Martin Roberts’ artwork ‘Vinyl Queen’ was Highly Commended in the 2018 Bent Art Competition, and is a clever and timely piece that caught our eye. It features a luscious image at first that invites the viewer to peer in to one very attractive image of a male dressed in a queer aesthetic, but then the piece contrasts this initial invitation against the hate-based imagery and messaging that looks almost reflected onto his body. Martin Robert tells Bent Street about some of the meanings and inspirations woven into his work.
On Vinyl Queen (Highly Commended, 2018 Bent Art Competition) … This piece was one of a ‘Drag’ series of three that I did for the 2018 Bent Art exhibition. I was thinking about how the gay community is renowned for its glamorous and flamboyant posturing and drag is synonymous with the scene. Traditional understandings of a ‘drag queen’ are of a man who ostentatiously dresses up in women’s clothes, but this could be said to extend to the many subcultures that exist within the community, from leather men and bears, to Twinks and muscle boys in footy shorts. All of this ‘drag’ is a form of costuming, an image presented to the world derived from fantasy as a mechanism to feel empowered and whole. Yet often in our community that’s obsessed with appearance, these drag images mask our hidden traumas and insecurities.
The piece, Vinyl Queen is stitched together to consider the many layers of experience that exist beyond the superficial presentations made by some of the visually striking groups that inhabit the space under the rainbow umbrella. There are two layers to the piece. The top layer is made primarily of fabric appliqué, pieces of fabric collaged together and painted on before stitching it all together. But in this piece I also used transparent coloured plastic for the areas of skin, so you can see through to an under layer of internet printouts that are collaged together and washed over with ink. Those images appear to reflect across the body, it’s actually a view through to a separate under layer.
On Choosing a Professional Art Therapy Career … It was really a gradual process throughout my career that led me to become a professional arts therapist. Originally I studied fashion design in the 90’s, and upon graduating I went on to work mainly as a costumier for film and theatre. However in addition to working on specific productions I always liked to also use creative processes to work with people on different community projects. For instance I ran a creative fashion module in a women’s prison in my home town of Dublin, Ireland that was aimed at building the confidence and self-esteem of a group of inmates there. Projects such as this sparked my interest in arts therapy and as I learnt more about the field it became apparent that it could be an area that would satisfy my desire to work with and help people, as well as using my creative skills and experience.
To become an accredited professional arts therapist you need to study a Masters of Art Therapy, which is full time over 2 years or part time over 4 years and includes a year-long clinical studies component. I studied at Western Sydney University and did the course part time as I still had to continue working. It was an amazing and inspiring course which changed my life and also had a big influence on my art.
On Conducting Art Therapy … As an arts therapist you work collaboratively with people both individually and in groups to help them improve areas of their lives that they may be having difficulties with. Together you develop a therapeutic relationship, whereas the therapist you enable the creation of a trusting space where the client can feel safe to explore any issues they may have and address difficult emotions and traumas. As opposed to more traditional talking therapies, with arts therapy the primary form of communication is through the arts, whether that be drawing, painting, sculpture or whatever medium the client wishes to use. The emphasis is on the process of making art and using that as a form of self-expression rather than producing a finished art piece. It can be a very powerful and less threatening way for clients to work through difficult material.
On Working with LGBTIQ Art Therapy Groups … Sexuality, coming out and developing one’s identity might be key issues for some members of the LGBTIQ community. Art is a wonderful way of expressing oneself that can be a fun as well as empowering way to do this. I run one particular workshop that draws on my costume experience where I work with a group and get them to create their own expressive costume celebrating an aspect of themselves. But many in the community are also dealing with a lot of trauma and shame, resulting from the institutionalised homophobia that is prevalent in the hetero-centric society we live in, and how we’ve been treated both past and present. We know from neuroimaging that after an individual experiences a trauma the speech language area of the brain actual shuts down. The process of arts therapy can bypass this speech language issue and accesses the same sensory areas of the brain that encode trauma. So this type of therapy can be a particularly useful way of working with these traumatic memories. I don’t like to generalise but I do think LGBTIQ people can be more open to experimenting creatively than other groups may be. Creativity and a unique way of looking at the world is a trait associated with the community, which can help them get into the flow of a project quicker, with less anxiety around the need to conform. I think the LGBTIQ community is becoming more empowered and much quicker to call out the homophobia that permeates through everything. I do think there’s a huge amount of trauma that hasn’t been addressed and impacts the way we interact with ourselves and each other in negative ways. But things have improved immensely since I was growing up and hopefully will continue to do so.
