by Margaret Williams
Photograph by Aaron Pinkston
Deborah Roberts is a force. You know it the minute you step into her studio, the first time you see the work or hear her booming laugh. The painter and collage artist has a clear vision for how she wants her work to interact with the world and has always defined success by producing honest pieces that communicate a message, one that’s about the complexity of self and otherness.
But as sometimes happens, the larger art world is just now catching up with the way she has always seen herself: as a successful artist. The Austin-born, Syracuse University-educated painter, whose collages are sought-after by museums and collectors alike, is having a moment. She has recently received a string of grants and awards (the Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant in 2016, to name but one), and next year will have solo shows at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and the Stephen Friedman Gallery, in London.
Roberts seems delighted by the recognition, but also unfazed. When we met at her new studio in Canopy Austin, most of the conversation revolved around the two unfinished pieces hanging on her studio walls. How would she resolve the hands and boxing gloves? What’s the proper balance between painting and collage work? These are the questions of a hardworking artist at the top of her game. Surrounded by paint, brushes and collage pieces, we talked about her career and what this moment means.
Margaret Williams: What was your earliest exposure to art?
Deborah Roberts: In third grade, I started drawing. And then I just fell in love with it after that, but I didn’t understand art really until I was about 15, in high school.
MW: When did you know you were going to try making a living as an artist?
DR: It just happened 18 months ago [laughs], so I waited for 30 years.
MW: When did you move into collages?
DR: Collages came about 12 years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my faces. I realized the news media had a very distorted and monolithic image of blackness. The people I know are made up of multiple images. The collages allowed me to work in that direction.
MW: You talk a lot about otherness. What does that mean to you?
DR: Being the other in the society means you live in the margins of everyone else’s lives. Whiteness is a present in our lives from the time we’re five years old, and blackness is not present in others’ lives until they’re nine or ten, and even then it’s a month of information. I would love to live in a vast society where human nature is put together.
MW: Did you always know that your work would speak to those ideas?
DR: No. I didn’t always know that. I hoped that it would, but what graduate school offered me was the opportunity to really expand my historical knowledge.
MW: What are different cultural references you pull from?
DR: There are four stools to my work. There’s art history, American history, black culture and pop culture. But I’m adding a fifth, and it’s literature. Now it’s just as important to me as the paint I use.
I’m listening to Toni Morrison, who’s telling me why I’ve added bare feet to my work. She said shoes are political. There’s a call and response to people who have come before us.
MW: What is your process?
DR: The first thing for me is to figure out the face that I want and what I want to talk about. If I can get the face, then I can figure out the rest.
[Roberts points to a painting on the far right of her studio wall.]
When I started that piece last week, I only knew the pose that I wanted to use, but when I put that face together, it was such excitement. The boys’ faces are all new, and I’m trying to figure out the best way. This new work is at its very early stages, so the message — it’s not quite as strong as the girls, but it’s getting there. That’s what the work is doing right now, figuring itself out.
I’ve been thinking that I’m putting too much paint on.
MW: You’re worried you’re putting too much paint on the canvas?
DR: Yeah, I don’t want to get away from collaging. I love it. I want it to be a true mixed media. But having my hand involved in the emotion of painting is really strong. I just have to find a happy medium.