Katie Niewodowski’s Portraits of Black People Murdered by Police Memorializes Their Humanity

Breonna Taylor, 26, EMT

Katie Niewodowski. Breonna Taylor, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, 2020. Colored pencil on shrinky dink. “Breonna Taylor, 26 beaming with pride, hair carefully braided, radiating joy as she accepted her EMT certificate. She was shot to death by police in her bed after they illegally entered her home. She was aspiring to be a nurse. The three officers have not been arrested.”

Katie Nieodowski grew up on the west coast of Florida and has lived in Jersey City since 2006 where she makes her art and owns a personalized portrait company, Petitraits. She is a professor of Visual Arts at Hudson County Community College (HCCC), Montclair State University, and Stevens Institute of Technology. Niewodowski received her BFA from Ringling College of Art and Design and her MFA from Montclair State University. Her work is a meditation on the phenomenon of life and the creative structures that perpetuate it. She explores repeating patterns in nature, the interconnectedness of all living beings, and the portal into these networks that the process of art-making provides.

Her latest series of portraits called I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free tell the stories of black people who have been murdered by police. She’s chosen to focus on women to begin because their stories are often brushed over or diminished.

Katie and I work together at HCCC but it was after talking to her about her artwork included in last year’s Cathedral Arts Festival (I was one of the curators) and hearing her speak at the artist talk I helped organize as one of the events for last yeat’s Jersey City Pride Week that I felt I really got to know her as an artist. I’m a big fan of her work. When I saw her post the first image of this series on social media I knew I wanted to know more.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28, Pre-med student

Katie Niewodowski. Atatiana Jefferson, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free Series, 2020. Colored pencil on shrinky dink. “Atatiana Jefferson, pre-med student, 28. Shot and killed in her home through a window by police while playing video games with her nephew. The officer was responding to a non-emergency “care call” because Atatiana’s house door was left open.”

Can you talk about why you decided to create this series? How do you think people will respond?

The project of making portraits of black people slain by police is to raise awareness of their individual stories, the problems our country has with systemic racism, and the long history of brutality by the police against black communities. It took me a long time to be willing to take a really honest look at this horrific reality. I’m hoping the portraits will give people an entry into their lives that isn’t as traumatic as repeatedly watching video of their final barbarous murders.

With each portrait, I’m researching their stories, learning about their lives and families, and rendering them in the intimate manner that is required when making such small and intimate portraits – both in size and style. I’ve always felt the process of portrait drawing helps me connect with the spirit of that individual. There’s a tenderness that is felt when attempting to capture someone’s humanity. As emotionally challenging as this project has already been, I want to feel all of it; their light, their hopes and dreams, and the utter sadness of their lives cut short. I make these as much to deepen my own empathy as to teach others about who they were. Nothing will change without empathy. I want to offer the world tiny relic-like memorials to these martyrs as an antidote to big monuments of slave traders and murderers.

How long have you been creating art? How would you describe the type of art you create?

I’ve been creating art with female mentors ever since I was a baby. Gladys, the woman who cared for me while my mom worked was both an artist and craftswoman. She had my hands in fabric, clay, and paint before I could walk.

Later, when I was about 10 years old, I would take after school lessons with Alice, a woman who specialized in portraiture and gave me a love for that genre.

While my practice has broadened to encompass other styles than portraiture, it is still a method I return to frequently, especially when I want to focus specific energy on the human spirit and experience.

Who are your art heroes? Who or what inspires you in life. Who or what inspires your art?

Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorite artists. I’m extremely inspired by how prolific she was with such a vast oeuvre. As an artist who enjoys exploring many different mediums and styles, Louise is an artist I return to again and again for confirmation on what it means to live the life of an artist.

When I was in grad school, she would hold weekly “salons” in her Chelsea apartment each Sunday. While in her 90s, she was still making art, and welcoming artists and students to dialogue with her on a regular basis. I’ll never forget the Sunday in which I got to meet her and bring her a piece of my art to discuss. We were also asked to bring chocolate and whiskey but that had to go with us when we left. (lol)

Louise was primarily concerned with her internal experience and psyche. I am also interested in this but, more so as it relates to nature, spirituality, and other people. In that vein, Hilma af Klimt is the artist I have been looking to the most lately. She made portraits as a career but her true art was to divine spirit through the elements of visual art.

