Neil Roberts

Gates, Merryn,

Muse, Obituary, April 2002. pp. 6

Merryn Gates

Neil Roberts

1954 —-2002

Neil Roberts was widely respected by aspiring artists who found in him a role model, a supporter and a reliable sounding board; by his peers who always found in him generosity and sound judgement; by the art community who have benefited enormously from his advocacy, and by the many who are richer for seeing his work in galleries and on the streets

The superlatives that seem the only possible way to deal with immense grief are, in the case of Neil Roberts, even less satisfactory than usual. We all said these things of him before his tragic accident on March 21. Where to go to from there? The hardest thing is to speak of Neil in the past tense.

We remember him originally, an artist who worked with glass, and glass continued to feature in his works - the neon that illuminated discarded objects, the poetry of fragmented signs, and an inspired use of lead light as seen in the recent National Sculpture Award at the National Gallery of Australia. Over the years he has enjoyed other honours: international residencies and Fellowships (ArtsACT and CAPO) that attest to the high esteem he enjoyed as an artist. Muse detailed these achievements in an article by Anne Brennan on the occasion of his CAPO Fellowship. His work was a rare mix of whimsy and tension, strength and fragility, the toughness of the male domain and of gentleness. They were also the qualities of the man.

Neil’s independent and occasional Galerie Constantinople, has the honour of appearing in many exalted CVs, and boasts acquisition correspondence with the MET, NY. for a folio of spirit duplicator prints. Reclaiming such an anachronistic technology delighted Neil, and artists around the world (a network he quite naturally and unaffectedly nurtured) were delighted, in turn, to return to it with him.

Alongside this personal practice as artist and curator stand his tireless efforts for quality art in our public places, and his contribution on our boards and committees cannot be underestimated. In the March issue of Muse, readers will recall his thoughtful and intelligent reflections on the nature of successful public art commissioning.

John Thompson, who was Chair of the Muse Board when Neil joined, pays tribute:

‘At Muse of course he has been an absolutely stalwart Board member - generous, thoughtful, constructive, honest, shrewd and hugely energetic.

And, of course, immensely likeable. We, the Board and Muse itself, are the poorer for his passing. But his loss will be felt personally and deeply by those who loved him. And also by Canberra itself to which he gave so much and where, fortunately, his achievements remain visible before us all - lights now in the darkness.’

Neil was more than a colleague, he was also a friend, and I am the better for it. Indeed, like many, I came to one through the other, or rather they somehow merged. I first saw, and admired, Neil’s work in Kevin Murray’s thought provoking exhibition Symmetry (AETA,1994). This work, Cryonic Quintet, now in the collection of CMAG, has been specially put on show in Gallery 1 and can be seen from Civic Square.

In the first month of moving to Canberra I enjoyed, in the shivering company of many that cold Easter, the 1995 National Capital Sculpture Forum which Neil had been so involved in, and which thrust him unexpectedly into international media attention, a role that would have swamped a lesser person. A few years later he skilfully coordinated the CCAS’s Archives and the Everyday project with curator Trevor Smith, involving negotiations of truly parliamentary triangle proportion. Neil had a rare capacity to imbued himself in the local art community and to bring to it the highest professional and moral standards. In 2000 I was proud to stand beside him in protest at the federal government’s ill-considered new tax laws.

Last year I had the ultimate good fortune of working with him on a survey exhibition for metis at the CSA Gallery. As a curator it is always an honour to be allowed to come so close to an artist’s creative world, but Neil was exceptionally generous and open during the process of designing and selecting the exhibition. We all loved working with him.

No one will come close to duplicating your spirit Neil, but we all have a little ink on our fingers through knowing you.