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Artist from Denver gets her big break in her hometown

As we celebrate Women's History Month, we recognize Jordan Casteel - a Denver native, now making art in Harlem, who just got her big break in her hometown. Casteel's first major exhibition is going on display at the Denver Art Museum.

DENVER — March marks Women's History Month, and we want to recognize some women making history right now here in Denver. One of those women is artist Jordan Casteel. She's a local artist now based in Harlem, but she's her first major museum exhibition, called "Returning the Gaze" is going on display at the Denver Art Museum. She sat down with reporter Kristen Aguirre and photojournalist Ama Arthur-Asma to talk about how her roots as a minority woman and Denverite have influenced her work.

Q. How does it feel to have an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum? 

A. "My dad said that to me just last night that maybe when I was 50. He always thought I would have a show at the Denver Art Museum but not now. Not when I just turned 30. It wasn't something that we saw now, in this moment but bow that we're here it's just overwhelming, it's exciting, it's humbling. I am so full of gratitude and really disbelief."

Q. What’s it like to see all your work from over the years all together in one room?
"It's a unique opportunity to have really a scrapbook of the past five years come back together in my hometown for people to see work maybe they've seen digitally. They may know I'm an artist in New York but that's a very abstract idea until it all comes home and they're getting the opportunity to stand in front of these paintings for the first time. It's really special for me and my sense is that it's been really special for the community as well."

Q. You name is gender neutral. Do people mistake your work for a man’s often?
“I see so much of myself when I walk around this room, when people assume it's a man or assume that I only paint men, I'm like 'what are you talking about? I'm right here don't you see me?' I just see it as an opportunity for learning and to kind of be like a 'gotcha moment' surprise your assumption is wrong, which is something that I think also happened when I started making these paintings especially the work with the skin tone was drastically different than what we recognized as naturalized skin colors. That people would be like 'oh she paints black people, wait he's actually blue or green.' It was another gotcha moment. I'm forcing people to reconcile with themselves their assumptions. The work kind of forces you to reflect black, it turns a, mirror sometimes on what it is that we assume about who's making the work, what the work is what it can be and then what it actually becomes and then the truth behind it becomes a whole another thing."

Q. Is it hard to maneuver the art world as a minority woman?
"My first show in New York, I was literally listening to and being encountered by people who would say, ‘Where is he? Where is the artist’ as they came into my own exhibition? Because I was painting black men nude there was an assumption or bias that they were coming into that space with, assuming that the artist would have to be a man to be making this work. I think that has to do with the history of the gaze and who is allowed to depict what bodies and when. I get emails still that say, 'Dear. Mr. Catseel,' that I think are just moments where I'm reminded that I am still a woman in this long game that I am playing. It's not just me being a woman it's also me being young, me being a person of color and all of those identities together in a field that has been historically been represented by people who don't look like me or have my identity."  

Q. We know you have a connection with all your subjects but tell us about the James and Ivonne painting.

A. "James and Ivonne have become and are like my Harlem parents. They have been, they have held me down. "The day that I photographed James and Ivonne was a cold bitter day. It was one of those days I was feeling far from my own family and one of the greatest blessings is being able to then find people who will allow home to exist when you are far from the literal familial people that you're used to and I sat with them for several hours that day. Ivonne just passed away a few weeks ago and that was really unexpected. Even in losing Ivonne recently, to be able to look at that painting and know that she gets to live forever now, that is pretty special. That is a gift that I didn't anticipate I would be able to give when I took that picture and made that painting."

Q. How has Denver shaped your work?
"Denver has been hugely important to the development of this work and it has shaped who I am. I am of and from Denver, Colorado and I am very proud to tell people that Denver is my hometown. I just know I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be doing this work, right here right now. This is really a body of work that reflects my journey from Denver and beyond."

Q. Any advice for young women who strive to be an artist like you? 

A. 'It was other women who encouraged me to reach for that which felt too far for me, and if I didn't reach then I wouldn't have known a possibility was actually there waiting for me. In those moments of doubt, know that there is real light at the end of the tunnel and that you're beautiful and wonderful and capable of whatever you put your mind to."

The Denver Art Museum bought two of Jordan's paintings for its permanent collection. Her exhibition will be on display until August 18. Watch our full story in the video above.