When Kate Goodvin saw three classmates hanging out in a common area at school, she snapped a quick photo.
Liking how it turned out, the City High student and painter of several years translated the moment into an oil painting. Goodvin, 16, recently entered the piece, “DeAngelo, Devonte and Rob," in the state level Scholastic Art and Writing Award contest, and she came away with a Gold Key award and a chance to compete among painters in Scholastic's national contest.
Her winning painting features three young black men posing casually in front of a sunset, a piece inspired by Kanye West's album "Graduation," Goodvin said. Her artwork, which focuses heavily on portraiture, frequently and intentionally includes black models, she said.
“I feel like there’s a lack of representation of black men and women in most portraiture," she said.
Although her viewers sometimes question this choice, she said she is determined to change the longstanding trend of artists predominantly featuring white people in their work. She said it's also important for white artists, such as herself, to handle the subject matter carefully.
Tameka Jenean Norris, a judge in the Scholastic contest, agreed that black figures are traditionally underrepresented in fine art. When they did appear in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were often in the background and portrayed in subservient roles.
Norris, also an artist who is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa as part of the Grant Wood Fellowship program, said black representation in art matters because media content affects how people shape their identities. Images from the past that illustrate black people as slaves or maids, as well as contemporary, hypersexualized images, "can really seep into your psyche," she said.
Norris, who identifies as a black woman, said it's important for artists to avoid oversimplification and illustrate complexities that transcend race, like spirituality and gender.
“Our identity is not wrapped around our race," she said.
A portion of Kate Goodvin's oil painting is pictured at the Blank Honors Center on Thursday, March 9, 2017. (Photo: David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
However, she said it can be complicated when white artists tackle black representation in art. Some attempts are problematic, even if they're well-intended. In some cases, it's best for white allies to step aside and make room for black artists to have their say, Norris said.
But white artists can also start valuable conversations about race issues in art, as was the case with Goodvin's image, she said.
“It got us in a room having a conversation that I don’t think we would have been having otherwise," Norris said.
She said she liked Goodvin's painting, because it honored its subjects, bringing them to life in a way that felt familiar. She noted the work reminded her of New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley, who is known for his portraits of urban black men.
Rachael Ayers-Arnone, Goodvin's former art teacher at South East Junior High, said it was Goodvin's doodles that first caught her eye. Several of them, including one of an eyeball and another gestural sketch, still hang in her classroom.
Ayers-Arnone said Goodvin blazed through her assignments in art class, so she set up a studio in the back of the classroom where Goodvin could work on self-guided assignments.
”I wanted to watch her work," Ayers-Arnone said.
Goodvin began painting in third grade after her grandmother, an art teacher, gave her a set of oil paints. She said she started by painting a bit of everything but honed in on people as her favorite subject. Her work is fueled in part by her relationship with the people she paints. In junior high, she began painting on commission, she said.
Ayers-Arnone said Goodvin recently made "huge jumps" in skills like painting fabric and realistic shadowing on peoples' faces. She said she thinks it's amazing that Goodvin can capture details like skin tone in subjects of a different race, noting many young artists learn by using themselves as models.
These improved details add up to paintings that betray few distracting giveaways when it comes to Goodvin's process, Ayers-Arnone said.
“She really doesn’t leave any clues," she said.
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