Neil Roberts

Maxwell, Helen,

"Neil Roberts"

Museums Australia, Obituary, May 2002.

Helen Maxwell

Neil Roberts was a truly visionary artist. Over the years his work has challenged and delighted not only those for whom art is a daily passion, but 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 of that year, a project on which he worked closely with coordinator, Angela Philp. Neil's project was ambitious. He negotiated the loan of a farm irrigator, its transport by lorry to Canberra and installation on pontoons in Nerang Pool, Commonwealth Park, with the assistance of crane drivers, engineers, police divers and others. It was a complex process that revealed its pitfalls. When the irrigator was installed in its unaccustomed setting, 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' endeavours and achievements are many. Early in his career, after training as a glassblower 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, and 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 Neil Roberts' 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 Greene 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 CAPO (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 completed Ruach, 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 Fourth Pillar, 1997, a neon installation in the ACT Magistrates Court.

Exhibiting consistently as a solo artist, Neil also participated in many group exhibitions. His 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, excited and inspired by their ideas. 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. A major project which he coordinated was the 1995 Canberra National Sculpture Forum.

As a member of a vibrant arts community Neil held a strong sense of responsibility. He generously gave his time to work on various arts committees and groups which often require voluntary expertise. 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.

I have referred to a few of the many parts of Neil Roberts' rich life. To each of those parts, in his relationships and his work, Neil gave inspiration, love, commitment, compassion, laughter, comfort, boundless energy. To be in his orbit was a joy.

Neil Roberts was a person we could not afford to lose from our midst. His death which occurred last Thursday morning, when he was hit by a train while trying to save his dog, Siddah, will leave a gap which many of us will experience acutely. Neil's wife, Barbara Campbell, his parents, Val and Mert, his sister, Gayle and his nephew, Nath, his brother, Michael and Michael's wife, Kate are bereft, as are Neil's extended family and many friends.

Neil Roberts 20 November 1954 - 21 March 2002