Neil Roberts

Hinchliffe, Meredith,

"Balancing Creativity with Organisation"

Canberra Times, Article, 2 April 1995. pp. 22

Meredith Hinchliffe

Neil Roberts, artist, has been coordinating the Canberra National Sculpture Forum for nine months or so, the past three full-time.

Neil’s career is a patchwork of jobs which make up his profession as an artist. Running through them all is a thread of coordination or organisation.

“It is a constant struggle for me to balance my creative, lateral thinking and being organised and efficient, and occasionally my artwork requires considerable organisation,” he says.

He laughs as he remembers the large Floriade sculpture in 1990: “A $40,000 or $50,000 project for which the budget was about $20,000. Once I had the final artistic concept, I really used my organisational skills to bring it to fruition.”

One of these skills was working out how he could convince others to help by providing materials or equipment. He made many contacts and has found these useful in organising the Sculpture Forum–another large project done on a tight budget.

For the past few years, this artist-administrator has found his year split into two, undertaking a “real’ job for half the time and working on his own art in the other half. Often this has meant undertaking art-related activities, which are generally project-based, rather than allowing him to work on his own ideas.

In 1993 Neil was artist-in-residence at the School of Art at the University of South Australia.

“This was a most productive time for me,” he said. “It was the closest I have come to being paid to make works of art. I could contemplate my materials, my ideas, and concentrate on working on something I wanted to complete.”

In June that year he showed the results at the Art Museum of the university in The Plait, the Taff (sic) and Baudelaire’s Rope.

“I have been involved in such a diversity of activities; sometimes it is hard to see how they fit together bringing me to where I am now.”

Perhaps the link has something to do with his easy rapport with people, his attention to details and his pleasure in process.

When he came to Canberra from South Australia, Neil undertook a research and consultation project for the Canberra School of Art on student evaluation and enhancement of teaching. For Neil, this was a particularly difficult project–it meant learning a language of “performance indicators” and “quality management of learning environments” while introducing concepts of student feedback of teaching performance into a very close environment.

It was used as a pilot to see how these concepts would operate in diverse faculties. It involved extensive consultation with students and staff, many of whom misunderstood and were suspicious.

But dealing with people, encouraging them to give appears to come easily. This is a vital element in successful community-development projects and undoubtedly was one of the qualities which led the burghers or Terang to employ him on a public art project, designing a gateway to the town.

Terang is a small town of about 1000 people in the Western district of Victoria. The town wanted to construct a welcoming sign and Neil’s task was to present a brief to the shire for a design for the flat, rather bleak approach. And they wanted members of the community to be involved.

After working with the townspeople for a month, Neil presented a design for a dry stone wall, a common feature in the district. Much of the community became involved and Neil quickly became accepted.

It is likely his ease in dealing with people is also one of the reasons why he has been an artist-in-residence four times, including Manila in the Philippines.

At the end of that project Neil presented an exhibition of “ready-made” art, using local shovels, brooms and everyday items familiar to all Filipinos.

Writing about the exhibition, one Filipino reporter said: “Maybe it takes an outsider to realise the treasures within ourselves.”

Neil repeated this use of ready-made art in his biggest and most public artwork in the 1992 Adelaide Festival, a huge Electricity Trust of South Australia tower festooned with neon text on North Terrace. The tower was relocated and rebuilt on its temporary site.

The reactions from passersby became an integral part of the project: “Some ignored the tower; for others it was the focus of ‘aesthetic pollution’ and panic about electromagnetic radiation. For me it was a symbol of the use and abuse of power.”

Occasionally he finds it difficult not having regular work. “Being an artist-in-residence is great, but generally you have little time to contemplate –you are always responding to new conditions,” he said. “On the other hand, you have lots of time and no money!”

“I don’t have a big income. However, I have made a choice about the way I want to live. I have autonomy; I have a great quality of life. Not having a permanent job means I can accept challenges such as coordinating the Sculpture Forum.”

Neil Roberts’ artistic work has moved from photography to glass blowing, to sculpture and to designer and image-maker for People Next Door, the Canberra-based theatre group.

During the past 14 years he has taught intermittently at art schools in Canberra and Sydney, has served on several visual arts committees in Canberra and Sydney, and has been involved in establishing two galleries, Galerie Constantinople is an artists’ access gallery in Queanbeyan, run in the living space of his home. “I facilitate two or three projects a year in a form of benevolent dictatorship. I only agree to those exhibitions which appeal to me. The most successful are those which have been theme shows and in which I have invited artists to participate.”

In his own work, Neil recreates objects from a myriad of discarded materials he has collected. He creates a kind of order from chaos.

He appreciates making connections with people across diverse cultures. By using the everyday tools of Filipino farmers and the dry stone walls of Terang, he was able to break through the surface of their culture and make them open to the work of art, or at least the possibility.

One of the aims of the Sculpture Forum is to make people aware of the space around them and to turn their thinking around to making them into places. Sculpture can enhance and enliven an otherwise bleak and ugly space.

Canberra has been well served in the past with the numbers of public artworks. The forum intends to remind everyone of the richness and diversity around us. We want people to “…not merely pass, but have a reason to ‘stop and become involved’.” (Places not Spaces: Spacemaking in Australia, ed Tamara Winnikoff, 1994).

Coordinating the Sculpture Forum has been a daunting task and Neil Roberts knew exactly what would be involved. His enthusiasm, dynamism and commitment is infectious.