The Smooth Spot
Interview by Charles Moore // Portrait by Moyo Oyelola
By third grade, Deborah Roberts knew she’d be an artist. What she couldn’t anticipate was that she would become a household name by exploring themes of race, gender identity, and what it means to be vulnerable as a Black person in America. Early in her career, when Roberts worked primarily on paper rather than canvas, she showcased small paintings and drawings depicting Black Americana—those elements of daily life from which the media had largely moved away. Through her works she shouted, “This is who we are!”
The artist earned her MFA from Syracuse University in the mid-2000s, and it was around that time that her work began to undergo a shift. Roberts embarked on a journey of scholarship, one in which she set out to break down stereotypes: to deconstruct the trope of the out-of-control Black man, the over-sexualized Black woman, or the adultified Black child. These stereotypes, the artist found, had become a currency of sorts—yet the world she inhabited was far more nuanced. From there, she began tackling colorism, seeking to shed light on the beauty of the Black experience in America. The outcome is calming, visually stunning, and effective at breaking down stereotypes. Those “smooth spots,” according to Roberts, which represent the beauty of the Black experience, deserve more attention.
Of course, racism in America and around the globe is a never-ending source of material for Roberts. The mixed-media artist addresses this by spending downtime scrolling through her phone or laptop, reading the news, or searching social media until she experiences a trigger. From there, she’ll journal or take screenshots of the incident, then allow that idea to simmer for some time. Roberts will scour the internet in search of new faces she can use as inspiration for her portraits—faces she prints out and reshapes to integrate into a collage. She makes a conscious decision to use source images that depict strangers rather than friends and family; this way, the artist explains, she can avoid destroying an existing image (something Roberts must do in order to achieve her desired outcome), and instead blend the images of Black people from all walks of life—furthering the notion that there is no monolithic idea of Blackness.
Through her collage work, the Blackness that Roberts conveys is vast. It’s constantly moving and growing—and so working off a single face isn’t sufficient. The process instead must be communal and unifying in nature. The result is powerful.
Charles Moore: So, tell me about when you first realized you were interested in making art. What were the first works of art you were creating at that time?
Deborah Roberts: I kind of started when I was a kid. I think all kids’ first forms of mark-making happen when they're in school and they're really young, and for me, by the third grade, I started with figuring out that this was something that I really wanted to do. I was doing well at it. I was trading objects for more notebook paper, more pencils, more different things like that. But professionally, I guess I was in my early twenties—about 23, 24. I did a show in Atlanta and I just thought, “I can do this.” I mean, it was a home show. I pushed through, just kept going. And the work that I did at that time, I was doing these really small little paintings and drawings that depict Black Americana and all the wonderful, lovely things that Black people do that the news media has shifted away from. I wanted to say, I was actually trying to yell at the world, “This is who we are. This is what we do. This is how we love.” And so I did a lot of work like that. I mean, a lot.
Right. I think your work kind of shifted when you went to grad school, but what prompted the decision to go to Syracuse for the MFA, and then how did the work shift from there?
Well, one thing that happened, and it must have been 2004 when I had started thinking the work was already trying to shift, but I didn't understand it. I already had a couple of sales going, but it was really tough. I remember when I saw the basketball brawl with the Pistons and Pacers, when I used to paint in my front living area and had CNN on, I remember that day, how they just showed that fight so many times. And I just wondered, this is the image they are projecting out into the world of Black people. This big outta control Black man racing into the stands and pounding on this little kid (really it was a man, but they made it seem like it was a kid). And not saying how the water was ever splashing his face, or all the obscenities that were said to him (Ron Artest).
But as I said, the work that I'm doing is not the same as what's been shown to the world. So I started reading more. I had a young friend who went to graduate school and I asked him if he could share his reading list. And on that were works by the likes of Cornel West. I started reading that and it talked about Black sexuality and Black bodies, how we have lived in this world for centuries, and how people have made it currency and all sorts of things. I just started working from there. Soon after that, I guess around 2008, I started realizing that I needed more scholarship, that I wasn't getting it on my own.
I needed more formalized training. And that was it. I realized, probably by the time I got to Syracuse in 2011, that literature was just as important in my work as me actually doing the work. It was a missing component all those years. It was shored up through bell hooks and Toni Morrison and Cornel West and Anna Aldridge and so many others. It was just all the things that I needed to push to work forward.
