Neil Roberts

Leser, David,

Sydney Morning Herald, Obituary, 10 April 2002. pp. 34

David Leser

Neil Roberts lived as lovingly, heroically and unpredictably as he died. As an artist and as a human being he was a gentle giant among men, a warm-hearted, brilliant and creative force who challenged the way we thought and felt about every-day objects and the memories they contained.

A tangled measuring tape, a pair of workman’s gloves, a used garden tool, an old umbrella frame – all of them were grist for Roberts’s prodigious mill. All of them contained hidden meanings, fragments of history, human traces that told us stories about ourselves.

An accomplished multi-disciplinary practitioner, Roberts worked with glass, neon and collected objects. He was a sculptor with strings of public commissions and exhibitions to his bow; a gifted teacher, and a maverick who lived on the edge of artistic and geographic boundaries.

More importantly, to his beloved wife and fellow artist, Barbara Campbell, to his family, friends, fellow artists, neighbours, teachers, students, and to all the children he lifted on to his broad shoulders, Roberts was the rarest of people – a man whose dignity in life and work seemed absolutely fused.

Eloquent with words, deft with his hands, huge of heart, he was a man driven by sound ethics and strong principles. He was a man impossible not to love.

Although he was never feted, there are many who believe it was only a matter of time before he became recognised as one of Australia’s most significant visual artists.

Two weeks before he died, the National Gallery of Australia acquired a major work from one of his recent solo exhibitions, adding this to a number of other pieces which it had purchased over the previous decade. It was a beautiful old punching bag encased in glass and leadlight, entitled Half ether half dew mixed with sweat. This piece is hanging in the gallery alongside assemblages by the late Rosalie Gascoigne and Howard Taylor, two renowned artist who also chose to live and work in unfashionable locations.

Roberts would have been honoured to be in such esteemed company.

Roberts was represented in many other public collections, including the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Queensland Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria and the contemporary Art and Culture Centre in Osaka, Japan.

In 1989 he was awarded the prestigious Australia Council residency in the Greene Street Studio in Manhattan. Two years later he was appointed artist-in-residence at ART-LAB in Manila. In 1995 he was honoured with the inaugural ACT Creative Arts Fellowship, and in 2000, the Capital Arts Patrons Organisation Fellowship.

Roberts used words elegantly and sparingly, no more so than in 1989 when, amid the corporate madness of WA Inc, he had the words “tenderly, gently” write large against the Perth skyline of the monumental Bond tower.

Roberts was always exploring, conceptually and through his choice of materials, arenas of what he called “manly energy”. The boxing stadium, the bullring, the football field, the corporate tower, all of these were opportunities for Roberts to – in the words of his friend Deborah Clark – look at “masculinity, its culture, its rituals, its nonsense, and the fantastic possibilities of its transformation”.

To observe Roberts as a friend was to observe a man forever fascinated by what it meant to be a man. Through his conversation and his art he would always ask the question, either implicitly or explicitly: what did it mean to be a good son, a good husband, a good father, a good brother, a good friend?

Physically he was tall and imposing but in his company men could drop their guard and women could be intimate without ever feeling threatened.

At the 1990 Foriade in Canberra, Roberts erected an 83-metre-long travelling irrigator over Nerang Pool, strung with the neon words from the poem A Dedication by Adam Lindsay Gordon: “In lieu of flowers from your far land, Take wild growth of dreamland, Take weeds for your wreath.” It was a plea for us to respect our own natural flora rather than the transplanted beauty of England.

Roberts’s passion for objects and the imprints they carried, the manner in which they had been used, misused, worn, battered and loved to death, was familiar to all who knew him. One of his final explorations was a work titled Suicide of the Hand, its last manifestation last year being a sequence of projected slides of some 70 ruined workers’ gloves. “The gloves [speak to] the ruination of sensation that often accompanies manual labour…” Roberts said. The negative images of the withered and contorted gloves stand in for the bodies of the men who wore them out.

Roberts was a man of seemingly infinite gifts and talents. He was a philosopher and a tradesman, a writer and a poet, a photographer and a print maker, a gardener and a cook, a guitarist and an erstwhile disc jockey, and, for a time, a nanny to three small children in New York.

He was also one of the most loyal, generous, thought-provoking people I have ever known.

Many artists are often focused primarily on their work. Roberts was brave and uncompromising in his work, but never at the expense of those he loved.

His family and friends often received presents in the mail, almost always wrapped in the proverbial brown paper and tied with string. The gifts had very little material value but they always had enormous personal resonance for their recipients: postcards, badges, letters, photographs, lavender bags, perfume bottles, rolling pins, cake racks, a forgotten LP, a dusty keepsake from an op shop… Roberts was always thinking of others.

He was born in Melbourne, the son of Val and Mert Roberts, a talented scientific glassblower with the CSIRO who gave up his passion for the more stable career environment of being a health inspector.

The eldest son was eventually to inherit his father’s passion for glass.

After leaving Waverley High School, Roberts began an incredible journey of exploration throughout Australia.

Up until this point he had always found artistic expression through music, but on these trips, different sides of himself – both artistic and practical – began to find form. Among other things, he became a carpenter’s assistant and for a time in Perth worked as an installer of peep-holes.

By the late ‘70s Roberts – much to his father’s delight – was training to be a glassblower at the Jam Factory in Adelaide. In 1981 he went to the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden to further his training and then, the following year, to the New York Experimental Glass Workshop.

In 1983, at the age of 27, Roberts moved to Queanbeyan where, together with his then partner, tattooist and artist Ex de Medici, he transformed a 1950s joinery into a studio home and occasional exhibition space called Galerie Constantinople. It became a focal point for some of the most exciting and most idiosyncratic art seen in the Canberra region.

It was a place for performances, for fugitive art, for parties and for desultory afternoons in the garden with a book and a cup of tea.

This was Roberts’s home and it was from here on the morning of March 21 that he set out with his six-year-old kelpie, Siddha, on his daily walk via the river and the old railway line.

He was as happy as he’d ever been. He’d finally found true love with Barbara, and for the first time in his adult life his financial future looked less tenuous. He had commissions stretching throughout the year, including a major steel and glass wall for the foyer at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.

It appears that at about 10.30am Siddha ran on to the railway track as a train was rounding the bend. Possibly hearing the train but believing he still had time, Roberts tried to scoop the dog from the track. They both died instantly.

Roberts is survived by Barbara, his parents, Val and Mert, his brother, Michael and sister-in-law, Kate, his sister, Gayle and her son, Nath, as well as a legion of friends and admirers.

To all of us – to the hundreds of devastated family and friends who gathered in Canberra for his funeral, and to those who mourned from afar – Roberts seemed like the perfect man.

He inspired, delighted, challenged, uplifted and reassured all at once. He was strong but gentle, confident but never arrogant, generous beyond description, and he was loving, always loving.

In his presence we could think and feel and laugh in ways we might never have imagined. In his absence, we are left only to weep; and thank our lucky stars we knew him at all.