I have always made things and wanted to be an artist, but first, I married and had children because I wanted to do that too. It is the combination of these two things that is at the center of what I do and make. My life has been rooted in family issues and household concerns. These experiences are what shape my art making as I call into question embedded attitudes, opinions and beliefs regarding the value of woman’s work, the messages and myths regarding family, as well as how longing and nostalgia influence our memory.
About this body work:
I use memory as a resource to explore and reveal my ideas about grief, longing, home, family, motherhood and gender roles. Inspired by vintage photographs from my birth family and vintage objects I collect, I make images, vintage style clothing and stop motion videos. The questions I ask myself are, “How do we make sense of a life, our parents and now ourselves, as we age and physically decline? How did our childhood and family of origin shape our choices?”
Let’s begin with why do you do what you do?
I am trying to figure out the true value of being a woman, what is my life as a woman worth? We absorb so many messages about gender characterized in terms of cultural roles not biology -the value of motherhood and children and family and our responsibility for it. But when you stand back and look, these things are only valued when you are able to conform to a very narrow definition – stereotypes of what is acceptable behavior for women. All the things that women do well are not rewarded in an equal way that the things that men do well are – and yet we all appear nostalgic for those domestic ideals. I am fascinated by this question of value, so therefore, I see the work I do as a pursuit – a quest or a mission if you will, a search for answers, by revisiting the stereotypes in my own family, to tease out where I fit in and to claim my worth.
What’s some worthy advice you’ve been given?
“It’s not the best one, it’s not the worst one, it’s just the first one.”
I think favorite quotes say a lot about someone. What’s one of yours?
“A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next.”The Long Distance Runner – Grace Paley.
What surprises you?
Artists. I am always surprised and amazed at what artists do.
What music do you like to listen to while you work?
Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach cello suites, Arvo Part – Lamentate, Natalie Merchant – Motherland & Leave Your Sleep
Have you just finished reading anything good?
Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What breaks your heart?
Which artists are you inspired by:?
Kara Walker, Fairfield Porter, Vuillard, Giotto, William Kentridge, Fra Angelico and numerous, unnamed manuscript painters/masters.
If you had to choose one teacher or mentor who has made an enormous impact on you and your work, who would it be?
The teacher who had the most impact on me was Barbara Duval at the College of Charleston. I took printmaking and painting from her and she was my first studio teacher. It was Barbara who taught me how to “see,” and that printmaking studio remains the most magical memory of my time at the college.
Kristi Ryba paints, sews, gardens, photographs, cooks and makes prints and videos in her studio and home in Charleston, South Carolina. Trained as a printmaker and painter, Ryba graduated Magna Cum Laude from the College of Charleston in 1988. Continuing to work and study Ryba, received her MFA from Vermont College in 2006 and has participated in residencies at Vermont Studio School in Johnson, Vermont, Studio Camnitzer in Valdotavvo, Lucca, Italy and The McColl Center in Charlotte, NC. In 2012 Ryba was selected as the SC Arts Commission Alternate Visual Arts Fellow. Exhibiting since 1990 Ryba’s early work has toured the Southeast in painting and printmaking exhibitions. Her video animations debuted at Silo in New York City in 2004 and 2006, Contemporary Charleston in 2004 and have been included in film festivals across the country. More recently, Ryba’s work has been exhibited at ArtFields, 701 Contemporary Center for Art and Columbia College in Columbia, SC; Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth, OH; Waterworks Visual Arts Center in NC; The City Gallery at Waterfront Park, Charleston, SC; Sumter Gallery of Art, in Sumer, SC; and Dialect Design in Charlotte, NC. In 2015 her work will be included in a traveling exhibit The Red Suitcase, one of 11 artists, whose work will all fit into a red suitcase.
I’ve collected and cataloged bits of things my whole life. Mysterious little pieces set my imagination on fire; I wonder what they are, who they belonged to, what their story was. When I was five, my mom accidentally wrapped up a roll of Scotch tape in my Christmas present. The day I got my hands on adhesive was the day that I became unstoppable. My love of found objects and their stories led me to archaeology and anthropology and I grew into a traveler, a writer and an artist. To me, bits of cultural artifacts are the words and sentences that make up a whole story – and the story is always changing!
In 2004 my own story changed when I went to Africa as a scriptwriter on a documentary film project. The day I arrived someone said, “If we could just get a papermaker here, the HIV+ women could make notecards and make a living. We can give them medicine but they are starving to death because they don’t have money for food.” So I taught papermaking and never wrote a word for the script of that documentary. My best friend went back to refine their process and today Imani Workshop notecards are sold all over the world. I taught them papermaking, but the African women that became my friends taught me how to live. For me, that experience cemented the idea that when you set an intention and do whatever it is that you do with love, it is shared on a quantum level with others. It is my intention to share hope, wonder and childlike happiness with everyone that sees and owns my art.
