On June 22, 2018, Dayton Director Ian Berry and Mellon Collections Curator Rebecca McNamara talked to Deborah Roberts about her work Glass Castles (2017), which was on display in the exhibition Give a damn.
The video above shows excerpts from the interview with Roberts. A longer, edited transcript of the interview is below.
Tell us about the girl in Glass Castles. Who is she? What’s her story?
She’s a little girl who’s fighting for her independence. She’s looking fierce, and the eye looks directly at you. Her arm is cocked—she’s ready to take on whatever battles that she needs to. There are glass ceilings for her, but she can rise above everything. She’s ready to do battle in her little striped dress.
One of her arms is Willow Smith’s arm. I love the long, skinny limbs on the little girl to show that they’re not yet fully developed. I love the colors in the crown and its goldness. The girl is dark-skinned, which is very important to me, because within the black community, we have this idea of colorism, that sometimes the lighter you are, the more you get.
I want little girls, especially girls of color, to see themselves in this work and to know that they can be sassy and strong and innocent, too. This little girl is about nine years old. At that age, your independence starts to come through.
What happens to girls at that age?
I’ll use myself as an example. I think I was in the third grade, and I had two little ponytails. I was going to school and people started to get on my case because every day I had two ponytails. I remember on Sunday when I was getting my hair done, I asked my mom, “Can I have three ponytails?” I don’t know why I wanted it. She didn’t do it the first week. I asked the next week. She didn’t do it. The third week, she finally did it. I was so happy to go to school with three ponytails, until the little kids called me “Tricycle.” But I stuck with it.
I have three other sisters so I would get hand-me-downs. I used to shape my clothes differently because I was a little bit more rugged. At that age, I was asserting more of my independence. I knew I wanted to be an artist. I started drawing. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me about my work, what I was supposed to do. I think it was a time when Debbie was becoming Deborah.
At that age, you get more responsibility. Your childhood is shortened. You take on this persona that nothing can hurt you, which is untrue. I think that your silliness is seen as threatening, and sometimes when you’re loud and out of control—not physically out of control, just loud and excited—that’s stereotyped.
When you’re making these collages, are you putting yourself or your story into the work? Do you see these little girls as versions of you?
Some of it, not a lot of it. I don’t think that I deal with pain in my work enough. I want to move forward in that more. Where I see most of me in this work is with the colorism. That has zero to do with the vulnerability of blackness. It has to do with community. I’m a dark-skinned person, and we get a certain type of teasing. Why is this even an issue within the black community? Black is black.
I just noticed the other day that I’ve been putting the dark-skinned parts of my collages on the bottom and the lighter ones on the top. It’s something that I wished I didn’t do. Going forward, you’re not going to see that. Somehow I was giving a hierarchy to skin tone within my work.
When it comes to the red glove, that glove of power, that’s part of me. I was always a fighter. You have to sometimes fight for your identity, who you are. It’s about carving out your life, what direction you want to go.
Can you talk about your process in creating these collages?
Most of the faces are of little girls from Haiti. There is a uniquely wonderful, beautiful innocence that comes out of those faces that have not been touched by pop culture and have been touched by tragedy, but the innocence of a child still exists in that face, and I love it.
When I look for faces, and I come across “the one,” I know it. I take that face, and I print it out, and either I make it darker or lighter and then I take that face and take other pictures and collage those to create a new face. But that one beautiful, innocent face exists underneath, and that is what I hope people get to. From all the rest, they get to that innocent face, because that’s humanity.
Once I get the face, the body comes relatively easily. In the work I talk about black culture, pop culture, American history, and art history. I look at black culture, the colorism that’s in the work; there’s the texture of the clothes, which has to do with pop culture, and the yellows against the dark skin. There’s a notion that there are no black princesses in America. So she has the crown on her head. All those things are merged together into that work.