Leslie Barlow Is Painting This Moment in Time

The early stages of quarantine affected Leslie Barlow’s creativity. She was used to diving into the classes she teaches at the University of Minnesota, her work at Studio 400 (a program she runs with Public Functionary that connects underserved artists with studio space and resources), and hers own art. But like many others, she bumped into a wall and had to redefine her classes and expectations. To get back into painting, she started secretly taking screenshots of her friends while they zoomed in and painted their portraits after the calls. “It has been difficult to focus on one thing for a long time,” says Barlow. “Portraits were the antidote to this – I was able to concentrate on painting a picture in a very short time and feeling like I had something done.”

The series, called Portraits during a pandemic, opened the door to creativity. From there, she and her partner Ryan Stopera (a photographer) created a quarantine-themed zine called Connection Unstable as a scrapbook of COVID in the spring. It contained the zoom portraits, Stopera’s photos, interviews, and social media posts that captured our collective fear and loneliness. Barlow and Stopera put it online a week before George Floyd’s murder. “It’s really like a time capsule because it doesn’t mention anything about police brutality or riot or anything that happened in Minneapolis,” she says.

After the murder – and a few days of protest against the 38th and Chicago, Barlow’s neighborhood – she got embroiled in a group text with other artists (many BIPOC or LGBTQ) about painting murals on buildings and plywood in the cities. “We’re storytellers,” says Barlow. “We have these tools that we can use to contribute to the movement and honor what happened here.”

The group text turned into a decentralized organization called Creatives After Curfew, and after they painted at least 50 murals in June and July, they stuck together. They switch to indoor and commissioned projects – including an early project for Seward Co-Op.

Now Barlow is diving back into her own projects and will be on display this spring in a solo exhibition at Mia: Within, Between and Beyond. The exhibition features life-size paintings and stories of people who identify as black, multiracial, multiracial, multicultural and / or transracial adoptees. “It will be an entire gallery space in which such images are celebrated and centered,” she says. “Oil paintings have ignored this type of representation for so long, especially in museums.”

As a BIPOC artist, Barlow herself knows what it would have meant to her as a child to see a show like this – and hopes to make others feel like they belong in a room where they may have previously felt ignored. “That’s what I do my art for,” she says. lesliebarlowartist.com

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