Darrell Roberts is a Chicago based artist represented by Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago. His artwork is full of intense colors and textures as he draws his influences from the lakefront path of Lake Michigan, the Chicago skyline and construction sites in the city. Darrell has a Bachelors in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, a Bachelors of Fine Arts and Masters of Fine Arts in studio art from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Interviewed by: Kristina Daignault & Michael Soto.
Artistic Process/On Making Work:
Kristina: What kind of artist do you consider yourself?
Darrell Roberts: Wow, let’s go into my psyche. I think I’m an observationist of color and light – those are two really important elements to my research. Also my walks, my investigation, and my travels. How does the light affect color? That’s why I’m really excited about India, because the intensity of the light is so strong there, and then comparing that to Chicago, or the woods in Iowa, or a town in Texas.
K: So, you’re an observational colorist?
D: Yeah, even though my work is abstract, it’s all about what I see, and it’s really important to have a camera to take thousands of pictures, as you probably know with my constant Facebook updates. All those textures and colors influence my work. So, I think it’s just as important to be out of my studio and in my environment to see what influences me. My color palette is sort of like my subconscious coming through. Then, after six to eight layers in my paintings, that’s the final result. So it might be a combination of different places in the paintings.
K: I saw in your studio a couple of paint chips. Do you ever think to yourself, “I want to use these 3 colors, but I’m not sure what else to use, but I’m going to go figure that out,” before you start anything?
D: I’m always, at Home Depot or wherever I’m at, taking the paint chips. I made an entire handmade book of collage out of paint chips once, and that was really cool.
K: You make books? Tell me more about that.
D: It’s with glue on paper, so it was [cutting] out the collage in an arrangement of shapes and everything. I started with a blank book, but I think this book was made out of cardboard. I’ve got regular sketchbooks too. I love to draw – drawings are very important to me. I’ve got thousands of works on paper. Sometimes I’ll go somewhere, and I’ll only work on paper. I like my works on paper sometimes better than my other work.
K: Do you use colored pencils?
D: I’m usually working with wash and watercolor crayons and ink and pastel and colored pencils, crayons, graphite pencils, charcoal. It’s completely mixed media.
K: I’ve never seen any of your drawings.
D: I’ve got some from Brooklyn, some from Texas, some from India. Each set represents a different body of work that I created. I don’t have the bodies of work anymore, but I still have the works on paper. So, it’s doing those works on paper, then, that inspires my mark-making and layering for my paintings, which is what most people see.
K: You have quoted Harold Rosenberg once saying you were an action painter. You said was that you thought making art was an action and wasn’t making an object—that making it was an experience. Do you still feel that way?
D: Well, the process of using the brush across the canvas and the mark-making—the physical act of painting—is marvelous, and it still is today. But my paintings are all about being edited out, so that’s why it takes 6-8 months for me to create a body of work. What’s not working in the layers, I paint out or put something else on top of it until it has this thing . . . there’s some balance or feel to it. Or it’s sculptural, so I can do it from the side and front or wherever, and it just feels like I can’t do anything else to it, so then I stop.
K: How do you know when it’s time to stop?
D: Well it just doesn’t feel like it needs anything else. Like a lot of times I’ll be working on a body of work, and I’ll be like, “Well that needs a little orange over here,” or something. And that will just make it pop out, and the painting is finished.
K: How long do you spend from blank canvas to, “Okay, this is all done.”
D: At least a half a year. That’s not quite action – there’s a lot of sitting and looking and observing.
Michael: From what I see on your Facebook posts, sometimes it seems like you paint yourself into this euphoric state, where you’re sleep-deprived, and you’ve been up for several days, and you’re in the studio in the middle of the night.
D: Well, I paint more at night because I like the buzzes of silence and the city. After 10, I start getting inspired. I think I’ve done all my procrastination list. You gotta check all your messages, or some people have to clean stuff, or some people have to do laundry first. There’s always something that you feel like you’ve gotta get done. I gotta go to Trader Joe’s, and then I get to paint, you know? And I go for my walks during the day, then I’m like, “Okay, now I’m inspired,” and it happens to be really late. There’s one other guy back here that has a studio, he’s here every night, and he works all night too. I mean we don’t always talk, but it’s nice energy flowing.
