Work In Progress: LJ Roberts

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How did you first become interested in working with textiles?

My maternal grandmother taught me to knit at age 7, but I didn’t really take to it at that age.  I developed an interest in sculpture in high school and began to take 3-D studio classes in college.  I had an accident that resulted in a severe injury during my junior year of college and began knitting, as a lack of mobility made it difficult to use sculpture labs and shops. My undergraduate sculpture professor, Kathleen Schneider, was able to tie together concepts of materiality with politicized thought and action.  That was what really sparked my interest.

What was your trajectory like as an artist?

The schools that I went to as a young person did not encourage art as a way of life and generally the sentiment was that being an artist did not amount to much.  I was always creative and mostly did art during the summers at camp. As an adolescent I was very attuned to voice and narrative, and really my first dive into art was through literature.  The writing of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison and a little later June Jordan made me very interested in creative, political, first person accounts. I fully intended on being a writer.

I never planned on being an artist, but when I began working with textiles in college, I was really encouraged by my professors to continue.  I applied to MFA programs and went to California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. CCA really was a launch pad for my career. I’ve been showing my work regularly since then, mostly in galleries and museums, and have done some great residencies.  I’m also teaching now, which I enjoy very much. I must say that being an artist is much more wild than I expected it to be. I have stories that are stranger than fiction, in my opinion, that have come from being an artist.

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Is there a particular process or technique that has been most important to your work?

While it’s not a particular process or technique, I am very invested in my practice and work being flexible and adaptable.  If I have a studio I make large work using tools such as toy knitting machines and sewing machines. However, I work just as much when I don’t have a studio; for almost ten years I’ve been making intricate embroidered portraits of my activist/artist communities mostly in NYC, and I work on those anywhere and everywhere.  I get a lot of work done on the subway or listening to a lecture. One of the big advantages of working with textiles is that they pack up small and you can get them virtually anywhere. I like that I can always engage no matter where I am.

What have you currently been working on while at the residency at TAC?

During my residency at TAC, I am continuing a body of work that imagines what vehicles of the post-apocalypse might look like. It speculates on how queer futures could be constructed, but also keeps a finger on the present and the past.

Take me through a day in your studio practice, how do you work?

There isn’t a typical day yet, but I am hoping now that I finally have a permanent studio again (at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts) that I’ll get into a real routine.  When I have a studio, I spend copious amount of time there. But, mornings begin with walking my dogs and giving them love and then usually I have some emailing to do. I’ll work and have lunch and then work until dinner and sometimes into the night.  I typically go back and forth between techniques as I build a piece. For instance if I’ve knitted for a few hours, it gives me clues on how to proceed in another area, so then I’ll sew and then go back to knitting or sketching. Usually I work in a way that the pieces begin to reveal themselves and that dictates my own movements.

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You’ve drawn connections between queer identity and the position of textiles within visual culture, can you speak more to that relationship?

In a nutshell, I find that issues of marginality I encounter as a gender non-conforming non-binary person often mirror the positioning of textile and craft within visual culture. For me, these mutually reflective margins provide a site for radical possibility and transformation through materiality. There is a boundlessness that I see in both spaces that is appealing to me.

What imagery or subject matter do you find keeps making its way into your work?

I think that the possibilities and problematics of alternative forms of (queer) kinship are at the root of much of my work.  I’ve also addressed the on-going AIDS epidemic in my work since 2000 when I was an undergraduate art student.

What are some of your other interests? Outside of the studio passions? Do they find their way into your work?

I have two dogs, Ziggy and Sparky, and my partner also has a dog, Cecil, and our lives really revolve around them. They often come to the studio and art openings with me. Not only do they make their way into my work, but they’ve also made appearances in multiple museums and galleries. I also love cats, horses and other equine species, and goats.

IMG_4968I also like to travel, but am a very nervous traveler.  I think that shows up in my work often, especially in this series of imagined vehicles.

Of course art, particularly art that delves into identity politics, is an interest and I try to see as much as I can, though having a very labor intensive studio practice can make getting out and about a challenge.

Who are some of the artists that you look at, or that have really inspired your work?

Harmony Hammond is someone whose work is endlessly inspiring to me, as is her life, generosity, and energy.  I’ve been lucky to have been able to spend time with her since I was a very young person. Her way of being in the world is extraordinary.  I feel very inspired by the work of Mark Bradford and look at his paintings often, whether in shows or books. My friend Frederick Weston who works mostly in collage but also has a full pocket of practices is someone I can dialogue with for hours. Shows I have seen recently that I thought were knockouts were Chitra Ganesh at The Rubin Museum where her animations were shown alongside selections from the permanent collection, and White Man on a Pedestal by Doreen Garner and Kenya (Robinson) which was at Pioneerworks. I attended a screening of Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s films at MoMA that was exceptional.  Her post-screening conversation with curator Vivian Crockett was off-the-hook mind-scrambling. Friends and collaborators such as Sarah Zapata, Sara Jimenez, Danny Orendorff, Ariel Goldberg, Ted Kerr, and Nelson Santos (and MANY more) make thoughtful and complex work that pushes my own. My brilliant and generous partner, J Dellecave, challenges me in very necessary ways about what I am doing in my practice. She’s a unique and eloquent thinker and artist.

Do you have any dream projects?

I’ve been making my small (6 x 4 inch) embroidered portraits for about 8 years now.  When 2021 comes around, I’ll have been making them for a decade. I would love to see them shown all in one place. Eventually I would love to make a show out of the fantasy vehicles. I have a list of people I would love to collaborate with in the future, as well.

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How do you choose your color palette?

A lot of times the materials I have at hand set the palette for me.  I’ll have one piece of fabric and build around that. My artist books and collages use Xerox, so that’s automatically black, white, and grayscale. I’m working towards trying to make the Xerox collages into weavings, but so they maintain the feel of the copy machine.  For me the way that texture interacts with the palette is central, hence using textiles and old xerox machines.

What do you think about while you are working on a piece?

My mind is usually thinking through what’s happening with the piece I’m working on and how to go about making next moves.  I have a very active brain, so it usually is always working towards problem solving or conceptual or aesthetic decisions. Occasionally I can get in “work zone” where I feel like the energy shifts to my body, but typically I’m scheming or worrying while creating.

What direction do you see yourself moving toward?

Right now my aim is to work towards building very realized bodies of work. That’s a challenge for me because my work is so steeped in labor using analog techniques so making work takes a while; one small 6 x 4 inch embroidery takes three to six months.  The large pieces which are created on children’s knitting machines and by a lot of hand sewing take years. I’m beginning residencies at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and the International Artists’ Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS in Stockholm), so hopefully those spaces will enable that goal.

On Thursday, May 31st, join Work In Progress resident, LJ Roberts, and artists, Sara Jimenez and Sarah Zapata, in a conversation about their creative practices, in and outside of the studio. This talk and discussion aims to demystify what planning, problem solving, and prepping for shows entails, as well as share humorous stories and frank tales of what art-making on a steady basis can bring. LEARN MORE + RSVP.

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