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Queer Artists in Their Own Words: LJ Roberts Survived Childhood to Champion Revolutionary Butches

LGBTQ Pride Month is now. Every day in June, we are celebrating the community by featuring one queer artist and letting them speak for themselves.

The month of June is a time to celebrate the LGBTQ community and reflect on the advances of queer people to strengthen civil liberties around the world, even in a moment of great political uncertainty. It’s also a good opportunity to spotlight the richness and diversity of culture we have within the community. Hyperallergic is commemorating Pride Month by featuring one contemporary queer artist per day on the website and letting them speak for themselves. Click here to participate.

Installation view of cycle one ofStudio Views: Craft in the Expanded Field with LJ Roberts (image courtesy the Museum of Art and Design)

LJ Roberts

Age: 38

Location: Brooklyn

Artistic Medium: Installation, Textiles, Collage, Collaboration

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is LJ Roberts. I’m an artist who works in textiles, sculpture, and collage. I collaborate with other artists often. Occasionally I write. I’m a third-generation Detroiter. I just completed a body of work that delves into the life of Stormé DeLarverie, a butch dyke who had an extraordinary life as a drag king, protector of queers, and lesbian bar bouncer at the Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson. She was also an instigator of the Stonewall Riots. Currently I’m working on series of collaged textile pieces that imagine fantasy vehicles and vessels that incorporate queer and trans pasts, presents, and futures. Additionally, I’ve been stitching small embroidered portraits of queer and trans artists and activists in my communities, a work-in-progress since 2012. I’ve been doing visual activism pertaining to the on-going AIDS Crisis since 2001. I live in Brooklyn, NY, and teach at Parsons School of Design.

What are the top three greatest influences on your work?

Texts (specifically political first-person narratives, creative non-fiction, and poetry), material deviance, and alternative intergenerational kinships.

Describe your coffee order.

Dirty chai with decaf espresso, but iced in the summer. It’s made best on the West Coast.

What is your greatest accomplishment?

Surviving childhood and adolescence to become an adult. I really struggled as a kid and a teen. As a young person I think I felt like I didn’t have a future, and it was very hard to imagine myself “grown up.” I was lucky to land in New York City — it’s played a big part in finding a lot of joy and possibility in life.

What constitutes a perfect day?

Good days for me are typically busy days where I have a lot going on. I like working in my studio and feeling like I’ve accomplished a lot and that interspersed with quality time with my partner, my friends, and my dogs. Getting good news is a bonus that makes a day better. I don’t take a lot of time off between teaching and making art, but when I do I love taking my dogs to the beach and going to beautiful places. I enjoy an adventurous date, as well.

What was your favorite exhibition from last year?

When I was in Stockholm last fall I saw the Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg retrospective at Moderna Museet. It was an expansive show of their works and their processes. In the past I had only seen fragments of their work, and to see it as a cohesive and comprehensive exhibition was astounding. The material aspects were incredible, but the show also allowed for a deep dive into psychology that I found approachable and simultaneously revelatory. They also had virtual reality component that I was skeptical about trying, but it was magical,  which is a word I avoid using but it’s apt for the experience.

Early this year, I was very moved and engaged by niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s Black Power Naps at Performance Space New York and Jen Rosenblit’s I’m Gonna Need Another One at the Chocolate Factory Theater. I find myself consistently seeking out performance where materiality is central to both the performance and stands strongly on its own as an installation. Acosta, Sosa, and Rosenblit are standout performers, but they also make evident that they are acutely adept and masterful when it comes to materials, space, and installation.

What would your superpower be if you had one?

The power to become invisible. I spend a lot of time navigating hyper-visibility and simultaneous invisibility as a nonbinary, non-passing, gender non-conforming person. I’d like complete agency over it.

Tell us a lie about yourself.

I’m extroverted and can hang shelves by myself.

What is one question you wish somebody would ask about your work?

I very much like talking about the evolution of a work or multiple pieces of the same body of work. Most of my pieces take many years and go through multiple iterations. Problem-solving in creative ways is one of my favorite aspects of being an artist. The work, “Stormé at Stonewall” took many different forms before arriving at the form of a large installation of light boxes and an oscillator for the show Nobody Promised You Tomorrow at Brooklyn Museum.

The project was born out of a simple prompt given to me in 2015 by Avram Finklestein and Hugh Ryan to rethink what a “Stonewall Monument” could look like for Vice Magazine. I was supposed to make a one-page collage. It morphed into a 75 page artist book, a broadside, then became a wheatpaste installation for the Wythe Hotel. Four years after I began the book, it evolved into oscillating 14 light boxes. I went from cutting and pasting in a coffee shop with an antique copy machine to working with a huge fabrication team and the support of a museum over the course of four years.

