Neil Roberts

James, Bruce,

"Neil Roberts, obituary"

Nightclub, Obituary, ABC Radio, 25 March 2002.

Bruce James

Summary: (Bill Leak)

Obviously, we like to have fun in the Nightclub. That doesn’t mean we don’t slow down the pace from time to time for a bit of reflection when the occasion demands - even in the middle of The Italians & the Oscars. Bruce James responds to the accidental death last week of a well-known sculptor in Canberra:

Bruce James:

Radio is just like any other branch of the media. We do the big deaths. The famous and notorious. They get their due when they die. To be candid, the passing of a MAJOR TALENT, an ART STAR - or whatever cliché we’re calling them that day - can be a broadcaster’s godsend, a chance to anatomise a career, consult a peer group, interview a spouse and, more simply, say vale.

If the subject of the obituary is a household name, or the art world equivalent of one, say, an Arthur Boyd or a Rosalie Gascoigne, then there’s every reason to do so. When the veteran sculptor Robert Klippel died last year, this program’s predecessor, Arts Today, hosted a panel discussion examining his work and personality. Howard Arkley had nothing to match Klippel’s longevity, but he, too, was accorded airtime - admittedly after an overdose.

I can think of numerous figures, both notable and obscure, whose deaths somehow slipped between the radio cracks.

All this is background to an event that requires marking on this show.

Neil Roberts was hit and killed by a train while walking near his Queenbeyan (sic) home last Thursday morning. Well known in the arts community, especially in Sydney and Canberra, Roberts wasn’t a national identity but he had respect everywhere. Born in Melbourne in 1954, he trained as a glass-blower at Adelaide’s Jam Factory, and while he continued to explore the properties of glass in his work, it’s true to say that his medium was transluscence.

As a teacher and artist-in-residence, he had an ability to convey ideas about art without clouding them in theory. His profile was growing. In 2001, Merryn Gates curated a thoughtful survey show of his work at Canberra School of Art Gallery, and he was also one of the finalists in the National Sculpture Prize at the National Gallery. The work he submitted for the prize was Ramp, a vaulting- horse mounted on the wall like an Art Deco light sconce, its panels referencing a Frank Lloyd Wright skylight.

A couple of years before, he encased another apparatus of ritualised masculinity, a punching bag, in a Tiffany-like girdle of glass. This tough-fragile, hard-soft equilibrium was his forte. Roberts was the big, shaven-headed, smiling man at every Canberra opening, usually with his partner, the noted performance artist, Barbara Campbell. Their mid-life love match was in itself an example of art.

Roberts’ body will be cremated at Canberra’s Norward Park Crematorium on Wednesday 27 March at 2.00 pm.

In the days before his death, he was putting the final touches to a commission for the chapel of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. Apparently this sculptural wall-piece incorporates found glass objects such as drinking vessels.

Tonight, Neil Roberts, I’m filling a drinking vessel to you.