same goes for skin. “I stay as far away from the traditional peaches and browns as possible,” Barlow said, “to reflect the colors that really do reflect onto our skin.”
She looked down at her own arm, shifting it in the light. Her hair fell from behind her ear, its ends dyed the same bright green.
Barlow first invited Heuring to her studio two years ago, excited to talk with a female curator who, too, is mixed-race. Having one white parent “positions you differently in the world,” Heuring said. “There is a different set of awarenesses of who you are and where you fit.”
At the time, Barlow was “really hesitant about painting about race,” Heuring said. But Heuring encouraged her: “Yes, this is your story, this is your truth.”
Growing up in south Minneapolis, Barlow knew Loving v. Virginia not from a textbook — but as “something my parents always talked about.” The Lovings, in 1958, were convicted of miscegenation, a felony. At the time of Supreme Court oral arguments, nearly a decade later, 17 states still had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The case inspired the 2016 film, “Loving.”
“People wonder, ‘Why are there so many racial tensions now?’ ” Barlow said. “When you start to realize that a lot of these laws existed into the 1960s. ... ” She paused, shaking her head. “My parents were kids during this time.
“It’s very ingrained, this idea that we are different.”
In “Just a Car Ride,” a 2016 portrait of her parents, Barlow placed the couple in their car — the space where they’ve encountered the most racism. For “Loving,” Barlow used oil paints, pastels, charcoal and fabric to depict families in their happy places: living rooms, bedrooms, their front stoop.
On one raw canvas, a couple sit on a bed, nuzzling each other, their baby in their arms. Behind them, pink light warms a teal wall. Their smiling faces are precise, detailed. But their legs blend into the quilt beneath them, creating a feeling of union.
When Alissa Paris first saw the image — her image — she cried.
“I’m grateful to have a little moment of my life captured,” she said, “there for my grandchildren to see and there for me to reflect on.”
Paris, 29, and Barlow met through a mixed-race discussion group. Her mother is half Puerto Rican and part German, while her father is mostly African-American. She and her partner at the time, Jared, are “second-generation mixed,” she said, and were honored that Barlow wanted to feature them because of that multiracial identity.
Barlow’s work is “fine art,” Paris said, “but it’s also oral history.”
“I think a lot of mixed people are allowing other people to tell their stories — to guess at their stories,” she said. In contrast, “Leslie’s inviting us to be part of that history and telling of our story.”
What: Portraits by Leslie Barlow. Opening reception 7 p.m. Sat. Closes March 25.
Where: Public Functionary, 1400 12th Av. NE., Mpls.
Info: 612-978-5566 or publicfunctionary.org