Leslie Barlow, Geek Ambassador to the Arts

You may have seen her modelling on a runway somewhere or noticed her on the cosplay scene. It’s possible you’ve just seen her work hanging on a wall in some trendy Minneapolis venue. That’s how Leslie Barlow rolls: All over. As a young, creative visual artist and model, she keeps her foot in a lot of doors. And, if you haven’t noticed her in any of the above capacities, you may just have overheard her obsessing about Star Wars at a con. Because that’s also how she rolls.

Barlow with two Stormtroopers.
Rob Callahan (TCG): Ideally, we’d be doing this interview in an arts magazine, but here we are talking about being geeks. I hope that’s cool. If not, we can totally pretend this interview is actually for Frieze.

Leslie Barlow: Don’t worry, it’s totally cool. I trust your interview skills. Plus talking geeky things is a lot more fun anyway!

TCG: The term geek is still a pejorative in some circles, and there are certainly those who take issue with its application. Does it bother you when people label you a geek?

Leslie: Definitely not. I don’t think the term “geek” has as many negative connotations as it used to in the past. When I was younger I wasn’t as comfortable with the word, but now I wear the geek label with pride, and surround myself with people who don’t think my geek passions are weird. Plus, people say they “geek out” all the time for things that aren’t typically considered “geeky” . . . you can geek out for sports, for a particular tv show, a favorite song. Hell, I geek out about art!

TCG: Geekery invokes a number of discussions about identity, and about a sense of belonging to something greater—a subculture, if you will—and much of your art explores these issues as well. Has exploring and raising questions about identity through art strengthened and/or reinforced your own sense of individual or group identity?

"Duplicity" Oil on Canvas, 2013 - girl on a teeter totter with an object weighing down the other side.

“Duplicity” Oil on Canvas, 2013

Leslie: Of course. Each painting I create is another step into a deeper understanding of my own identity and into the complexities of how people create identities and develop a sense of belonging within groups of other people. The more research and reading that I do, the more confident I become in those areas of research. Creating art allows me to wrestle with different ideas and concepts about identity that I may not be able to verbalize or fully understand yet, but can still explore through the layers of each painting.

TCG: You also cosplay. You’ve been Zoe and Jasmine, and you’ve been spotted in a Star Wars-themed ensemble of your own design as well. For you, is the creation of a costume similar to the creation of a painting—is it art—or is it more akin to the honing of a technical skill? Or is it possibly both?

Leslie: That’s a really good question. I think more recently I have seen the creation of my costumes as a sort of art project, and even the act of taking on the persona of this character as a kind of performance art. As the years have gone by my cosplays have become more elaborate. I’ve had to take up sewing and have invested a lot of time and money . . . so there’s definitely a honing of technical skill. But really I just see it as another form of artistic expression that is a ton of fun and also feeds my nerdy side.

TCG: Aside from identity, what other themes and ideas have you enjoyed exploring through art?

Leslie: In addition to identity, I have explored many themes in my art ranging from gender related issues, to multiculturalism, to “otherness”, to representation and the history of painting and portraiture.  In any painting I may be referencing some or all of these things, as they all greatly interest me. I’ve always been intrigued by anything involving the human condition and how we as people navigate through society and social constructs.

TCG: You’ve had exhibitions at Moto-I and the Fine Line to name just a couple of venues, and your work has been on display at galleries all over town. Where is your work currently showing, and where can Twin Cities geeks go to see more of your art in the future?

Leslie: Currently I have two paintings up in the Minneapolis Convention Center as a part of a rotating art program headed by Art Force (Minneapolis-based organization). In the somewhat distant future I will be a part of a group exhibition that I proposed, at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, and I plan on showing a lot of new work. This will run from January to February of next year (2016) and also includes the work of artists Amber Newman, Patience Lieken, and John Matsunaga.  There are some other exciting exhibitions in the works but nothing set in stone (or that I can reveal) yet. However, I did just recently find out that I will be a featured artist at the Minnesota State Fair this year in their Fine Arts Building.  I’m not sure what day yet, but I will be there from 9:00am-9:00pm painting away in a studio set up right in the building. So basically you can come gawk at me like a zoo animal. Just kidding . . . but yes, you do get to see me “behind the scenes” in the midst of creation. It will be pretty fun. I’ll make sure to let you know the date so you can stop by and say hi!

TCG: What new projects are you working on or planning?

"Child of the Wild #2" Oil on Canvas, 2014 - Girl in a light dress holding an old lantern, with a halo of flowers. Branches and fireflies in the background.

“Child of the Wild #2” Oil on Canvas, 2014

Leslie: Oh I’m always creating something new . . . I seem to have 3 or 4 projects going at once in my studio. I’m constantly getting inspired, it’s following through and finishing a project or painting that is the more challenging part. I just finished my first year of graduate school and am now in the summer before I start my second and final year.  Soon I will be working towards my thesis exhibition, which is supposed to be a culmination of everything I’ve been studying & working towards thus far, but for now I’m just enjoying this summer; the calm before the storm. I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting and a few commissions have also taken up my time. I am also actually interested in somehow merging my love of sci-fi, fantasy, and cosplay, into my art. I have absolutely no idea how to do this yet. I’ve been taking reference photos to work from at conventions, and I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate this imagery into my practice.  It’s a huge part of my life and passion (I have R2D2 tatted on my body for Christ’s sake!), so I think it makes sense that my art should also represent the nerd in me. And like you mentioned earlier, geek culture does raise a lot of questions about identity and belonging, and especially when it comes to cosplay and creating new identities or masking ones self . . . I’m on to something . . . just haven’t figured out what yet.

TCG: Do you do any fan art? Any Luke Skywalker portraits or photorealistic depictions of the Battle of Yavin hidden away somewhere?

Leslie: You know, one time I did create a Star Trek painting for my cousin.  She commissioned me to incorporate the Enterprise, Voyager, and the Star Trek Science Division insignia into one painting, and I think it turned out pretty great! You can find it on my website under “commissions”.  I would definitely be down for some Star Wars paintings, or Firefly, or Lord of the Rings . . . as long as some one wanted to commission me to do it!

TCG: Any plans to enter the art shows at any of the local cons?

Leslie: I want to, I’d love to.  Just have to have the right material.

TCG: Do you have a personal favorite among your paintings?

Leslie: My favorite painting always seems to be the one I’ve most recently completed.  I’m fickle like that. Or maybe because I learn things with each new piece I complete, they always feel better than the last. Currently I’m really proud of a painting I created in April titled, “Of Other Paths (Heterotopia)”.  A light bulb went off with that one.


  1. By tom debiaso


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