Louisville artist Brianna Harlan creates through the lens of ‘radical vulnerability’

Louisville artist Brianna Harlan | Courtesy

When they entered the Kentucky Center for the Arts last week, visitors to the Festival of Faiths — Kentucky’s annual multifaith celebration — were greeted by swirling walls of golden tracery, layered over diaphanous fabric of blues, purples and pinks.

After they took in the initial rush of color, visitors walked through an entrance and were engulfed by vivid pigments as well as cradles in the air created by more fabric, each one holding paper scraps and strips on which words and ideas were written.

Fresh off Main Street, the visitors had stepped into “Oasis,” an installation commissioned by the Festival of Faiths that was created by Louisville artist Brianna Harlan.

“I think I’ve always needed a creative outlet,” Harlan tells Insider.

A Louisville native, she attended college at Hanover and considers her time at the Southern Indiana school to be when her art began. After taking a couple of studio classes as an undeclared undergrad, she picked art as her major.

“What motivated me to make art isn’t really just the technique of it, and that’s kind of what people focus on until you get to college,” she says.

Harlan started with photography and then quickly moved to printmaking. Her current practice now has several facets, including installations and large-scale projects.

“It’s the first thing I really dived into and started to conceptualize,” she explains. “Because I wasn’t the best at drawing, and I’m still not, if I’m being honest. I don’t really have the patience of a painter.”

Artwork in “Oasis” by Brianna Harlan | Courtesy

Harlan’s skills also include large doses of digital manipulation, which she admits is influenced by the time crunch working a full-time job can put on an artist.

“It’s a mixture between needing to blend the profitable side of creativity with my practice, my art practice. That’s going pretty well. I really love some of the work I’ve gotten from that, like ‘The Divided States of Americans,’” says Harlan, referencing an earlier work.

As the title “Divided States” suggests, there is an element of social justice and political expression in her work.

“I came from a social justice family,” says Harlan. “My grandmother is Mattie Jones; she’s in the Civil Rights Hall of Fame, and she’s really well-known in town. But I didn’t ever really find a clear place for me to be in the work, because I was always the quieter person when it came to things like that.”

“What the Dark Knows” by Brianna Harlan | Courtesy

But when Harlan became more comfortable in her art, she found a way to be heard. When she returned to Louisville, she worked with AmeriCorps, and now frequently works with nonprofits like the Center for Neighborhoods.

Wedded to her social sense of justice is an idea central to Harlan’s practice, which she calls “radical vulnerability.”

“I think those are two words that people don’t usually associate, but for me they go hand in hand. The greatest things that we get from life, we have to go to a vulnerable place to get them,” says Harlan. “To fall in love, you have to be vulnerable; to get up and speak to a room full of people … The biggest connections and leaps in life we have come from this radical vulnerableness.”

She conceived and refined this concept throughout college and continued after her return to Louisville. Her attempt to meld radical vulnerability with social justice is one of the inspirations for “Oasis.”

“I wanted to get people involved … to make something that people have to really think about and participate in the way they are experiencing the art,” she says.

This participation, across several projects, takes the role of people completing a prompt or activity, and writing down their reactions or thoughts. Those people then submit their results to Harlan, and she creates from those submissions. For “Oasis,” she asked for words of wisdom.

While “Oasis” and the Festival of Faiths is over, you have loads of opportunities to see Harlan’s work.  

“Unfold” by Brianna Harlan | Courtesy

“The Divided States of Americans” will be on display in Metro Hall beginning next week and will hang through January 2019.

And through IDEASxLab, she’s currently working with students at Meyzeek Middle School to create superheroes to inspire their peers as well as themselves and the entirety of Smoketown, where Meyzeek is located.

Harlan also is one of the 2017 Hadley Creatives, and the group will be featured in an exhibition at KMAC in June. 

Next for Harlan, through the Great Meadows Foundation, is a monthlong trip Michigan, where she’ll attend a program run by the Art Institute of Chicago. 

“It’s like an artist’s retreat, like a summer camp,” says Harlan. “It’s so I can slow down and really think about what’s next.”