What’s it like to be gender-nonconforming in the Triangle? These portraits offer insight.

Three works from Libby O'Daniel's "In Other Words" on view at Artspace in Raleigh.Courtesy of Artspace

Libby O’Daniel’s portraits speak to you. No, literally.

As a part of her new exhibition “In Other Words,” the painter accompanies each of her oil portraits with a pair of headphones that allow viewers not only to see the faces but also hear the voices of the individuals in each painting.

You can see “In Other Words,” which features six portraits of gender-nonconforming people from the Triangle, at Artspace in Raleigh until March 31.

“The quickest way to break down walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to get to know someone on the other side,” O’Daniel said. “Some people march through streets in protest, and that starts the conversation. Then a culture shift comes through individual conversations with people who are not like ourselves.”

O’Daniel grew up with a creative bent, influenced by her quilter mother and photographer father. She was born in Arizona, raised in Michigan and Colorado and landed in North Carolina in 2002 intent on a career in real estate.

“The quickest way to break down walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to get to know someone on the other side.” — Libby O’Daniel

But an interest in studying interior design led her to Meredith College, where art classes soon stole her heart.

“I really excelled in all of my art classes and was so passionate about everything I was doing,” O’Daniel said. “Several professors encouraged me to change my major, and eventually I took the leap.”

“In Other Words” is personal for the artist.

“I’ve never been quite feminine enough to fit in with the women or masculine enough to be one of the guys,” O’Daniel explained. “It wasn’t until I took a psychology of gender course in college that I was suddenly given all of these scientific terms I didn’t even know existed. All these things that made me feel out of place gave me a name and validation.”

Her favorite painting in the show is “Charlie,” named after the portrait’s subject. Charlie is a Cary middle schooler whose mother wrote a 2016 article for the Huffington Post about their positive visit to girls’ clothing store Justice. O’Daniel read the article almost two years ago and reached out. Her portrait of a wide-eyed child illustrates Charlie’s movement from “he” to “they.”

She started the portrait by drawing the face with a thick blue crayon on a wood panel.

“That was a very childlike way [to start],” O’Daniel said. “I was thinking about how that’s how the world and society draws you. … Everyone gives you blue everything and trucks and big muscle-y action figures.”

She wrote “HE” on the forehead in bold blue lines.

“The rest of the painting was very soft and light translucent layers of color that lay over top of each other to create complex colors,” O’Daniel said. “I changed ‘HE’ into ‘THEY.’ I did it in a way that looks a little bit more like he carved those things into his forehead. That’s not what I meant to do. It ended up that way, one of those happy accidents.”

O’Daniel started photographing and interviewing Charlie while she was one of Artspace’s two Regional Emerging Artists in Residence in 2016. The show, which features all-new work, is the culmination of her time in that studio (she now works out of nearby Anchorlight).

If you go see “In Other Words,” make sure to pay attention to detail, like the paper doll motif (symbolizing being cut or shaped to fit a pattern) in the background of “Katie,” depicting a Garner resident.

“She’s very slim, and she has very pointy features,” O’Daniel said. “She looks very androgynous.”

gender art exhibition Libby O'Daniel
“Katie” by Libby O’Daniel. // Courtesy of Artspace


O’Daniel felt that a typical portrait wouldn’t convey her message in “Katie,” so she made it a diptych, or two-part work (“Charlie” is a diptych as well).

“I began doing one regular, solid piece then began thinking about when you’re in between spaces of gender identity it can feel like you’re cut in half,” she said.

The artist hopes her show is a protected way for the portrait subjects to share their stories.

“I want to invite the community to know people they may not meet and may be too afraid to ask questions,” O’Daniel said.

“In Other Words” by Libby O’Daniel

Where: Upfront Gallery at Artspace, 201 East Davie Street, Raleigh
When: March 2 to 31; see Artspace’s website for hours
Cost: Free
More info: See Artspace’s event page here

Artist Talk by Libby O’Daniel

Where: Artspace, 201 East Davie Street, Raleigh
When: March 24 from 12 to 1 p.m.


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