It is important to me to demystify process and how projects evolve with all of their twists and turns. It’s not linear or simple, but usually it’s very fun and gratifying. I find intensive process and problem solving fascinating in and of itself, but also love telling stories about how small things can ignite sparks that manifest in projects that one could never expect. I could tell stories about the serendipitous aspects of process for days. For instance, Lite Brite Neon, who fabricated the light boxes, used surplus cord from a restoration of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (America)” to do the electrical wiring.

What is the greatest threat to humanity?

That’s a big question. Probably people with money and power making short-sighted decisions that critically affect many issues that are intertwined.

What did you make when you first started making art?

I did a lot of drawing with markers and pencils as a little kid. I liked to design what my ideal bedroom and house would look like. In high school, I was immediately drawn to sculpture and 3D practices: lots of papier-mâché and wood, video-editing on VHS.

Do you prefer spilling the tea or throwing shade?

I’m a Libra, so I can exercise a lot of restraint until I lose patience and feel crossed in the wrong way — then the tea spills.

What is your all-time favorite work of art?

The iconic portrait of Claude Cahoun from 1928; that’s a clear favorite. A series of stunning paintings by Mark Bradford that I saw in 2010 at the ICA Boston has stuck with me, and I keep a book of his work in my studio. And finally, Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky’s original hand-drawn map (circa 2010) of “The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck, and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era,” has been foundational to my practice for the last decade. The drawing is simple, gorgeous, and earnest and I couldn’t stop looking at it. The textile version is up in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow at Brooklyn Museum until December 8.

What are your plans for pride month?

I began with Papi Juice at the Brooklyn Museum. Kia LaBeija and Julie Tolentino in conversation with Vivian Crockett at Performance Space for their Visual AIDS book release (part of the Duets series) and the Clit Club party that follows is on my calendar. As a young person, Pride was a place where there was a lot of butch visibility — that was a big deal for me — so I always am appreciative of that during Pride and love to soak it up. I’m doing my first ever reading of creative writing for the collective Belladonna*’s Lesbian All Stars Reading series, “Lesbian Switchboard Edition” in conjunction with the show Y’all Better Quiet Down at the Leslie-Lohman Museum. To be honest, I also will be in my studio a lot as I only have the space I am in until July and am trying to finish this piece on the Van Dykes and queer/trans van culture that I have been working on for five years. Come visit!

What is the future of queerness?

My hope is the people have the resources and stability to have complete autonomy over self-determination in how they define and express themselves without the threat of systemic or interpersonal violence.

Back in my day…

We didn’t grow up with the internet. When I tell this to my students at Parsons they are stricken with horror. Also: We to applied art school with slide carousels that had to be sent in by post. I’m really dating myself in this interview.

Name one guilty pleasure.

There’s a lot of singing to my dogs. I am a sugar fiend. I also indulge in anxiety as a fuel. The last two I need to work on.

Greatest queer icon of the internet: Babadook, Momo, or a pervading sense of existential angst?

A pervading sense of existential angst.

Is there enough support for queer artists where you live?

In the US we have a real scarcity in the arts. There are places where art is considered necessary for the common good and quality of life, and hence, funded much better. I think there needs to be systemic change to support queer and trans people in the arts and to make cities vibrant and livable: rent caps, affordable studio space, health services, support for queer and trans immigrants; all of these things make life less anxiety ridden and make more time and space for artistic production, depth, and involvement. I will say that there seems to be more and more opportunities for residencies, funding, and mentorship in New York City for queer people and that has been good to see. There can always be more.

How do you stay cool during the summer?

In the summer, I try to go to cooler geographies as much as possible. I have a really nice group of queer weirdo artist friends in Stockholm and have spent a few summers with them where temperatures are typically much cooler. I love the landscape, the light, and the sky there in the summer. I had the good fortune to be in residence at IASPIS in Stockholm and it was an ideal way to spend the summer. I was in my studio all day and then could walk ten minutes down the road to jump into gorgeous water, go for long walks with my dogs (who came with me to Sweden), and then spend time with friends in the evenings. I also wear loose lightweight coveralls.

What is your favorite type of milk?

I just read this article the other day on BBC News about “milkshaking.” Nigel Farage had a milkshake thrown at him by an activist and now ice cream and milkshakes are banned at his events. “Milkshaking” has spread to the US and a right-wing Florida congressman was just pelted with a drink by his political opponent from 2016. In terms of my own consumption, I like the vegan peanut butter banana milkshake from Plant Power in San Diego.

“Queer Artists in Their Own Words” is an ongoing feature happening every day in the month of June. For prior posts in the series, please click here.

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