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How artist Rochelle Johnson is embracing Blackness

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Artist Rochelle Johnson in her Denver studio.

DENVER — There are few artists in Denver quite like Rochelle Johnson.

From an early age, Johnson was intrigued by the power of art. Now, the Denver-based contemporary artist is participating in Redline Contemporary Art Center’s two-year artist-in-residency program in the hopes of pushing her work to the next level.

“I'm hoping my paintings reflect the idea of hope,” Johnson told Rocky Mountain PBS. “All these pieces are based on me in some respect.”

Colorado VoicesHow artist Rochelle Johnson is embracing Blackness

At her Redline studio, Johnson’s work lines the walls. Many of her paintings, which focus on female figures, represent Black bodies like hers.

“My figures are Black women, my work centers around Blackness,” Johnson explained.

As a Black woman, Johnson has spent her life confronting the image of the Black body — “a body that has endured criticism and marginalization throughout history,” she wrote in her artist statement

“My art is really a journey about myself,” she said. “I started off talking about the larger issue of Black women and Black women's bodies and how we are marginalized. And that was just too … too much for me to speak on all Black women.”

Instead, she looks inward. As a result, the art she has completed since her residency program started in November 2020 is a depiction of her feelings during the onset of the pandemic, the lockdown and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. 

“All that has affected me in some way. So, the paintings depict what I've been going through during this time,” she explained. “Some of them are depictions of me in isolation. Some of them are joy. Some of them are me being tired. Most of them have been depictions of me being tired of the racial unrest and just the inequities of treatment of people of color.”

To highlight the beauty of Black bodies, Johnson often paints with blue as a way to substitute skin color and for viewers to embrace her work, free of bias. 

“Blue is an uplifting color,” Johnson said. “So, I'm using that color to uplift myself as an affirmation.”

Her earlier work, a series called “Urban Life,” depicted the day-to-day life of Black folks living in Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood negatively impacted by gentrification. Johnson, who grew up in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, moved to Five Points in 2003 and watched as her surroundings transformed. 

“The subject matter was plentiful, and then gentrification slowly, not totally, just came on like gun busters in my neighborhood and I was seeing white women walking their dogs or running with their dogs," she explained. "It was a shock, to say the least."

Now, a year-and-a-half into her Redline residency, Johnson is taking advantage of her studio time and the space to express herself. 

“Being a Black woman and a Black artist … the institutions weren’t very friendly to me,” she admitted. “Black art is sometimes not even considered. And right now, we're going through a renaissance because of the murder of George Floyd.”

People are "woke" now, she said. "And they're looking at ways they can try to make right."


Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at juliosandoval@rmpbs.org.

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