For Jahna Rae Church, a new exhibition featuring her work could be a launching pad to a career as an artist. It could add her voice to the growing chorus ringing in the ears of an art world that is still waking up to the contributions that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists make every day. But more than anything, for Church, it’s the chance to make a connection.
“What I wanted to accomplish was telling my story through my art, because my hope is that in some way the viewers can connect with it because in my own experience, seeing other people's art — whether that's through music, poetry or visual arts — I have found my own healing,” Church said. “And I really believe that the only reason for our existence is connection. And so I wanted to create that kind of story through my work, and I thought that this was the best opportunity for that.”
Founded in 2002 in Denver, PlatteForum is a cutting-edge arts, youth development, and artist-in-residence organization.
Now, a new artist residency there — made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — is focused on spotlighting the work of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists in hopes of raising their voices. The Community Mentee Residency is an extension of their normal work with resident artists and high school students in the ArtLab program. Denver-based Church is the first artist in the new residency.
PlatteForum’s curator and engagement director Sigri Strand says the new program was born to provide specific support for artists.
“They awarded this so that we could work with particularly BIPOC and or LGBTQ artists and uplift their careers, [and] give them opportunities to work with mentors in their field who also share their cultural background and their identities,” Strand said. “So we really were looking for a safe space to create work that challenges the norms and commercial galleries, and gives them that liberation and safe space to create, and really experiment and get outside of the box.”
For this inaugural residency, PlatteForum chose an artist from its regular pool of resident applications.
“I really enjoy what they stand for and I think that it's important to support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals in the arts. So that really resonated with me,” Church said. “Initially I had applied for the other residency that they had where I would be working with interns, which I also think is a great program, but I was super honored to be selected for this one.”
Church says during the residency she actually feels more connected to her community than before.
“While I am working in isolation, while I paint, I'm still consulting like my mentors and having other people look at it and tell the story behind each piece. And for me … that has been extremely healing. So I do actually feel pretty connected to everybody.”
For Church, the title of her exhibition, “Indigo,” is symbolic of intuition, the ability to plan for the future, and it is symbolic of connection.
“I don't wanna just talk about connection to other people, I think that there's a level of connection to ourselves that we need to take a hard look at in order to hopefully reach that process of healing.”
Curator Strand says there are many ways of defining success for this new residency program. A well-attended opening is just the first step. It could also be a launching place for Rae’s career.
“You know, she has been working on her career, but also juggling another job for a long time. And I really want to see her career blossom after this,” Strand said. “And so we've been trying to have her meet with other curators locally. And you know, just like I said, I wanna see tons of support — people showing up — and seeing all of this beautiful work that she's creating.”
Although primarily a portrait artist, in this exhibition Church is expanding into more abstract work. She says to expect lots and lots of color, patterns and shapes. Yet she continues to hope her work provides a bit of healing for people who see it.
“I would love for them to connect and take something away from my work and whether they know the exact meaning behind each piece,” Church said. “I don't just do this for me. I do think that we find that healing through speaking to other people and other people's stories.”
Indigo with PlatteForum Resident Artist Jahna Rae Church opens Jan. 13 at the Denver gallery space, and runs until Jan. 31.
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