K: So does the gallery just call you and say, “We want some more stuff by this day?”
D: Right. They came by last month and got a bunch of work, like maybe thirty pieces. I’d taken in maybe sixteen or eighteen this summer and dropped them off. Usually I get an email, and then I fill up a couple IKEA bags with my paintings, and I take those, and I leave them there for Tom to look at it. Or if it’s less, then I might take in like four Trader Joe’s bags full of paintings, whatever I can carry, and that’s how I deliver my work. I’ve got a bad reputation for… well, I had a show in Iowa. The head of the department and one of my Art History professors bought a painting from me this year, and they shipped it from my studio, but then they were like, “You have a really bad reputation on how you send your work.” I usually put them in like used boxes and stuff the boxes with anything I can find, like foam in my studio or paper. The curator wasn’t very happy with the way I shipped my work to him.
K: So you’re not overly concerned?
D: I’m not very. I can remember I took something in to McCormick, and there’s another artist there, and I was showing him something, and sometimes the work is a little wet, and a little piece broke off. I was like, “Oh shit,” so I just stuck it back on. I have another show coming up in Iowa at Simpson College– it’s going to be in 2015. It’s a really big space.
K: Are you going to make giant pieces for it?
D: No, I’m going to make small, but I’m a little worried because it’s a lot of space, so I’m going to have to show some works on paper. When I get back, that’ll be the work that I’ll make. My work looks very good with a lot of space in between them, so instead of 4 feet, maybe 12. McCormick hangs my work really well, and sparse, and lights it.
K: Because of the wooden boxes, right?
D: The shadow boxes, for some pieces. But, yeah, I don’t really make work preparing for a show – I just make the work, and then when I have a show, I just have to pick out from what I have or hope that I have something for it.
K: So, your process doesn’t involve catering to something?
D: Yeah, I never really think about it.
K: When you’re travelling, do you have a plan for what you hope to gather artistically? Are you just going to get inspiration, or are you going to make work? What are you hoping will happen?
D: Most of it’s getting inspiration, but I take little watercolor books and wash and pastels just so I can have a really strong intensity of color. And I made sure that I’ve got some really good pastels, like Rembrandt. I like to explore; I’m very tactile. I’m surprised I haven’t touched your sweater – can I touch your sweater?
K: Haha, sure. Tell us, what is something you think you might miss while you’re off exploring places like India?
D: Trader Joes. It’s weird; during my 3rd week there last time, I sort of had a mini breakdown, and I just wanted a fucking Starbucks with Internet.
K: They don’t have any Starbucks in all of India?
D: No, I don’t think so. No coffee shops, so no place for Internet. I didn’t have a phone because I didn’t buy a phone there – your American phone doesn’t work there. Even if you took your laptop, there’s nowhere to just sit and Internet. A couple different shopping areas we went, there was a coffee shop, sort of American style one, you know, and some more expensive shopping areas. There’s Soho, but it was really more like when Wicker Park was on the shady end, and that was their upscale. And the electricity goes off every day, and you just turn everything off until it turns back on. The electric company doesn’t have enough energy to power the city 24 hours straight. It’s like 2:00 in the afternoon, it’ll go off, and you have to turn off the ceiling fans in the studio, the lights. You just sit around like this for a couple of hours until it comes back on.
K: And you never know when that’s going to happen?
D: No, that happens almost every day, but you don’t know when. And then one time, we were stuck in traffic on this interstate, and there was a traffic jam, so no cars are moving, and people start getting out of their cars, and they start talking to the person outside, or they check the air in the tires. We were sitting there for like 45 minutes, waiting for the traffic to move again, because there was probably a cow somewhere blocking the road. But yeah, what will I miss? I don’t know. I think just something familiar like Starbucks.
K: So essentially, you will miss modern convenience?
