DENVER (CBS4) – Artist Jordan Casteel returns home to showcase a collection of her portraits featuring ordinary people in their everyday lives who are often overlooked. The exhibition called “Returning The Gaze” opens this week at the Denver Art Museum.

(credit: CBS)

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“I’ve had an opportunity to get to know and spend time with all these people and these paintings for the past five years,” Casteel told CBS4 on Wednesday as the finishing touches were being placed inside the gallery. “My friends and family in Denver have had an abstract idea of what my life in New York has been like or what it’s like to be a painter.”

A native of Colorado and an East High School graduate, the showcase in her hometown is a milestone for the artist. Her first major museum exhibition will feature about 30 large paintings of people she knows from her home state and others she has met along the way in her career.

“Everybody gets to see for the first time what I’ve been working on, to really engage with the scale of the paintings,” Casteel said. “Now that the work is here, it’s an opportunity for us to play, we get to think about new relationships between the paintings.”

Jordan Casteel (credit: CBS)

She left Colorado for college in Atlanta and went on to get her Masters in Fine Arts from Yale University before moving to Harlem in New York City. She has focused on black entrepreneurs in that part of the city while also trying to highlight people important in the early part of her life.

Many of her pieces also try to challenge the traditional images of men of color and present them in a new setting. Casteel says she approached some of her subjects explaining from the beginning her goal was to get them on the walls of a museum.

“I think the common theme in this work has to be with me in some way. It’s the central planet that everybody is orbiting around,” she said. “I think the thread is that all these people are connected to me and ultimately to each other.”

A painting begins as a digital photo she takes of a subject. She may capture hundreds of photos but prints three to use in order to sketch out the painting. The exhibition will feature portraits of her mother and relatives, but also the barber in Denver who became family.

(credit: CBS)

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It also features people relatively new to her life, but now playing an important role including a couple she considers her parents in New York.

“The process is a very, maybe potentially, millennial one in the scheme of painting, in that photography is directly related to how I begin these paintings,” Casteel explained. “There’s a freshness that happens with the painting itself, a sense of expression.”

Her time on the east coast builds on the values she learned at home. Casteel says the lessons gained early on have informed her approach as an artist.

“As a Colorado native, I feel like there are many things that I gained in my time here that really have stuck with my evolution and the journey that I’ve had in other places,” she said. “The thing that’s really consistent that I think I learned here the most is really about kind of staying grounded, and connected to nature, and my environment, that I have had a family that has always put into me the importance of community.”

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

The subjects chosen for her work tell her they feel as if the “Common Joe” has been elevated and given a spotlight they might not otherwise experience. The exhibition features work from 2014 to 2018 by the artist.

“This gives light to those who maybe haven’t always felt seen,” Casteel said. “Those practices began here in Denver, my desire for relationships that are meaningful are really rooted here and that’s stayed with me wherever I’ve gone.”

“Jordan Casteel: Returning The Gaze” opens on Feb. 2, which happens to be a Free First Saturday at the Denver Art Museum and runs through August 18, 2019. It will travel to Stanford University after its showing in Colorado.

“It is of the city and for the city,” she said. “This is one of their own, coming home to share a journey that hasn’t been easy but has produced something really beautiful that they can feel a part of.”

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LINK: “Returning the Gaze” At The DAM