Think Out Loud

‘Under the Flag,’ on display in Portland, has viewers confront the history behind the symbol

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Aug. 24, 2022 4:59 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Aug. 24

"Under the Flag" is on display at the Russo Lee Gallery. Julian Gaines is the artist behind the exhibition.

"Under the Flag" is on display at the Russo Lee Gallery. Julian Gaines is the artist behind the exhibition.

Dennis Dixon


“Under the Flag” is on display at Portland’s Russo Lee Gallery and runs through Aug. 27. The exhibition is by Oregon artist Julian Gaines. It forces the viewer to physically lift an American flag to reveal the work behind it. The pieces touch on racism and minstrel performances, which were characterized by white performers using burnt cork or shoe polish to blacken their faces. We hear more from Gaines about this work.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. If you want to see the paintings in Julian Gaines’ Show at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland, right now, you’re going to have to lift some flags up first. American flags are attached to the tops of the work so you have to raise the star spangled banner above you to reckon up close with images depicting racism, past and present. Jim Crow and lynchings and minstrel performances and mass incarceration. Gaines grew up in Chicago; he’s lived in Beaverton for the last five years and has a studio in Forest Grove. His show is called ‘Under the Flag.’ It’s on display through August 27th. Julian Gaines, welcome.

Julian Gaines: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. So as I just noted in that short intro, flags are one of the central visual themes of this new show. When did you first get interested in them?

Gaines: The flag became a medium within my work over the course of the second pandemic, we’d say? We went through what, two quarantines, one pandemic, two quarantines, I’m sorry.

Miller: Yeah. Who can count any of this?

Gaines: Right. So, the first quarantine, I spent a lot of time in the home, but I made sure I was like, ‘Man, if we have to go through this again, I’m gonna make sure that I could do some cruising and drive around as a form of just therapy and getting out the house.’ So on my drives to my studio, I would notice the number of flags I see across numerous platforms, whether it be the back of cars with stickers, very huge flags flying above dealerships, flags attached to the back of pickup trucks, flags on the back of trucks, mudflaps.

Miller: Are you talking about American flags in all these cases or other flags?

Gaines: So other flags? Well I saw yesterday or was it the day before? Yesterday? I was driving to the studio and I saw a Toyota pickup flying a Confederate flag. And it started to be a lot more regular. When I was driving past homes and I, you know, naturally I have an appreciation for real estate. I’m looking at homes and I noticed maybe two or three on a block would have flags sticking out and I’m like, ‘what are they really trying to say’? Or, there’s a home that I passed right next to my studio that has the Blue Lives Matter flag that flies on a pole that’s equivalent of a schoolyard pole. And it’s funny because some days I passed and the flag wouldn’t be there. And I’m like, man, ‘I wonder what led him to take it down today,’ or he replaced it with the American flag and so over time I just started to really wonder what was this becoming a nonverbal symbol of?

Miller: Well, did you have an answer for that yourself?

Gaines: Not necessarily. When I started to ask my friends and people in the community, and just like, ‘Like wow, did you notice how many flags?’ And they hadn’t noticed, but then, once I brought it to their attention, they became hyper aware of it. And for me with the body of work, you know, I’ve seen other artists throughout history use the flag as a medium from David Hammons to Jasper Johns, to Benny Andrews. But initially, when I got my own hold of my first flag, which was last year or so, I realized I’d never touched the flag personally; and the material, the fact that some flags are made out of nylon, others cotton. It became very interesting to me, like what this symbolized and how I could use this within my work. And so in response to one day driving to my studio and I got pulled over, going into my studio, my studio was gated and a cop followed me and I guess, you know, he was doing his job and I think maybe he thought I was trying to evade him by going into this facility, but I was really just going to work. And so following the interaction which nothing transpired other than just the exchanging of words and, ‘Oh, sorry for inconveniencing you Mr Gaines,’ I was inspired to paint one of the pieces in the show entitled ‘No Knock,’ and in that piece is a cop with a very cavalier pose and I really just got out everything that I was feeling in response to just being pulled over, frequently, and in an attempt over time, as I was working on other works completely unrelated to the ‘No Knock’ piece, or even my idea of ‘Under the Flag,’ because that hadn’t been conceptualized rather yet, I realized I felt this presence in the studio of someone looking at me and I would look up and it was my piece of the cop and I was like, ‘Wow, this, you make it, you make it to work, and then you still got this cop here that’s just staring at you,’ it was unsettling for me,...

