We all ask. We ask what the meaning of life is. We pray the World to provide for us, but maybe, we should consider instead, what is it asking of us? No one can replace or feel for anyone else because we experience life in how we can turn a joy or tragedy into achievement. Our tasks and paths are all different, and how we fulfill them is based on how we answer the question, and if we are listening, we can create our unique calling.
Few can hear the call, and one of them is artist, Deborah Roberts, who captures and creates dialogue using various still pictures using collage and clued-in awareness.
Deborah expresses how, for centuries, the symbolism in Rainessance works, children’s books, and fashion magazines have depicted images silently dictating beauty, with the young being fed an old portion of marginalization and discrimination.
Growing up, Deborah noticed how none of the heroes or heroines in the movies resembled anyone she knew. She bravely and beautifully has taken to her art to express this and gained an added strength, an outlet, and along the way, a strong following. She is grounded, secure, and has, most importantly, not lost her sense of humor. Deborah Roberts is exceptionally earnest with her message sharing with us her language of ideological equality.
Stoically challenging stereotypes, Deborah unveils a new perception of idealism as she redefines a parallel, ubiquitous beauty. Deborah appreciates her works being displayed in public places, with the hope that through her art, she can motivate a younger generation, with the clear notion, “If I can do it, so can you!” Museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum show her works, along with a list of collectors like Barack Obama and Beyonce. The message is beginning to be heard loud and clear.
She and I spoke at the beginning of May. We shared stories about our experience during the COVID lockdown this year, and I remember asking her, “What do you think we can do to change how people treat each other?” She answered, “I just don’t know anymore.” with a sigh. A few weeks after we spoke, for the first time in history, all fifty states marched together, unifying so many with a thrust of spirit, a resounding message of equality, consideration, and respect. Hope.
Her detailed collage infuses movement and vibrancy onto the still canvas, making images seem like they are about to walk out from the walls into the room. Lively and colorful, her art invites an action, making everything around it come alive. The backgrounds are white, leaving your imagination to wonder where they are, and how they got there. She is thankful, happy, and positioning herself to bring more awareness, provoking us to take notice.
DP- When did you notice you were artistically inclined?
DR- As a kid in the third grade, I knew art became something I loved doing. Kids I knew, they had a lot of paper, pencils, and crayons, and I wanted those crayons! They would ask me to draw something, and I could, and I was happy, and I noticed that made them happy too! It really drew me into art. Around the Fifth grade, I started paying attention to our family bible that had renaissance kinds of things, and I was able to grow as an artist through drawing these images.
DP- Has there been an evolution in the way you advocate your message forward, now that you have a larger audience?
DR- Everything grows. There has to be movement. If you aren’t delving in the medium, it can become stagnant and old. Romare Bearden’s work opened the door to doing a lot of things and how to work it into society. I want my work to be easy to approach because some work can be too hard in your face; it tends to make people feel guarded, I want to lure you into my picture work to deliver my message and help you see.
DP- What do you think has changed in the idea of beauty and coming to age for young boys and girls with current social pressures?
DR- Pop culture beauty is all over the place. The aesthetic ads on TV and magazine filled with notions that a blonde-haired blue-eyed person is more innocent than a dark-haired dark-eyed person are not, I want people to see that there is room for everybody.
DP- How can you impart to fellow artists and people, in general, the resiliency and hard work and never giving up?
DR- I was too dumb,(said jokingly laughing) to know it was going to be as hard as it has been! You don’t know the pitfalls of not knowing. Not knowing it will be years and years of hard-working and very little, of what people consider success, monetary success. Keep dedicated to your craft and the gift God has planned for you; then, I think it’s worth the hard work. It was the sacrifices and having the lights turned off, and rolling pennies for gas, in the end, I think all of it was worth it because it is what God had planned for me. I just didn’t know it was going to take THIS long! (laughing)
I would have been crazy, buck wild if I would have had it all when I was younger, but now, as a mature artist, many things don’t knock me over. I’ve been there, and I’ve done that. I always tell people to keep working for it.
DP- What was one way you celebrated your success?
DR- Personally, I bought a Tiffany watch. I wanted a timepiece to mark this time in history. I don’t do much for me. I built a house, and that is different because that is for my security. For me, I have really enjoyed traveling to new places. I went to the US Open twice. I’ve always wanted to go to the US Open!
DP- Tell me a moment of pure glory, professionally speaking.
I’ve had so many in those! (laughing happily)I just tell myself, as Oprah would say, “Be present at this moment, mentally, be present physically, emotionally. Just be present in this moment!” I remember the first time meeting Jerry Saltz. You read about him and see him all the time, and all of a sudden, there he was, “Boom!” Looking at one of my works! That was a surreal moment and when Beyonce bought one of my works. The idea that she was looking at my work and thinking about which one she wanted. Also, having my work selected for the Whitney Museum collection. That was very surreal to me. I’ve always wanted that. I remember once; a woman said I would never be in the Whitney; I remember that, and I made it there.
DP-What makes you feel thankful?
DR- I am so thankful for so much! I am so thankful that my mom is still alive to see this; she has lived to see my work in these amazing collections. She was instrumental at the beginning of my work and me getting better, so I am very thankful for that, especially.
DP-If you would like someone to own your work, who’s collection would you like to be in, dead or alive?
DR- I have so many beautiful people collecting my work, wouldn’t even want to say! Dead or alive, I would have to say, Romare Beardon. I think he would be very proud of it because it has taken some of his ideas he had about pushing that envelope forward. In a lot of ways, he handed me the baton, and I did the next thing. I hope one day someone will do that with me, take what I’m doing, my ideas and make it better, but uniquely their own. If I could have been in his collection, that would have been amazing.
DP- If you were to hand the baton, so to speak, What clear message would you want to have carried on?
DR- Be true to the work. Let the work speak to you, and don’t you be the work. That has been at the heart of what I’m doing. Go Wherever the work needs to go. I’ve been earnest and honest with it and let it go in that direction. The work knows where it needs to go, and you have to be humble and let it happen.I never sketch out my collages; they are intuitive, like action painting. Life has been like its never been like before. I have been thinking about a new work for the last couple of weeks. Its amazing in my head, and it’s called, “Satan Devours His Son,” his toes curling back and he is falling backward. I can see it, and I hope I can do it so that, and it is not too graphic. This one work, in particular, is knawing at me. The work that I’m creating now, 100 years from now will be a general artifact of this time. If we are still around and God doesn’t kill us all, along with our known public artifacts, they will think we were the most insane, monstrous society. We look back at the pages of Romans and feel, look how uncivilized those people were. I want people to know how uncivilized we have been, with our fighting, and how uncivilized they are.
She received her MFA from Syracuse University, New York. She lives and works in Austin, Texas. She is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles Projects.
Speaking to her made me joyful. The conversation was intense at times as we reflected on heavy subjects, but we also laughed a lot and am thankful for her balance, honest heart, mind, and hands that give us all lessons for a lifetime.