Denver native building community through art

Jordan Casteel created a family through her painting subjects

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Walking through the Denver Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Returning the Gaze,” viewers will catch snapshots of everyday life in Harlem, as well as the steady eyes of subjects that artist Jordan Casteel has brought to life on canvas. But for Casteel, the paintings bring a deeper meaning — a community she has created for herself.

At 30 years old, Denver native Casteel is showing her first solo exhibition at the DAM. As a young girl, Casteel remembers coming to the museum, participating in programs where she would spend the night there, absorbing the art on its walls. Seeing her own work transition from craft projects on school trips at the DAM to large-scale paintings on the walls of the Hamilton Building does not yet feel real to Casteel.

“I’m waiting for someone to pinch me,” she said. “It hasn’t hit me yet.”

Casteel graduated from East High School in the City Park neighborhood. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the Agnes Scott College in Georgia. From there, she went on to teach special education at the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello. Some of her earliest painting subjects were her students.

She received a master’s degree from Yale School of Art in 2014. While attending school there, she started working on a series of nudes of black men who were drama students on campus. It was in this series that Casteel decided she wanted her subjects to have a strong and steady gaze back onto the viewer. For her, the question was: “How do I maintain a sense of power and a sense of self for these subjects as they move into the world and I’m not able to be directly their voice?”

A steady gaze from subjects in paintings is not often seen in the art world,” said Rebecca R. Hart, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. Casteel’s paintings showed “profound empathy for the inner lives of her sitters.”

“Traditionally, the power dynamic between the artist and the subject tilts in favor of the artist — it’s the artist’s gaze,” Hart said. “The sitters in Jordan Casteel’s work, however, return the artist’s gaze — and ours. They invite our respect through their eyes.”

Casteel’s subjects are also often shown in their own space as well, whether it’s their home, their family business or a favorite spot of Harlem streets.

Evolution of an artist

After graduating from Yale, Casteel moved to Harlem in New York City. She returned to her roots, painting from photos of friends and family in Denver.

“I left grad school, and I moved to New York and I was like, `I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ ” she said. “So I went back to the source.”

Denver continues to influence her paintings. In a new city, Casteel didn’t have family ties or friends at first. As she began to find subjects to paint, Harlem residents and business owners became like an extended family, she said.

Creating community is something she learned in Denver.

“It has given me the building blocks more than anything,” she said. “Those values around community started here.”

The more she painted in New York, the more people she met. Her network grew. And several subjects from her paintings came to the DAM for opening festivities. Casteel also shared stories on her subjects, such as the couple in “Yvonne and James,” who became like second parents.

“I’m not really interested in kind of appearing and then disappearing,” she said. “This is about real community-building for me.”

Road to the DAM

The museum has been working with Casteel for the last 2 ½ years to put the exhibition together, Hart said.

Hart and DAM director Christoph Heinrich agreed Casteel has a way of bringing her subjects to life. Often, they are individuals that people don’t take a second glance at on the street. Casteel’s painting of “Charles,” for example, shows a man selling furs on a street corner in Harlem.

“When we are in the city we always see them, we run by, we always have our agenda in our head and maybe don’t even take notice of them,” Heinrich said. “Jordan, as an artist, has almost the privilege to stop in her tracks and to ask them and to start communicating with them.”

For Hart, the brightly colored paintings are Casteel’s way to “encourage people to slow down and look at the people that are around them.”

Celebrating businesses owned by black families, as well as the relationships black men have with each other, was a focus Casteel wanted to bring into the world of museums. Traditionally, she said, museums don’t have a lot of representations of people of color.

“I wanted to represent that which was most familiar to me,” she said. “Knowing I had great potential to further the story, and to contribute to a future lineage, that was definitely a conscious decision.”

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