Miller: Just let me understand. So you finished that painting of the police officer and then it was on your wall, you’d be doing other stuff and then you’d look up and you’d see a police officer that you had painted looking at you.

Gaines: Absolutely.

Miller: Huh.

Gaines: And so in an attempt to hide the cop, I took a flag from the garage, my friend’s garage, I found a brand new, old flag wrapped up and I was like, ‘Can I have this?’ He was like, ‘Sure.’ I took it to the studio and I pinned it over the piece and when I did that I looked back and I sat back down on my couch and I was like, ‘Wow, I have an interesting concept here.’

Miller: Gosh, that’s fascinating, because one of the things that blows my mind about it is when you covered it up, it almost did sort of the opposite of the way I felt when I walked into the gallery to look at the paintings, because you covered it up, so you wouldn’t be surveilled in a sense by this police officer, in your private space, in your studio. When I as a visitor went into the studio, it was almost the opposite that these were sort of hidden paintings. And if I wanted to interact with them, I had no choice but to get right up close to them and lift up this kind of veil of the flag and then stand two ft away from your works. It was a choice I could make that I had to make to get close. How did you decide once you covered it up, for different reasons that you wanted to pursue this and have the coverings be central to the show?

Gaines: When I engaged with the piece myself, I felt this uncomfortable weight of the flag when I went under the flag. And so by staring and spending so much time in the studio and with the work, I started to think about what the flag represented and how other people perceive the flag. It was like a trial and error kind of situation in a sense of …or rather let me scratch that more like a science experiment artistically, where I would have certain friends and collectors come into the studio and go under the flag and just ask them. And when I would sit back and I watched, I think I remember the first time I saw one of my friends- cause you can’t see yourself doing something. But I saw one of my friends go under the flag. I was visually just inspired. And I was like this is how I want people to face this work. you really have two ways, three, rather because you don’t have to lift the flag, you can just look at and walk by and it could be, it almost acts just like a Jasper Johns’ painting does. But if you lift this flag and you feel the weight of the flag, you feel the different materials and you recognize the flag as a veil. I wanted to force people to either lift it with their shoulders, which is physically straining or place the flag over their heads and be really immersed in the work. And in such a space that you generally would not.

Miller: When you say the uncomfortable weight of the flag, what do you mean personally?

Gaines: Whoa! I mean the flag, over the past year or so, has become, unfortunately, a nonverbal form of oppression. My grandfather, my brother-in- law, my uncle, they’re vets. I have USAA Insurance. You know, I love America, I’m proud to be a Black man in America. I mean that’s what, that’s why each piece is entitled ‘Painfully Positive.’ I believe to be Black is to be painfully positive because these are just unfortunate truths, the reality that Black people have to live. You can’t turn it off. There’s no switch and say, ‘you know what, I’m not gonna be Black today.’ So for me, the weight of the flag became very much a feeling and a driving force behind the work because I don’t believe that everyone sees the flag the same way. I remember the first time I saw a blue lives matter flag, I had no idea what the blue stripe meant. I had to google it. And so you imagine just like seeing certain things in places in certain ways and nothing is coincidental, and so I wanted to be able to just change the way that people interact with art and as well as the flag and create a kinetic body of work that allows you to just engage with this symbolism and then see some of the stories that are actually underneath and associated with the flag.


Miller: You have visitors... well actually, I’m not sure if it’s you or the gallery that made this decision, but, when I walked in,

I was told by a woman who was working there, ‘oh there are white gloves, you can put those on, that way you can lift up the flag.’ So I dutifully did that. I put on these white gloves before I walked around, where did that come from?

Gaines: That idea came from the minstrel show. And so for me, I understood, as an art student and an artist and just a fan of art in general, that it is taboo to touch art work. It’s taboo to touch artists’ work in most instances, and so I had a couple of problems that I had to figure out and one of which was how do I nonverbally and tastefully encourage people to engage with the work. I didn’t want to be in the corner and saying, ‘hey, you can lift the flag,’ because naturally people would have a hesitation with that. And so for me, I was like, alright, white gloves, and then as my work continued to evolve and what I wanted to talk about as it pertains, to ‘Under the Flag’, for this body of work, I learned more and more how important the white gloves were to the minstrel show.

And so you look, and you think about Mickey Mouse, you think about Al Jolson’s vinyl, you know, the white gloves were, like, for lack of an example, were like the tennis shoes to a tennis player. And so I was like, ‘Okay, the performative element, the hidden performative piece of my show, was that everyone had to wear white gloves.’ And so when I Zoomed back and I watch everyone engaged with it, they were a part of my minstrel show.

