Years ago I wandered into Etherton Gallery in the downtown arts district of Tucson, Arizona, and found myself surrounded by the work of photographer/painter/collage artist Holly Roberts. I'd never encountered her art before and it hit me with the force of a revelation: glowing on the walls with colors so rich, yet so subtle, I could have stood there forever.
I'm glad I first saw Robert's work this way, for the reproductions in books and online -- beautiful as they are -- don't begin to convey the power of the originals. Built up in layers of photography and paint, the images glimmer with an otherwordly light and contain hidden depths that reveal themselves slowly over time. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple as children's drawings, and filled with mythic and personal resonances, they touched the same place in me as good magical realist fiction: highlighting the mystery of the everyday world. I now own two of her marvellous pieces, the first major art purchases I ever made as a young woman.
Roberts was born in Boulder, Colorado; studied painting at Bellas Artes de Mexico, the University of New Mexico, and Arizona State University; and now lives in New Mexico. Some of her early work relates to the period of her life when she lived on the Zuni Indian reservation, where her husband worked as a doctor. Her art appears in museum collections across the U.S. and is reproduced in three books: Holly Roberts: Works 1989-1999, Holly Roberts: Works 2000-2009, and Holly Roberts: Untitled 50.
"I work intuitively," she says, "painting an abstract painting before applying bits and pieces of photo fragments on the surface. What I am trying for is a painting that can stand alone but that won’t dominate the photo collage that is to follow. Once I start forming the story (made primarily from my own photographs), I allow the photos that I’ve chosen to inform the image, starting with only a vague idea of what it is that I am trying to build. The collage works best when the pieced photos make up something that they aren’t about literally, but rather have a metaphorical or poetic connection, either through subject or texture.
"The large concerns in my life are at the core of my work: the degradation of the environment, spiritual meaning in a world of polarized and extremist religions, the stress and fear of aging, the daily fears and anxieties of being alive in the world today. These collages allow me to continue to do what I have always done with my art: by processing the world through my eyes and my hands, I am able to make some greater sense of the confusion and beauty of the world around me."
Robert's more recent work is focused on collage, still working with photographs as a starting point. The following descriptions of her art art are excerpted from her art blog One Painting at a Time, which I highly recommend. The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the image.)
"Two things helped shaped me as a child: riding my horse, bareback and alone, in the rural ranch land around my home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the nature programs on the Public TV Station, PBS. The shows portrayed a democratic world where nothing was either all good or all bad (except man). Yes, the lioness killed the newborn baby gazelle, but she had (adorable) cubs to feed. The programs seemed always to be about the struggle of the animals to survive, be it weather or predators or loss of environment. An episode in which drought causes the rivers to dry allowing the crocodiles to attack and devour antelope with the speed of light as they nervously creep down the dry bank to drink is burned into my brain. One minute you're just about to stick your nose in the dirty brown water for a needed drink, the next you're being pulled under the water, trapped in the jaws of a prehistoric monster. There is no easy street in nature.
"When I would go out on my long solo rides, I would look for evidence of what I'd learned from those nature programs. The country I rode in was mostly ranch land, so I would see cattle, but not much wildlife. But still, I was always on the lookout. Circling birds meant something. 'Vultures,' I would mutter, then urge my horse into a canter, searching for whatever was beneath the floating figures. Usually it was just crows flying around, but every once and awhile I would find something dead, most often a cow. I had hopes of finding much more exciting carrion, but it was alright when I didn't. I loved being in a world where mysterious and unknown things were happening, and to be a part of that world all I had to do was pay attention."
"I've always made images that combine people and animals, turning them into one being. I've never questioned these images, but I've also never known where they came from. Now I'm excited by the possibility that it's a 10,000 year old subconscious remembering of being part of that older order when we were all mixed up together: animals, humans, plants, the weather -- all that was alive and vital to our existence. I imagine it to come from a time before there was a separation, before humanity created a civilization where we could distance ourselves from anything that was alive. What I'm remembering is only a glimmer, but a glimmer none-the-less. And I like to imagine that when people see these images, they may also have a bit of that same glimmer."
"Several years ago, while driving down our quiet, semi-rural road, I noticed a dog trotting in the middle of the road. It was about 10:00 in the morning, a typical, bright. sunny, New Mexico day. Dogs, for the most part, don't run loose in our village, so I was curious to see who he was. However, as I got closer, I realized it was not dog at all, but a coyote. Held firmly in his mouth was a large, fat hen, clearly no longer in the land of the living. The coyote moved to the shoulder to get out of my way, never interrupting his brisk, efficient trot. When I remembered that morning, I was glad I could bring the memory back to life: his insouciance, his pleasure, and most of all, the fact that he had been alive and well and taking such good care of his coyote business (of course it wasn't my hen)."
In collage work, Roberts works primarily with her own imagery...but occasionally, as in the pictures above, she'll incorporate borrowed imagery as well. It can be a fine line between "borrowing" and "stealing," and she tries not to let her work cross that line; her intent is to marry "diverse images to make something completely new and original. I'm hoping that Rembrandt, were he to walk into the room which held Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving would, in seeing the head of Agatha Bas that he had painted so many years ago, not be angry at me. Instead I hope that he would be intrigued in seeing how I had used Angela's head to tell a story about a mother who is about to lose her daughter to the outside world. He would understand that the birds spoke of the eventual freedom of the girl, but he would also see the snake-like figure at the top, and would know that as well as freedom there was also implied danger. He would see the pride, but also the sorrow, that the mother feels. He would see that, in so beautifully capturing the face of Angela Bas, he gave me the perfect mother to tell this story."
To learn more about Holly Robert's work, visit her blog and her website. You can also watch a short "Artist Talk" video of Roberts here.