Dublin-born, Sydney-based textile and mixed media artist Martin Roberts speaks to the Sentinel about his compelling new exhibition.
Martin Roberts has certainly had an interesting career.
Starting out as a costumier in his native Dublin, one of his early jobs was facilitating fashion workshops at Dublin’s Mountjoy Women’s Prison.
“I noticed that nearly all of the women in the prison were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and many of them had very low self confidence,” he recalls.
“It was great to run something that helped instil a sense of pride and achievement in them,” he says.
After taking a degree in Fashion Design at the University of Central Lancashire, he went on to forge an illustrious career making costumes in film, theatre and opera in the UK and Ireland.
Miriam Margolyes, Dianne Wiest, Matthew McConaughey and Alicia Keys were just some of the artists he worked with.
In 2004, he moved to Australia under the skilled migration program, with Australia’s burgeoning film, television and theatre industries in need of highly skilled, specialist roles in costume.
In Sydney, Roberts made costumes for the likes of Baz Luhrmann (La Boheme); Todd McKenney in the stage production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and film star Greta Scaachi. In 2010, he was headhunted by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), where he worked as a men’s tailor and costumier.
But while working on STC productions such as The Secret River, Uncle Vanya and Mrs Warren’s Profession was rewarding, the notion of merging creativity with the helping professions (a seed planted at Mountjoy Prison) had never left him. He also wanted to further develop his own art, which he describes as a form of fabric appliqué.
Completing a Master of Art Therapy at Western Sydney University during his STC tenure, Roberts left the company in 2016 to become both an art therapist (a form of psychotherapy utilising art making) and an artist with his own personal art practice.
He has had several solo and group exhibitions in galleries across Sydney and his latest, Landscapes from the Athropocene, is on now at the Braemar Gallery in Springwood, in the lower Blue Mountains.
“The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch during which human activity has become the dominant influence on the environment, ecosystems and climate,” Roberts explains.
Describing the artworks, he says: “The pieces I’ve done are textile based, with layers of fabrics painted and stitched on, and a variety of other mixed media. Found objects are added to create layers of images and textures, exploring how humans are impacting the climate and ecosystems.”
That human impact on our climate and ecosystems was more than evident while he was making the works.
Many of them were produced during the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019-20, which saw catastrophic firestorms rage across Australia, particularly NSW. Climate change and fire weather experts agreed that human-induced climate change was a contributing factor.
“I would be working on the pieces in my studio and then go outside and see ash and blackened eucalyptus leave falling in our garden,” says Roberts, who lives in Katoomba, which was under threat from the fires.
“After our terrible bushfires, we went straight into the Covid-19 crisis and there was no space for a much needed public debate on the impacts of the fires and the role of climate change.”
In referencing the human impact on our world, the artworks depict urban landscapes and corporate influences in abstract ways, as well as the aftermath of that Black Summer.
One work, Corporate Highway, depicts a stark highway stretching off into a denuded landscape, the road lined by billboards bearing the names of the world’s top twenty carbon polluting corporations.
Another, Portrait of Dubai, brings to mind a fantastical creature with multiple appendages bursting out of the earth.
Others evoke fire and scorched tree trunks, alluding to the Black Saturday firestorms raging as the works were made.
None of the fourteen works are traditional paintings – all are based in textiles, harking back to Roberts’ earlier work in theatre and film costuming.
“I always collected offcuts of beautiful fabrics from each of the productions I worked on in costumes and fashion,” he says.
“Over the years, I developed a technique where I collaged the pieces of fabric and stitched them together to create an image.
“So, in each of the artworks there are remnants of different shows and costumes worn by different actors.”
Covid has had as big impact on the exhibition, as it has on most things in 2020, and the original opening in April was pushed back to 1 October.
Even then, a regular exhibition opening wasn’t possible, and it was instead launched virtually on the internet by Roberts and Blue Mountains cultural animateur, sociologist and policy analyst Barbara Lepani.
The pair recorded a video in which they tour the exhibition, with Roberts explaining the motivations behind each work.
The exhibition, one of three exhibitions currently on display at Braemar Gallery, continues until this Sunday.
Landscapes from the Anthropocene by Martin Roberts is exhibiting at the Braemar Gallery, 104 Macquarie Road, Springwood, until Sunday, 25 October. The gallery is open each Thursday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm. For more information, visit http://bluemountainsculturalcentre.com.au/braemar-gallery/.
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