And interestingly enough, Cornel was friends with bell hooks and Toni Morrison. They've done some work together over the years and I think they developed a real friendship–not just a working relationship, but a friendship as well.
Wow. That's beautiful.
Also interesting is that they never really got the side of the story from Ron Artest and the other players involved in that brawl until decades later.
Yeah, I know. Nor did they want to hear the side of it. It's a better story to produce this angry Black man than someone who's been physically assaulted by a cup of water and ice thrown in his face. They don't want to hear that story.
So as an artist, how do you wrestle with tackling these stereotypes of the sexualization of Black women and the threat of violence associated with Black men?
I know it's really hard. And also the adultification of Black children—it's really, really hard to navigate those waters because it is so bumpy and so treacherous; there are very smooth spots to talk about, but we have to live in those smooth spots. If not, we'll go mad. So what I try to do within the work, is to show the beauty and the kindness that exists, and the glow that exists in Black people. And also that humanity that is sometimes lacking in some of the tropes and stereotypes that are put out as it relates to our community. Sometimes we don't step up or say things that we need to say to each other to keep us on the right track. So I tried to talk about colorism and the body and also within the Black community, classism and things like that which we have to talk about as a people.
Let’s talk a bit more about those two things (as it relates to the Black community)—colorism and classism.
When we talk about colorism, everybody experiences some form, especially me being a dark-skin sister. I remember when my grandma wanted me in particular to be in the Jack and Jill foundation. I was too dark to be in a Jack and Jill club. I didn't pass the “paper bag test.” And then also we talked about economic classism that exists in the Black community. I grew up in a two-parent household. We were lower-middle class, or maybe just lower class, depending on how they ranked us. But all our yards were clean. We had a wonderful neighborhood but we weren't accepted into the elite part of Austin.
We were clean and respectable, we were still just regular Black people. And then you had the Black people who are wealthy, who don't want to be in the trenches of the Black neighborhood, who move to predominantly white areas or on the border of white areas so that they will fit more into the community. So what I try to do is talk about classism very faintly in my work. In my earlier works from 2016 to 2018, I really did tackle colorism because I think it's very important. And in the latter part of my practice, I've been more in the social justice part, but I have to swing back through colorism because it's so very important.
Let’s talk about the work itself. Tell me about the process from start to finish in creating one work.
So I went into my studio right now and my assistants are just sewing. Let's just say I figure out what size I need the canvas to be, and once that’s determined, I start thinking about what I want to talk about next. Or sometimes society gives me everything I need to talk about. It is the deepest well when we talk about racism in America or racism around the world, it is a never-ending source of material. And often there's something floating at the top. Sometimes you’ve got to escalate something to figure out what needs to be talked about that's been glossed over or just generally being in one’s skin, what that feels like, and how you meet people day to day and how they meet you.
So those are a lot of the things I try to wrestle with and try to unpack while I'm thinking about what I want to go for. Even now, when I'm in my downtime, I will be searching the internet, or I'll be looking at something on Instagram or Facebook. And it just triggers me. It triggers something, and I say, “Oh, I need to do a work like that. I need to do something that talks about that.” I'll either do a screenshot or I'll just write it down in my journal and go back to it. So once I have an idea or image, I go about creating the face. I say, “Okay, some faces I have exhausted, and I need to pick new faces.”
I'll go on the Internet looking for new faces. Once I’ve found that face, I'll take it and print it out. I have a huge printer. Then I will start collaging, having that little base face, and using other images that I have found and start building the face. Once I have the face, then the rest is history. I can just quickly draw the body and then move through the work. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death so right now I'm in a conversation with Picasso's Negro period between 1901 and 1910 in which he took work from Africa and different types of materials and textures and fractures of masks and started abstracting his work more based on those, as he calls it, “primitive-looking” masks and items.
I feel like your career really transitioned when you went from primarily working on paper to working on canvases. What prompted that decision and how do you feel about that?
Well, I love paper! I totally love working on paper. When I was in graduate school, three of my works were on canvas. I did a lot of canvas works at that time, but when I got out of Syracuse, I mean, I was so poor that paper was the only thing I could afford. And when you don't have any money, you have to work off tablets and sketch pads. So I worked in that way for two years because I just couldn't afford canvases or panels. The summer always has been the time for my exploration of my work, so in 2019 I said, “Let's just get some canvases and see if this work can transfer to canvas.”
