Big-Head (Thinking), 2014, Mixed media, 47″ x 30″
The core of the creative process for painter-photographer-collagist Holly Roberts is discovery. She compares how she composes with chasing a trail of breadcrumbs down a forest path. “Some artists have a vision when they start out,” she says. “But I have to completely clear my mind to start. If I have an idea in my head at all it doesn’t work.” Describing her intuitive process, she expands upon the breadcrumb metaphor. She can only see two at a time at most. Only when she reaches one is she able to see the next. “And then once I’ve done something,” she says, “once I’ve figured out how to do something, I can’t do that same thing again.”
In her photo-painting hybrids Roberts synchronizes the abstract and imaginary with the literal and everyday. Asked how long it takes her to complete a piece, she smiles and responds “Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes it happens quickly. These big heads just happened, kinda like falling out of bed.” This is a reference to her most recent exhibition, “Cabezas y Caballos” at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica. A focal point of the show was a series of four-foot high heads expressed in Roberts’s unique media, a combine of photos and painting that has been her mode for many years. The show comes on the heels of a June show at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art in Santa Fe.
Roberts was born in Boulder, Colorado in 1951. When she was three years old her family relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico where Roberts grew up. Emerging from the University of New Mexico with a BA in Printmaking, she spent five years in Albuquerque working as a curator for the Tamarind Institute. “Watching and working with the numerous significant artists who moved through that space,” she reflects, “I finally realized who my tribe was, and what I really wanted to do.” So she returned to school-“back in the darkroom days.” She first applied oil paints on top of her black and white photographs in what seemed at the time to be an interesting experiment, rather than a major direction. A few breadcrumbs later, and she would arrive at the heart of her working process.
A major influence came through her close contact with Zuni culture. After completing her MFA at Arizona State University, she moved with her husband, a physician working on tribal lands, to Zuni, New Mexico where they stayed for the next eight years. Roberts discovered herself as an artist among the masked dancers and costumed figures moving against the stillness of the desert. Here she accepted her true nature as a storyteller. In the proximity of Zuni culture she was able to recognize her need for narrative subject matter just as post-modernism was bringing it back into vogue. She credits her time in Zuni with the frequent roles animals play in her pictures.
In 2004 she reversed her technical process. Having established herself as a staple in Santa Fe’s contemporary art scene with her oil painted photography, she started to create acrylic grounds, onto which she would then collage photographic cutouts. As always, she generates all her own photographic information, but the switch to a digital darkroom led Roberts’s new approach. The work became more colorful, and more abstract. Roberts’s acrylic grounds are created long before she knows what imagery they will contain. She insists that each function as an abstract painting in and of itself, but says that no matter how complete the ground seems on its own, she can never resist filling it with the recognizable images of her haunting and whimsical narratives.
Today she lives with her husband in the quiet village of Corrales, New Mexico. She’s been in the same house and studio for the past 23 years. Recent achievements include solo exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2013 and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego in 2012. She blogs from the studio at hollyrobertsonepainting atatime.blogspot.com, while cataloging her cutouts much as Joseph Cornell did his found objects. She has files of heads, and arms and legs. She has files for horses, owls, snakes and ducks. Like Paul Klee, she takes play and invention very seriously. As she puts it, “When I’m just reacting, when I have no idea where a piece is going, that’s when I have the most fun.”
“Holly Roberts: Cabezas y Caballos” could be seen at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, from Sept 6 – Oct 11, 2014. www.craigkrullgallery.com
“A Day in the Life: Works by Holly Roberts” was on view at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, NM, from May 30 – June 21, 2014. www.zanebennettgallery.com