And so everyone was playing a role because when you think about this, everyone plays a role in the current state of things in society, whether it’s a minor or a major role. And so that’s what I wanted to do. And I want to force people to go home and do more research because that’s what art does for me. It’s an educational tool. And so I feel like, if schools are omitting American History, whether it’s good or bad or indifferent, it’s the gallery and the artist’s responsibility to continue to educate using our gifts and our talents and just the freedom that comes with being an artist.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with the Artist Julian Gaines, he has a show up, right now at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland. What you were just saying reminded me of one of the lines that you’ve written in one of the paintings and a lot of these, they’re figurative, and we can see people, a lot of people in Blackface, and there are also some words that are sometimes in the foreground, sometimes painted or written and then sort of painted over so you have to really get close to to make them out. Some of them are pretty clear though. One place you have a Paul Robeson quote, ‘The Artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.’ What does that line mean to you and your work?

Gaines: That Paul Robeson quote is one of my favorites. “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery, I have made my choice. I had no other alternative.” And for me, I believe that it’s an incredible blessing from God to be an artist. It’s a blessing to be able to create something from nothing; that, we could just put that on the shelf. Right? And then for me as an artist to be able to have this gift and this blessing, I feel my activism within my work is the rent I pay for being an artist.

Miller: Wait. ‘Activism in your work is the rent you pay for being art… I mean, the duty you have for the privilege of getting to make art for your daily life?’

Gaines: Absolutely. I mean, I’m very much inspired by Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone and Billie Holiday and musicians in general. I would likely say this, but I envy them because I don’t have any musical talent. I can’t sing or anything, or read music. So I very much admire that talent and that gift. And I admire even more musicians that use their voice to be able to speak about things that need to be talked about, tell stories that need to be told, artists of their time. So when I listen to Nina Simone and I listen to ‘Strange Fruit,’ she doesn’t sound happy. You know, when she sings the song ‘Baltimore,’ she doesn’t sound happy and that reflects the times. And so for me it’s important for me to be an artist of my time. I guess if I were living on an island, I would just paint sunsets and starfish. But I don’t, you know, I live in America and this is just my obligation to paint and document history, as I see it.

Miller: You mentioned Nina Simone. You mentioned ‘Strange Fruit,’ Billie Holiday’s song, it reminded me, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I saw a live Black person in these paintings, the people who were alive were white people in blackface. and then there’s also a diptych – two paintings next to each other. Both them, like we were talking about earlier covered in American flags, but when you lift them up, you see the legs of people, who I assumed were hanging from a tree, victims of a brutal lynching. Why only have living white people in these paintings?

Gaines: The importance of that piece, the diptych, and the dates that the pieces are titled after the dates that President Biden outlawed, or got the federal Anti-Lynching Law to pass through. So I wanted to speak about how that was just a few months ago, rather in 2022, when this happened, that lynching was was deemed a real crime. And so for me, the painting reflects the scales of injustice and I felt that we’re skipping a valid and important step in American history as it pertains to race relations if we don’t address blackface. And most people when they think of Jim Crow, they associate it with the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King and Jim Crow laws. So I nodded to that with the first piece that says ‘Colored Only,’ ‘Whites Only,’ with the brushes. And so that piece is entitled ‘The Newer Jim Crow.’ So for me it was important to make the works all with white people in blackface because those are all actual 1912 minstrel show advertising, those are real people, like I feel like we’re skipping a step when we’re putting Black people in blackface when Black people had to darken their skin to get on stage, that was the only way they were accepted. So you think of Bert Williams and the fact that he couldn’t just be his normal self and act on stage. He had to diminish himself to a character that really did not represent him or his people, in order to make a living when on the other side of that coin, TD Rice, Thomas Dartmouth Rice created Jim Crow or you think of Al Jolson and they didn’t have to create these characters. They did not have to go through the work of emulating slaves and trying to create false narratives of Black people. And so I felt, as an artist and an appreciator of history, that it was important for me to tell where Jim Crow originated from TD Rice, to the new Jim Crow as it pertains to mass incarceration.

Miller: Let’s take a step back. I’m curious what brought you to Oregon in the first place?

