Adri: It's interesting. When I began, I touched upon the theme of elevating Black works and Black voices incidentally. I was painting musicians and celebrities I admire, and the vast majority of them were Black. This was more a statement about the genres of music I listen to than anything else. When I started painting women in history, I again focused on those who inspired me, many of whom shared characteristics I would apply to myself: Black, queer, immigrant. These days, I am choosing to be specific about addressing past injustices and showing how they affect us today. In doing so, I'm trying to elevate the most marginalized, but I will always skew towards those whose experience of injustice most reflect my own.
It seems to me that you’re extremely compassionate in the way that you express through your work. As a viewer, I feel like I’m being informed rather than patronized, which is likely a critical piece in how these stories are received. I know that a huge part of your process is the research into these women’s lives. Can you say more about where you begin and what informs you along the way?
Adri: I grew up with tales of the atrocities perpetrated against my people. Any time I would think of Black history, it was in the context of slavery or those martyred for the cause. I wanted to shift that narrative and highlight the many stories of people who followed their passions and had an impact, but who were still working in the context of injustice. There are enough voices out there, screaming in the face of the treatment of Black people in this country. These voices are necessary for the cause, but so are quieter voices like my own. Only certain personalities can examine themselves and change their behavior while being yelled at all the time. I personally prefer a gentler approach, so that is what I provide.
We remember when you had a studio at the Boulder Creative Collective space back in 2015 or 2016 and recall these portraits on tiny 1’x1’ canvases and in flipbooks. You’ve gotten bigger, literally - to books and buildings and apparel. Did that feel natural or like a personal stretch as much as it was professional?
Adri: I believe that different messages require different scales. That said, scale is also a matter of accessibility, and I want as many people as possible to have access to my work. Murals allow for free public access, once the pieces are done. Smaller paintings allow for more private access, as small works tend to cost less than that of the larger ones. That, and many of my clients are educators with limited budgets and space, so I accommodate their needs.
I really can’t pick a favorite piece. I’ve learned about so many new and powerful Black voices through each one, and I wonder if there’s any particular woman that continues to speak to you. Why?
Adri: Audre Lorde still calls to me. As a Black lesbian artist, activist and educator, I see so many parallels between her life and my own. Her successes feel like a road map for a potential future and her flaws remind me of traits to be aware of within myself. I'm sure someone will replace her in my mind at some point, but that hasn't happened yet.
These pieces are so out of the box, and it’s plain to see that you are, too. I can’t imagine that you’ll tame this vigor, so how are you going to keep the conversation going? What’s on the horizon for you?
Adri: I am currently looking for the connective tissue between these women and their stories, beyond the obvious. The more I learn about the historical context in which they lived, the closer I get. Ultimately, I want to weave one or more narratives that use women's stories as the lens through which to view the world and put these narratives together into books, graphic novels, films... whatever medium it takes to tell the tale.
Adri Norris’s works “Women Behaving Badly” is available to view at the History Colorado Center (link: https://www.historycolorado.org/exhibit/women-behaving-badly) in downtown Denver until Feburary 28, 2021. Learn more about this project and others on Adri Norris's website.
The portraits were taken by the Denver Art Museum photographers | The Street Murals by Jim Casey | Audre Lorde Image: Robert Alexander/Getty Images - Source: Poetry Foundation | The rest were taking by Adri Norris