Artist Leslie Barlow, left, painted the Minnesota State Fair's 2022 commemorative art, right. Credit: Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

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Sitting in her artist studio at the Northrup King Building, Leslie Barlow recalls her impressions from a lifetime attending the Minnesota State Fair: nostalgic, joyful, sticky, and wild.

She loved the giant slide and arcade. Her family was “obsessed” with pork chops on a stick. A memory from when she was around 11 sticks out: She was playing the ring toss–a game that is 100 percent fair and not at all rigged–and landed one of the colorful rings on a bottle.

“This is a story my family always brings up,” she says laughing. Barlow won a giant stuffed dog toy. “It was bigger than me; I couldn’t physically carry it.”

Her father carried the dog on his shoulders in the heat for the rest of the day. It then sat on the family’s porch for years.

Barlow’s memory of the carnival game prize is depicted like an Easter egg in her artwork for the 2022 Minnesota State Fair commemorative art, revealed Thursday at the State Fairgrounds. A team of staff at the State Fair chose the 32-year-old from Minneapolis to create artwork that will be turned into posters available for purchase at the fair and online. A limited edition of 100 prints signed by Barlow will also be available for purchase.

When you look at it, you think, ‘Is this lit in some way? How is it possible that it could be so colorful?’ It’s almost like it’s glowing.

Lara Hughes, State Fair marketing and communications supervisor

Barlow’s commemorative oil painting depicts a group of her friends frozen in time, like a candy-colored nighttime snapshot of youthful exuberance at the fair. At the center, a stuffed animal sits on one of her friend’s shoulders.

When you look at it, you think, ‘Is this lit in some way? How is it possible that it could be so colorful?’ It’s almost like it’s glowing,” says Lara Hughes, the State Fair marketing and communications supervisor who coordinates the commemorative art program. “It translates into the print and the poster. It translates beautifully.”

Barlow–a Minneapolis portraitist, arts educator, and activist–is the 18th artist the fair has commissioned to create commemorative artwork. She is the first Black woman and woman of color selected for the task.

“I feel like it’s about time. I mean, it’s been time,” Barlow says of being the first. “It’s interesting how a lot of organizations have been realizing this gap in the kinds of stories and people that they’ve been uplifting and giving space to. I’m glad that’s shifting for the fair as well.”

Award-winning artist

Barlow grew up in South Minneapolis and has been making art since she was a child. She received a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Stout and an MFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Barlow is the studios director for local art platform, Public Functionary, and participates in Creatives After Curfew, a decentralized Minneapolis mural collective which formed after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Creatives After Curfew aims to create art “to soothe, remember, build, and imagine a future rooted in justice and liberation.”

Barlow is also an arts educator; she has taught at Carleton College and will be teaching at the University of Minnesota in the spring of 2023.

I was thinking of my own experiences at the fair. I didn’t see my own story represented in previous artworks.

Leslie barlow

The fair’s commemorative art program, which began in 2004, has chosen artists in a variety of ways, including word-of-mouth, open calls, and blind submissions.

“The program really began as a way to highlight a Minnesota artist and have them be able to create their own interpretation of the fair,” Hughes says. 

Hughes was familiar with Barlow’s work because Barlow was one of the artists in 2021 who painted a mural live for the Joyful World Mural Park, a partnership between the fair and Forecast Public Art that commissions artists to paint murals on the fairgrounds.

Barlow has won multiple awards at the fair’s Fine Art Exhibition, including the 2018 State Fair Purchase Award for the painting “Stephen, Jeffrey, and Twins,” which was purchased by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Hughes also attended the Leslie Barlow: Within, Between, and Beyond exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art last year.

“Her work speaks for itself. Her portraits just really capture the essence of people and their faces and emotions,” Hughes says.

The common thread for picking an artist to create the fair’s commemorative art? They have to appreciate the fair.

“I don’t have to pretend that I love it. I really love it,” Barlow says. “So many people close to me know I’m a fan of the fair.”

As far as the requirements for the artwork, the fair’s only stipulation for artists is that it must include the year and either “Minnesota State Fair,” or, “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

In Barlow’s piece, the text appears on a purple awning sheltering a wall of stuffed animal prizes. The year appears on a ticket stub tucked into a fairgoer’s front jean pocket.

“I was thinking of my own experiences at the fair,” Barlow says. “I didn’t see my own story represented in previous artworks.”

Telling other stories

Before starting her painting, she researched the artwork from past years. There were no depictions of teens and their youthful excitement.

“In high school, going to the fair at night was the most fun thing you could do,” Barlow says. “You’re eating shitty food. You’re trying to meet a boy. You’re putting on your cutest outfit. It’s all the most extreme, silly things.” 

It’s not just about the image being represented, but it’s also who is telling that story. The fact that I am able to take up space and this is what I want to say with that, I hope that feels empowering for others to do the same.

leslie barlow

“As a younger Black woman, it’s not that young folks will see themselves only in the piece, but they will see themselves in me doing this piece,” Barlow says. “That’s so important. It’s not just about the image being represented, but it’s also who is telling that story. The fact that I am able to take up space and this is what I want to say with that, I hope that feels empowering for others to do the same.”

Barlow also wanted to center Black and brown people.

“Even though I’m not in the piece, this very much represents me,” Barlow says. “I wanted that to be very clear to folks: It was really important to me to share an image of black and brown folks in play and joy.”

Science fiction is another theme in the piece that also runs throughout Barlow’s other work. For the 2021 State Fair mural, Barlow painted a Black deep sea scuba diver holding hands with a Black mermaid floating above a scuba-diving pup inspired by her own dog. She links it to the lore and imaginary futures of Black people who jumped off slave ships into the sea—an “Afro-futurist side of Atlantis.”  

Her upcoming solo show at Minneapolis’ Bockley Gallery, opening in September, will feature new work depicting  Black people in cosplay, the practice of dressing up in costume to embody a real or fictional character in popular culture.

Artist Leslie Barlow painted this mural at the Minnesota State Fair in 2021. She links it to the lore and imaginary futures of Black people who jumped off slave ships into the sea—an “Afro-futurist side of Atlantis.” Credit: Courtesy of Leslie Barlow

In Barlow’s commemorative State Fair artwork, hints of sci-fi can be seen in the alien stuffed animals and the twinkling Starship 3000–a saucer-shaped carnival ride that looks like an alien spacecraft.  She created the scene in her studio, photographing her friends as they held paper props depicting common fair food–corn on the cob and a bucket of Sweet Martha’s cookies.

She combed through thousands of fair photos on social media to create the backdrop. The resulting canvas is a carefully created composite meant to capture a fleeting moment.

Barlow wants the artwork to transport fairgoers into sharing this moment; she wants Minnesotans to see it and revel in joy and nostalgia.

“I really want it to feel like it just takes people on a wild journey in their imagination,” she says. “Not just thinking of memories, not just thinking of their experiences of the fair, but also thinking about, ‘Can it be like this all the time? Can we have this kind of joy and togetherness always? And what would it look like? How would we get there?’ ”

Alex V. Cipolle

Alex V. Cipolle is a journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work covering art, culture, and society has appeared in the New York Times, Hyperallergic, Fast Company, The Oregonian, the Star Tribune, ARCHITECT...