D: Something like that, yeah. There are no Walgreen’s; you don’t go and buy stuff at Walgreen’s or Target. You go to a fucking little shop. . . it’s really great and fun at first, but when you’re on week six, and you have an hour-and-a-half to go get the rest of the stuff you need, then you’re like, “I can’t do that.”
K: Is the metro reliable at all?
D: It is. It’s new, only like 5 years. It’s faster than ours. The metro is really nice, but you might take a truck or 3-wheel auto rickshaw to get there. I took the bus once with some friends, but I don’t know how to take the bus because you’re supposed to know where you’re going, and then whatever that distance is, that’s how much you pay.
K: Like the New York state thruway.
D: Yeah, but the amount of people is overwhelming.
K: What would be your favorite thing to eat if someone were making it for you, like us, if we made you dinner, and you could pick anything in the whole world, what would you pick?
K: In fact, that is a specialty.
D: I think when I have cooked food, I want home-style cooked food a lot, like a really good roast with like potatoes and carrots and onions and stuff like that.
K: I like the home-style nature.
D: Well, I like bass and frog legs and really country food.
M: I was wondering if you could tell us the story about the wheelbarrow.
D: I’m so in love with the wheelbarrow. I fall in love with objects, like just crazy things. I was looking for the perfect horse head and the perfect wheelbarrow. I would go on these walks, and I’d see these beautiful rusty wheelbarrows, and I was like, “Wow, they’re so inspiring.” If we had one object to send to outer space that represented humans, it would be a wheelbarrow. It would show how we work and build things, and it’s used for transporting stuff. I think it’s one universal symbol. I wanted one of these heavy rusty wheelbarrows that has cement on them. Down the street here, they’re remodeling a house, and they were working on it, and I saw it one day, and I was like, “God, I’d really like to have that,” but I didn’t want to go up and ask them. The next week, I saw it and I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get this. The worst thing they can do is say no.” So I go up to them and say, “Hey, I’m an artist, I need this wheelbarrow,” and the guy is like, “Just borrow it and take it and bring it back next week.” And I was like, “No, damn it. I don’t want to borrow it; I want to buy it.” I don’t wanna go to the Home Depot and buy a new one. I don’t want a new one that’s blue or something; I want one that’s rusty. It’s intimate. There’s something about being used, like it’s been excavated from something, or there’s something remarkable about it. I told him I know they’re expensive, and I’m like, “How much?” He’s like, “Well, $200 to buy another one,” and I’d cashed a check, so I gave him $200, and I wheeled my wheelbarrow down the street to my studio and up the stairs and put it on my drawing table in my studio. I just love it, and it’s got the nice rubber wheel and the metal frame, the wooden handles, and I’m happy as shit. I have a horse head and a wheelbarrow.
K: What’s the deal with the horse head, why did you decide you wanted horse head and a wheelbarrow?
D: Oh, the skull is so beautiful.
K: Did you have like a Georgia O’Keefe moment? What happened?
D: I don’t like Georgia O’Keefe, she’s not that great of an artist, so…
K: Wow, I like her work from New York.
D: I liked the watercolor she did in Texas, so there are some things. It’s just in too many calendars, you know. I think that’s it—you see it everywhere. But no, I spent two years looking for a horse head, and there are cow heads everywhere, but I wanted a horse head.
K: When did you first get the idea that you needed to have a horse head?
D: When I was in Texas, I was looking really heavily for it then. I was like I’m like “Gosh, I want this skull.” And I think it was someone used to draw from either an elephant or a hippo skull, some artist one time. I was like, “Oh, I want a skull that’s unique and a nice form to have.” And the ones in Texas weren’t quite solid enough or big enough. Then, I was in Andersonville at Wooly Mammoth, that sells taxidermy animals and things. Besides your fish and deer head, there’s a peacock, and all types of strange things—maybe a tiger head, or they also had a hippo skull. The hippo skull was like $2,000. But this horse skull must’ve been like a racing horse or something, some type of stallion, because the jaw line is big, the eye socket is wonderful, the teeth… I can just hold it and pet it, and it’s just like petting a real horse, but it doesn’t have any flesh or skin.