The Power of Portraits: For Jodie Herrera, Every Picture Tells a Story

"Hope" is one of Jodie Herrera's documentary portraits.
"Hope" is one of Jodie Herrera's documentary portraits. Jodie Herrera
Every artist is a documentarian, says Jodie Herrera. And in these years of mass migration, global pandemics and anti-racist struggles, there are plenty of true tales to document.

The Albuquerque-based oil painter — who has made Denver a second creative home and is weighing moving here soon — has been using her paintings to capture women’s trauma, survival and resilience since 2011. She'll be back in Denver this week for the opening of Twenty Toes, her show with artist Casey Kawaguchi, at ILA Gallery.

"I feel like the community there is very supportive,” she says of Denver. “The art community has really jelled. It’s really unique compared to other places that I’ve been. I love New Mexico. My roots are here. My family has been here for hundreds of years. This is a community I want to help grow and assist, but I feel like Denver is a really good next step. The people there are very solid. I really like the artist community.”

With the help of Lorenzo Talcott, who runs ILA Gallery and curated the show, she has secured multiple mural commissions around Denver and built strong networks among the city’s street artists and galleries.

Herrera grew up in Taos. Her mother was an artist, and both of her parents supported her creative pursuits. She spent her younger years drawing and doing graffiti, and didn't take up oil painting until college. Her third oil painting, done in class, was a portrait of a woman she'd interviewed who had experienced trauma. That was the first in what became a series of realist paintings that have consumed much of Herrera’s past decade.

By the time she graduated, she had developed a full body of work, and at her thesis exhibition, she found herself talking to people about the lives of her subjects. While doing so, she realized that the stories were an integral part of each piece, and that she should write them out to display alongside the works in the future. She wanted each one to convey a clear political message about real, lived experiences — and she needed the written word to make that happen.

click to enlarge Jodie Herrera works at the intersection of documentary and activist art. - JODIE HERRERA
Jodie Herrera works at the intersection of documentary and activist art.
Jodie Herrera
“Some people like to view art and take what they want from it, and I understand that, but that’s a passive way for looking at art,” she says. “I want my work to be a catalyst for positive change, and I want my message to be as clear as possible.”

She continues to base her paintings on interviews with her subjects, and much of her work is focused on fellow indigenous and Latina women. “All of the symbolism that you see in there is a reflection of their personal heritage or their personal likings,” she says. There might be traditional religious or cultural iconography, for example, or a logo from a favorite band.

Over the symbolism, she paints a photorealist portrait of the subject. While the stories behind the pieces are often about sexual assault, domestic violence, disease and other brutal struggles, the images often show women embodying their strength.

The work is sometimes erotically charged, and at other times the figures are stern — but in almost all of the paintings, the subjects exude power.

“My work is rooted in activism,” Herrera explains. “I feel like I want to use my platform for important issues around social justice, intersectional feminism — any kind of injustice we face today.”

Since 2016, Herrera has been working on a series of portraits of undocumented women and refugees from around the world called Women Across Borders. A piece she did reflecting on the relationship between art and feminism is on display at the Smithsonian and will become part of the institution's Archives of American Art. In recent months, she has also created two pieces based on the COVID-19 pandemic.

click to enlarge Artist Jodie Herrera. - JODIE HERRERA
Artist Jodie Herrera.
Jodie Herrera
One is “a PSA piece honoring the people who have been lost, and also the heroes that have ensured our future and the front-line people who show up...honoring them and telling people to stay safe,” she says. “There is another work that is a piece of my own personal experience, and I think it speaks to a lot of people. People were going inward and doing a lot of self work, and it was a trying time mentally.”

While she speaks about the pandemic as though it’s in the past, Herrera is very aware that it’s not: Her home state is currently seeing another surge in COVID-19 cases. But her concerns have temporarily shifted elsewhere, to the world rattled by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

She’s inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, and at ILA plans to show a piece responding to that movement, as well as pandemic paintings and selections from various stages of her career.

“My heart isn’t quiet right now,” she says. “I feel like the best way to channel and to respond to what I’m through this art. I feel fortunate that I’m able to respond to it, and the best way that I can respond is through my work.”

Twenty Toes will run from June 19 through July 10 at ILA Gallery, 209 Kalamath Street, Suite 12. Viewers will be scheduled in thirty-minute slots. Find out more at the ILA Gallery website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris