Professor Jordan Casteel has been setting the art world abuzz the last few years with her vibrant, large-scale figurative paintings of black men, women and children as well as group portraits. Casteel depicts her subjects’ underrepresented humanity with a directness, playfulness and intimacy that is captivating, using a complex color palette and other visual devices.
Casteel, who turned 30 in February, hails from Denver, Co. She studied sociology and anthropology before changing her major to studio arts while an undergrad at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., and then went on to Yale for her MFA in painting and printmaking before joining the RU-N faculty in 2016.
Her first solo show opened recently at the Denver Museum of Art, and she has a full calendar of group shows slated for the remainder of the year. We caught up with her recently to discuss her painting and teaching practice.
You spend a lot of time scouring your neighborhood (Harlem) for subjects, talking to people, photographing them, and then working from those images. Would you say your approach draws from your sociology and anthropology background?
I’ve always been centered on social justice and education, and majoring in sociology and anthropology was a way to practice my interest in research and how to be an observer. Now there’s been a merging between my passion for social justice and art, critically engaging with systems contributing to inequality and the way people are living. It has definitely informed the way I approach the work, engage with subjects, and interact with community as a whole.
I love teaching, the interaction with students, being a cheerleader, mentor, guide, sharing the information.
Do you usually show your subjects their finished portrait or have any interaction with them after you meet and photograph them?
Yes, very much so. I’ll often send my subjects the reference photographs, making every effort to keep people part of the process and practice, and pass out pamphlets to openings, which turn into big celebrations as sitters stand in front of their portraits and say things like, “Oh, this is way bigger than I thought it would be” or “I feel like a superstar” or “I feel so proud to be a face of this evening.” And I keep in touch with many of them. I feel lucky that I get to build these relationships and have the paintings tell the story of people whom I’ve memorialized and come to love.
You really build and nurture community in your work.
Absolutely. The ongoing arc in my work has been the community around me, which has always been my subject, whether it be in Denver, New Haven or New York City. Thelma Golden [Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem] once referred to me as a landscape painter, which surprised me initially, but I’ve come to embrace that. I definitely depict the landscape around me as my environment changes over time.
Your work is not only in private homes but also in public collections now, including the Ford Foundation (NYC), MOCA (L.A.), the Studio Museum in Harlem and others. What does it mean to know your work is part of these collections, where it gets wider exposure and will be seen by generations to come?
Institutional support has been profoundly important to me from the beginning. These places are central in protecting and preserving work for the long-term and offer opportunities for work to be reborn if it’s been stored away. Work also becomes historicized by being a part of those collections. The wider exposure is exciting to me and gives me great joy, because it’s about sharing stories. Others get to engage with my subjects and connect with them, and place their own experiences on the work as well. Finally, I care about painting and am rigorous about it, and being part of museums and collections means being part of the larger conversation with other great painters hanging on those walls.
You’re extremely busy with your Denver solo show, along with six group shows around the country this year. How do you manage it all—teaching full-time, producing work, getting these shows, lecturing and hosting panels, and doing tons of press?
Balancing is definitely the most challenging part of my career. I’m ambitious, an overachiever, and have perfectionist tendencies. My inclination is always to say yes to requests, but I’ve had to learn to say no, even to my family. I always tell students, “Nothing happens without the work.” I’m only getting praise because of the work, and my mental and physical health is very important to me. So, I say I have three jobs: taking care of body/mind, teaching, and my professional painting career. The first lays the foundation for the rest.
What role does teaching play in your practice, and does it keep you grounded amid your whirlwind career?
It plays such an enormous role. I taught back in Denver and wanted to continue teaching when I got my MFA at Yale. My RU-N students give me so much life, not to mention the grounding I need being in the art world, which is full of ego. My students are eager and egoless. I can be myself in the classroom. And our students are unlike any others; their grit and commitment inspire me all the time. I love teaching, the interaction with students, being a cheerleader, mentor, guide, sharing the information. And many students say to me that my being a working artist outside class makes them believe they can have access to those worlds as well. So, I feel like I’m opening up potential for them, offering insights since the term “working artist” is such a fanciful idea to so many. But I’m tangible proof it can happen, and that resonates with my students.
Thank you for sitting down with us.