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Robert Amos: Artist creates felt portraits with feeling

Dale Roberts is one of four fibre artists in an exhibition at the Martin Batchelor Gallery. Each is worthy and interesting, but Roberts’ needle-felted portraits are outstanding.
Dale Roberts needle-felts a portrait of his partner, John.

robertamos.jpgDale Roberts is one of four fibre artists in an exhibition at the Martin Batchelor Gallery. Each is worthy and interesting, but Roberts’ needle-felted portraits are outstanding. I visited him at his studio, where his obsessive, multi-faceted, high-camp extravagance fills every corner of the large space.

It’s more interesting than any gallery experience or tourist attraction in this city. He should sell tickets!

Roberts is a Newfoundlander, and grew up in Port Leamington, a coastal village of 600 people.

“My time in Newfoundland, it feels like it was another generation altogether,” he told me. “We had no running water.” His father was a trapper, stretching hides when he was at home. Roberts’ mother taught him to crochet when he was five years old, and he has never stopped.

“We hung onto a lot of stuff, because it might have another purpose,” he said. For Roberts, that purpose was art.

After studies at the William Grenfell College in Corner Brook, Roberts pursued sculpture at the State University of New York in Purchase, New York. There he carved the beautiful hard stone he brought from Newfoundland, but while working at that, he was introduced to “mail art,” a way of circulating ephemera through the postal system.

His passion for postage has never abated. Creating artists’ trading cards, artists’ postage stamps and decorated envelopes led to larger projects.

For example, Roberts writes to celebrities and asks for autographed photos. A framed picture signed “with love, Doris Day” hangs on his wall, one of about 2,500 items in his carefully documented collection. His studio is a veritable museum, with sections devoted to Donald Duck memorabilia, Elvis souvenirs and Newfoundland.

When he arrived in Victoria about 15 years ago, Roberts filled suitcases with collages of objects he’d brought. The first has photos of his grandparents on transparent films; boxes of buttons from his mother; a New Testament he was given in the fifth grade; and rocks made from celluclay, suspended in net bags.

Then, using plywood found on the beach and laminated with maps of his home port, he overlaid the panels with crocheted network, shells and seaweed, and set them adrift in the ocean for a while. They were then exhibited in the foyer of the McPherson Playhouse.

It’s impossible not to get sidetracked in Roberts’ studio. A giant column of “Ken dolls” stands before a wall on which more are attached, in all 999 of these Barbie-boy action figures in a bizarre array of costumes and, higher up, naked, no clothes at all. By the door, Roberts was at work needle-felting a portrait of his partner, John, almost a metre square.

Needle-felting, built on a base of Styrofoam insulation, is made with tiny puffs of fibre pulled from bats of yarn. Laying a little tuft on the developing image, Roberts then pokes the fluff into the base with a rather large needle, just as a painter adds a brushstroke of paint. Poke poke poke poke. This man is in love with repetitive actions.

Layered and modulated with precision, the colours are built up in relief. Beyond the rainbow of colours, he pokes in sparkly fibres, and matte blacks of a depth beyond what paint can realize.

We were being watched by a regular wax museum of larger-than-life sculpted heads. Queen Elizabeth, Lucille Ball, Wonder Woman — they are beautifully modelled and richly coloured and costumed. These, too, are needle-felted, built on a simple oval armature and created in three dimensions, one puff of fibre at a time.

I hadn’t yet given any attention to the costumes Roberts can’t resist making. Holding court on the higher shelves are his hats and headdresses, which can only be described as fabulous. A royal crown would make Queen Elizabeth envious.

The Carmen Miranda-inspired fruit basket chapeau was created for the opening of the Anna Banana show at Open Space and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Others are free-form extravagances of no known lineage.

Roberts was busy painting yards of gauzy net in preparation for the Victoria Pride Parade and on Saturday, he was seen at the Moss Street Paint-In, where his procession down the avenue is a seasonal highlight. Hanging in his studio are racks of outrageous frocks, and six sequined bodices wait for their moment in the limelight.

Another zone in his rambling hive of activity is devoted to Distorts. These each began life as a humble object — I picked one up and realized after a bit that it had been a potato masher.

Roberts works up whatever yarn comes to hand and begins crocheting around the object, and soon the stitches leap beyond the original form and take on a life of their own. The results call to mind undersea life and space aliens. His intentions for this collection were modest at first, but now there are 333 individual Distorts. A small gathering of them graces the back wall at Martin Batchelor’s.

Roberts is a highly accomplished painter (in wool), a very creative sculptor, an engaging performance artist, a correspondence artist par excellence and a dedicated archivist of all of his many activities. His work is attractive, relevant, funny, beautifully crafted and unique.

He has been an engaging and influential Grand Dame on the art scene here and internationally for a generation. It’s about time the curators of this town made a visit to his downtown studio.

But whether the grant-givers and tastemakers notice or not, Dale Roberts will continue tying knots of pleasure around everything that comes his way. It has been a long time since I’ve been so inspired by a local artist.



Explorations in Fibre: Shannon Peck, Diana Weymar, Connie Michelle Morey and Dale Roberts, at Martin Batchelor Gallery, 712 Cormorant St. (250-385-7919) until July 27.