On Being an LGBTIQ Artist … I’ve a wide taste in art and the things I’m drawn to looking at, but the two LGBTIQ visual artists that spring to mind are David Hockney and Pierres and Giles. I’ve an interest in the lives of different people and how they interact with each other, and also find great joy in all things kitsch. But my inspiration also comes from other sources such as popular culture and the music scene particularly from the 80’s and 90’s. Artists both gay and straight were more open to gender bending then in a way that isn’t so much the case today and have been an ongoing inspiration to me. Issues faced by artists in the LGBTIQ community such as poor self-esteem and all the negative defence mechanisms that develop from belonging to a marginalised group affect how they interact with the world in both their professional and personal lives. So in that way they have issues that are unique to their identity. But everybody gay or straight has their own past experiences that affect them in different ways too, in fact this is often the catalyst for their creative endeavours. I’d also say that maybe those artists who choose to explore queer themes in their work might tend to be taken less seriously than other artists. But then ‘Gay’ art can be a particular niche that is often created for an LGBTIQ audience.
On His Artistic Journey & Evolution … I’ve been making art since I was a child. After high school I went to Art College, and as I mentioned earlier ended up specialising in fashion there. I think this was partly because of my love of the different unique ways that people express themselves as well as a fascination with textiles. I’ve always liked making things with my hands which is probably why I was drawn to working as a costumier for many years. After each production I worked on I frequently had many beautiful scraps of left over fabrics that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. I’ve always liked painting and creating pictures and back in the early 2000’s I started piecing those scraps of fabric together and painting on them to create artworks, over the years developing my own technique, which was essentially a form of fabric appliqué. I started to incorporate other techniques and mediums, including more painting, found objects as well as making sculptural pieces. Then studying the Masters of Art Therapy had a profound impact on my work as an artist. Although whilst studying time constraints resulted in me producing less works, with all the new concepts and theories I was learning my brain was alive and I found I was thinking about my art much more conceptually. Now my art practice is both influenced by and informs the other areas of my life, and provides me a central space of creativity and contemplation.
On LGBTIQ People Starting Out in Art … When working with any individual or group including the LGBTIQ community, the starting point can be a bit daunting depending on their prior experiences and attitudes to art. The key is to reassure them that there’s no right or wrong and help them to relax into the process. I’d usually have an array of different art materials easily available, and find that each person will be drawn to what works best for them. One individual might find coloured pencils or pens a safe and contained way to start making some marks, whereas another might be happy to dive straight into making wet messy paintings. It’s really about helping each to find what they’re comfortable with and how to express themselves most authentically. If people are really stuck I give them some suggestions and direction as to what they could do to get them started.
On the Myth of Bad Art… In art therapy there is no such thing as bad art and this is something I strongly believe in. As I mentioned earlier the emphasis in arts therapy is on the process of art making rather than producing polished finished artworks. It’s about exploring your experiences whilst creating and finding meaning from that. The role of the arts therapist is to create a safe environment where people can experience a state of flow in their art making and reassure them that their expressions are just as beautiful as any other persons. If you think about what is ‘bad art’, it’s really just one person’s opinion based on their own bias and social constructs. Of course we all have our own preferences of what we like in art, but in art therapy we let go of all that, and look at the actual art and what it means for the person who’s made it. It’s always going to be an expression from that person and that I think is a beautiful thing. In this way arts therapy can be very powerful in helping people heal from those shameful experiences when they were told they’re not as good as someone else.
Martin Roberts is a professional arts therapist with extensive experience of using the creative arts to work therapeutically with individuals and groups. He holds a Masters of Arts Therapy (with distinction) from Western Sydney Universityand is a professionally registered member of ANZATA (Australia New Zealand Art Therapy Association). He has over 20 years of experience working across the arts and in the community sector. He has been involved with many different creative modalities including painting, sculpture, textiles, fashion and costume as the foundation of his therapeutic work to guide and support people who are managing difficult periods in their lives. Martin has extensive experience working with groups including the LGBTIQ community groups and children, and aims to help clients bring enjoyment into their lives through ‘Creative Therapies’ – https://www.martinroberts.com.au/