So we started working. I decided there are certain things I wanted the canvas to look like, to feel like. We figured that out. Then I started working on canvas, and I think it was a big push and a big move for my work. Now I love working on panels but they are so unforgiving—you make any mistakes you're just out of luck. I love the pressure of that because it makes me concentrate and know that I have to bring my A-game or I'm just going to really destroy the work and I can't do that right now.
Was the decision to go for larger works around that same time as well?
Actually, yes. Once I was able to handle the canvases, I knew I could go larger. And I always tell people this: if you look at Romare Bearden, and other artists of his time, all those artists—even somewhat, Jacob Lawrence—they all worked on really small collages. They’ve never, historically, been huge. This was something I wanted to break ground on. How can I make these big, expansive, beautiful collages with white backgrounds floating? I just really took a chance in doing that, and it worked out. I always tell people that's the day God smiled on me, when I was able to do that. And sometimes I do even go back to the small collages to tighten up the work when I'm in a creative bind or can't figure out what needs to go next, or if it's so much happening.
If I just don't know what the first step is, I go small. And then if I can't get it, I go smaller. And normally after two shrinkages, I'm able to figure out what I need to do. And I did that actually last month and I was able to figure it out. I thought, okay, this is what the work is saying because sometimes bigger canvases can become sloppy, overused, and repetitive. And sometimes you need to own it and really focus on what you need the work to look like and what the work needs to say.
Is there a conscious decision to use unfamiliar source images as opposed to creating works off of, maybe, a self-portrait or friends or family? If so, why is that?
It's really hard taking faces of loved ones or friends and destroying them because that's what you have to do in order to get the type of collages I need. And the type of idea of people not seeing humanity that exists in Black people. So cutting them up and not saying, look, we're not this monolithic idea of Blackness. Blackness means a lot of stuff. It's vast and it's moving and it's growing. So just taking one face is not enough. So that's what I used to do, and my third grade face is just—I was a little kid, it's me, but I don't remember that person or I'm separate from that child so that I can do that. So I don't want to do portraiture in that sense of the work. But I want to tell a story with that face.
We talked about some of the literature that informed you when you started to gather your artist's voice. What were you reading in 2021, and even this year, that has inspired your current work?
Well, this year the 1619 Project, Hannah Jones’ work, which was hard to listen to because—It's the truth. We don't want to accept all the things that have happened in this country because we want to whitewash it, but it was really hard listening to that. I revisited Toni Morrison because she's so important to me. And what I need to say in the work is that her voice is truly missed, as far as I'm concerned. I also got different books like Warrior of the Light, which inspire me to move forward and to take on challenges, to not be complacent or lazy, but really, really push this work because there's so much that needs to be said and done. So that book has been very inspirational to me.
Also, oh my God, I listen to a lot of books. I love, love, love action books. I like spy stories. So sometimes I’m listening to stuff like that. I love Alex Cross and James Patterson's books. Something new—I'm moving, shifting into artist biographies, which every time I read those, I just want to go to work. I mean, I read five, six pages I need to get in my own studio. So it's really hard to do that, but I want to become more disciplined and read what artists are thinking and when they end up practicing because it's such a solitary thing. And you want to be able to articulate when that time comes—like, even my show now that's up in London. I don't even know if I have a language for it. I just didn't have enough time. I was in the process of making, but I need to find the time and learn the process of listening and writing and seeing which is just as important as creating.
"I need to find the time and learn the process of listening and writing and seeing..."
I really like that, because some artist is going to pick this interview up in ten years, and they're going to wonder what was Deborah Robert thinking when she was in her studio. Tell me, what are you thinking about as a final question when you're making your work and what do you want to say to the world?
Well, what I want to say is that you can love Black culture, but you also have to love Black people. And you have to love us in the vastness of our beauty and see our humanity. And another thing, you’re going to have to stop picking on our children. Whatever you think of Black people, you cannot mistreat Black children. They are kids, they are vulnerable, and they need our support and our love. And we need all children to be wrapped around the hands of adults and not pushed and treated unfairly. So that's the main thing that I really want to show in my work. I wanted to tackle some other cues with suicide and weight and other things and bullying that kids go through. But this notion—every time you pick up a magazine or get on the internet, someone has done something very horrible, whether it be law enforcement or teachers, or just a stranger to Black children. And I just don't get it. I don't get it.