Does being gay ever inform your art process?

To be really true to one’s art, it requires an incredible amount of courage. An artist must continue to take risks and always be questioning the authenticity of their expression. For me, there was no greater challenge of authenticity than to be true to ALL of me. I had to learn to embrace this part and not be afraid to share it with the world. The same goes for my art.

What impact do you think being a teacher has on your work?

Aside from being perpetually inspired by my student’s creativity and enthusiasm, I’m always striving to be a better teacher. That means I’m motivated to learn more about the various processes of art making, art history, and what it takes to stay motivated and disciplined. I want to be able to effectively share what I learn from my own process with my students.

Joyce Curnell, 50, Mother

Katie Niewodowski. Joyce Curnell, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free Series, 2020. Colored pencil on shrinky dink. “Joyce Curnell, 50, mother. She died of dehydration in police custody after being arrested while seeking medical care for a stomach illness. The arrest, at a hospital, was for outstanding court fines for shoplifting candy.”

In your new work you have stated that you’re aiming to “tell the stories of black people who have been murdered by police.” Can you talk more about why this issue spoke to you?

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a lot of conversations with my partner (who is black), reading, educating myself, and discarding a lot of defensiveness to begin to admit what I was never taught in school – that racism continues to exist and that many of our country’s laws and structures have been built on it.

After seeing these murderous scenarios repeated in the news cycle more times than I count, it became clear to me that something must change and that we have a deeper problem in our country than I ever wanted to admit. None of these are isolated incidences. They are part of the very sick and unhealed foundation of this country.

Frustrated by not being able to join the protests (I’m taking care of my 74-year-old mother and don’t want to expose her during a pandemic), I felt I needed to do “something.” It made sense to do what I know – make art.

How are you going about choosing which people you include in this series?

The people I’m choosing to draw are all people who have been unjustly murdered by police. I’m hoping to create a memorial to their collective tragedy. While also aware that I’ll never know everyone who has died this way throughout history in this country.

Why have you decided to focus on women first?

Women’s stories are often brushed over or not given the attention that the men’s stories have been given. While I hope to ultimately include each black person who has been murdered by the police, I’m focusing first on the women. Black women are among the most marginalized in our society second only to black queer women or black trans women.

Where does the series title come from?

This is a reference to the Nina Simone song in which she manages to break your heart while also declaring the striking power of her spirit. (Listen to the song here: ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’)

While the stories of these women are heartbreaking, the spirit of this moment has the potential to powerfully heal our country and set us free from the sin of racism.

That is, if we do the work. And just like the many portraits I have yet to draw, there is a LOT of work to be done.

Has the stay at home order affected how you approach your work or the materials you are using?

I’ve been quarantined in Florida, taking care of my mom since March 8. The portraits are tiny and can be done at my “makeshift studio” on her dining room table. While this style of art making is not new to me, it is one that I can return to when space is limited. Before the pandemic, I had just begun some large paintings in my studio in Jersey City. Those had to be put on hold but I’m looking forward to getting back to them when I return.

How do you think the pandemic will affect your ability to show and sell your artwork?

Before the pandemic, I was slated to be included in a 3-person show in Jersey City. This has been put on hold indefinitely. I’m concerned about how the current economy will impact art sales. But, on the bright side, I’ve been enjoying the creativity of the moment. For instance, I’ve been involved in two mail art exhibits, a digital catalogue, and multiple
collaborations. There’s a communal energy that was not as present before the pandemic. I love how artists, gallerists, and curators are rising to the occasion and inventing beautiful ways for us to contribute to this important moment. Darwin’s famous dictum, “Survival of the fittest” was a misinterpretation. The true translation, and what artists are striving for is, “Survival of those who best adapt.”

Katie will be posting new images from I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free on @petitraits.

Follow Katie Niewodowski at:

@katieniewo and @petitraits


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