Neil Roberts

Maxwell, Helen,

The Canberra Times, Obituary, 29 March 2002. pp. 15

Helen Maxwell

Neil Roberts was a truly visionary artist. Over the years his work challenged and delighted not only those for whom art is a daily passion but also passers-by, visitors to public venues and events.

His projects often brought together people from diverse fields of industry in a series of problem-solving activities. Neil learned from their expertise and they realised unexpected ways in which their knowledge could be applied.

Such an example was his sculpture Flood Plane (1990), the major Actew commission for Floriade that year, a project on which he worked closely with coordinator Angela Philp. For the ambitious project he negotiated the loan of a farm irrigator, its transport by truck to Canberra and installation on pontoons in Nerang Pool, Commonwealth Park, with the assistance of crane drivers, engineers, police divers and others.

When the irrigator was installed, Neil threaded it with neon text based on a line from the poem A Dedication by Adam Lindsay Gordon. It read: “In lieu of flowers from your far land take wild growth of dreamland, take weeds for your wreath.” At night this elegant poetic form, “floating” on its unexpected watery surface, lit up the dark, the magical result of an inquisitive imagination and a beautiful and determined mind.

Neil Roberts’s endeavours and achievements are many. Early in his career, after training as a glass-blower at the Jam Factory Workshops in Adelaide (1978-1980), his interest in glass led him to study in 1981 at the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden. His knowledge, together with his experimental approach to the possibilities of glass and his general philosophy towards the making of art, were influential when, as a teacher at the Canberra School of Art in 1983, he assisted Klaus Moje in establishing the Glass Workshop.

Between 1982 and 1990 Neil taught intermittently at both the Sydney College of the Arts and the Canberra School of Art. However, he was determined to create the circumstances that allowed him to pursue his art practice outside the teaching system. Though from 1990 he did not teach formally, his bond with the Canberra School of Art remained strong and he was always happy to lecture or run workshops and seminars. In May 2001, as part of the Metis project, highlighting National Science Week, a major survey of his work graced the Canberra School of Art Gallery.

Neil received a number of awards and grants in recognition of his talent. These included Australia Council residencies at the Green Street Studio, New York, in 1989, and at ART-LAB, Manila, in 1991. In 1995 he was awarded the inaugural ACT Creative Arts Fellowship (for Visual Arts) and in 2000 the Canberra Arts Patrons Organisation Fellowship.

Neil has effected many public projects and commissions. These include some that are ephemeral, such as Flood Plane and Transmission Tower that formed part of the 1992 Adelaide Festival exhibition program. Others remain in our landscape. In 1999, with friend and fellow artist David Wright, Neil completedRuach, a quiet garden installation at Cabrini Hospital, a hospice in Melbourne. In Canberra there is House Proud (1998), his neon text that runs around the barrel of the Canberra Playhouse Theatre, and The Forth Pillar (1997), a neon installation in the ACT Magistrates Court.

Exhibiting consistently as a solo artist, Neil also participated in many group exhibitions. He work has been represented in major national and international sculpture triennials. Most recently his work was included in the National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. He particularly enjoyed working with other artists. Galerie Constantinople, an art space maintained by Neil at his home in Queanbeyan, has been the venue for many terrific exhibitions and performances.

Neil was a clear thinker, a tireless worker and a superb organiser, qualities that made him a popular choice when arts events needed to be pulled together. He coordinated the 1995 Canberra National Sculpture Forum and generously gave his time to work voluntarily on various arts committees and groups. He was an active member of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, and was always prepared to support initiatives that he believed contributed to the development of the arts.

In his relationships and his work, he gave inspiration, love, commitment, compassion, laughter, comfort and boundless energy. To be in his orbit was a joy. His death last Thursday, when he was hit by a train while trying to save his dog Siddha, will leave a gap which many of us will experience acutely. Neil’s wife Barbara, his parents Val and Mert, his sister Gayle, his nephew Nash (sic), his brother Michael and Michael’s partner Kate are bereft, as are his many friends and extended family.