Gaines: I was first introduced to Oregon, I was dating a different young lady. We had just gotten out of college, she just moved to Salem. And so my first introduction to Oregon was in Salem and I love Salem, I thought it was dope, coming from Chicago and the things that I had to deal with growing up in Chicago and in the midwest and then going to college in Michigan, if Oregon felt like, no pun intended, a breath of fresh air, it felt like a resort. And so I came out in the summer, I fell in love with the summer, her family and I took a drive up the coast. I fell in love with the scenery. I’ve never seen mountains like that. I’ve never seen trees like these trees I’ve seen out here, and I was just drawn to the area. And so I remember calling my grandfather and saying, you know, I don’t know how long this young lady and I are gonna be together, but I know I’m gonna move here. And so I wrote down a goal and I said I’m gonna move to Oregon. I eventually ended up taking $100 and booking a one-way out here and I didn’t know anyone out here. I actually knew two people, and I started on my best friend’s couch and I really just started chipping away at enjoying this area and just understanding where I was. So, a lot of the things I paint about are based from trip situations that I’ve dealt with, whether it’s the, the collection I did on the Karens, or you know, the No Knock piece or even to the blackface pieces, I was inspired to explore blackface after I read about the teacher in Newberg coming to school as Rosa Parks to protest mask mandates. I’m not pulling from things to get a rise. I’m really observing what’s around me and just making work that it’s in response to it.

Miller: You’ve been here long enough now that I’m wondering if you can already look back on your early days in Portland or Beaverton, early days in Oregon, with some kind of fondness? Like, that’s like the deep past.

Gaines: I mean I still have that fondness. I think what made me kind of reevaluate Oregon in a more practical way was when I said I wanted to move to Salem. I was like, I’m gonna come out here and move to Salem and then people were like, ‘Yeah, no;’ and I didn’t understand that because I was like, man, that place seems great, but that was a bit of naivete and that’s what really led me as just a person that grew up having to be a bit more street smart. Was that okay? What I mean? Like, why are people making that facial response when I say I’m going to move to this part, why are they saying don’t move to Lake Oswego? You know what I’m saying? Like these are things that I’m just having an honest conversation, like this place looks beautiful and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, but…’

Miller: ‘But,’ you’re not going to be welcome there as a Black man, that’s the message you were given?

Gaines: Absolutely like, the term that is for Lake Oswego, you know what I mean? Like that it’s very disrespectful and not flattering, but it also doesn’t make you want to move there. I don’t know if you’ve heard and I know this is pre-recorded so you, ‘cause you guys can feel free to omit it. But it’s like when I heard about Lake Oswego, somebody told me that they’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s Lake No Negro’ and a white person told me that. So that’s me, I’m sitting here like, ‘Okay, interesting.’ And so that’s what circles back to a couple of points ago and I was saying ‘painfully positive.’ It’s like, there’s no shortage of prejudiceness and racism throughout the nation and the world. So you don’t really get to escape. It’s not a case of our age, you are here, you can move, you can live wherever you want. You know, that would be convenient for a number of people. I love this area, the same reason why there were exclusion laws. I understand why they were exclusion laws. I get why people would want to keep Oregon a hidden gem, like I completely understand, but those times have passed and that’s not a way of life anymore. And so for me, I feel it’s important to not only be critical of things, but also constructive.

Miller: About that phrase, ‘painfully positive,’ which as you know that, the sort of parenthetical title, of all the paintings in the new show, and you brought it up a couple of times now, including just now, do you feel like being positive is something that comes naturally from inside you, or is it more something that that white people either want from you or demand from you or need to feel comfortable, in other words, is positivity forced upon you, or does it come from you?

Gaines: Oh no, it’s not forced upon me, it’s more of a personal, like I still have to, I don’t get to not be Black, you know, I still have to live. I want to live a life that’s not full of stress and negativity; it takes practice, you know? And so you have to find ways to grapple with negativity and in different situations but no, it’s absolutely not forced, like it’s not me being positive or even saying painfully or any of that is not in response to anything with white people at all. It’s coming from- I’ll put it like this and you’re here in Chicago and you grow up and you get and your friends are getting shot at 13, 14, 15 years old, right? You have to be painfully positive, like, ‘alright then, I’m still gonna go to school or I’m still gonna go and live a life, I can’t just sit in a bubble,’ you know, I have to move on some bit of faith and that’s really what painfully positive is: really just having faith.

Miller: Julian Gaines, thank you so much for joining us. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Gaines: Thank you.

Miller: Julian Gaines is an artist and painter who lives in Beaverton right now. He has a show up right now through August 27 at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland.

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