About this body of work:
This body of work is inspired by small moments. Whether at home in Charleston, traveling in Europe or working in Africa, the components of these pieces are visual representations of happy minutes. I’ve found that it’s not really the big moments I remember most in life, it’s the small ones. For example, I remember going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and visiting the Louvre, but when I think of strolling through the Sunday bird market and bargaining in French with vendors at Clingencourt, suddenly I am there all over again. If we can manage to stay present the small moments are the ones that matter. When we make a habit of noticing the small moments, and even creating beautiful small moments for ourselves, we begin to create a beautiful life full of happy memories. This body of work is about potential, wonder, being unique and deep gratitude for the present.
What’s some worthy advice you’ve been given?
“Don’t be afraid to be poor, but don’t be afraid to be wealthy either.”
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” ― Jack Kerouac
What cracks you up?
Movies with talking animals.
What makes you cry?
Sincerity. Hope. Courage. Love winning.
What music are you currently listening to?
Yo-Yo Ma collaboration: Goat Rodeo Sessions and Solas: Shamrock City
What are you currently reading?
The Rosie Project
What would your last meal be?
Pasta on the patio of Albergo Milano in Varenna, Italy or the vegan menu at Circa 1886 in Charleston.
Do you consider these pieces assemblage?
I do. Assemblage is a better descriptor for my art than mixed media because I do very little manipulation of the materials I use.
Could you explain where you get your materials/images/photographs/
People give me things, I find things on the street, sometimes I buy things from salvage stores. I’m always on the lookout.
I see you use “hand-dyed wool”. Could you elaborate a bit?
Charleston has a long history in hand-dyed textiles, especially indigo. I like experimenting with hand dying. I’m always sneaking around my neighborhood in the dark snipping at flowers.
You also use a lot of wine corks. Do you love drinking wine as much as me?
Yes! I’ve learned to less and better if you know what I mean. Those corks remind me of good times with friends.
I’m curious about where you found your cases/miniature displays in the pieces “Someday I’ll Be a Butterfly” and “Happy Days”?
I’m always on the lookout for old wooden cigar boxes and small primitive drawers. I will shamelessly disassemble your grandmother’s spice cabinet.
Did you make each of those tiny canvases? Also wondering about your idea/inspiration to flip them and burn the middles? That process creates mysterious little frames for all that imagery.
It was a flash of inspiration. We’d just gotten home from a trip to France where we visited the Paris flea markets. I had all these awesome little trinkets I didn’t want to moulder in a box so I mounted them in the canvases and screwed them all together. That was the first in the “Oddities” and “Ukwala” series. The frames in Ukwala and Oddities are small pre-stretched canvases. I bought a bunch of them for another purpose once then when I saw how cool the back looked, I just flipped them over, gave them a gesso wash and used them as small shadow boxes.
How long did you live/work in Africa and how did you connect with the Nandi tribe?
I was there about three weeks. Every time I think of how the universe conspired to get a paper maker to Kenya at just the right time, I’m in complete awe. The film crew was inducted into the Nandi tribe by the Nandi midwives who are fighting every day to save mothers and babies. One day when we were filming a man came running up to our van yelling something in Swahili. We thought he was drunk. Our driver said “No, he sees your cameras and he’s saying “If you have knowledge, share it!” He was absolutely frantic that we understand him. We felt pretty helpless in the face of the epidemic, but we did resolve to keep telling the world that every 13 seconds someone dies of AIDS. A big part of that is the stigma of HIV and AIDS, sexism and controlling behavior, shame and an unwillingness to talk openly about sex. You may feel like you can’t do anything about it, but you can. You can be an example of compassion, you can take responsibility for your own actions and be willing to have frank discussions about sex with the people you need to have them with. When I was in Kenya the girls wouldn’t even say the word “sex” but recently I saw a picture of them dancing in the streets wearing condom dresses during and AIDS awareness campaign. It took me years to understand what the man was trying to tell us but now I get it: Knowledge sets people free.
Lastly, I always ask the “why you do what you do” question (which I always find the most fascinating)?
I’ve been making assemblages literally as far back as I can remember. My grandmother and mother are Raw Artists in their own way, making “art” with things they salvage or can recycle, so I get it honestly. In the rural south and midwest, it’s just something people do. I mean – people who have an artistic bent but no money for formal training or supplies. It’s a practice that goes beyond craft – it’s a raw expression of real human experience and the artist has to use whatever they can find to birth their idea. Usually “raw” or “outsider” artists have no concept of art theory so getting the composition right is a process of trial and error in order to find the balance that trained artists know as the Golden Mean. It is gritty, laborious and frustrating to create art without materials or training, but it also results in pure works of vulnerability. The materials also give the viewer a peek into the daily life of an artist. When you look at raw assemblage, you’re probably going to find out what kind of coffee the artist drinks and all kinds of personal details like that.
As for the why, honestly – simply because I can’t help it. It’s almost a compulsion. I’ll make art for a couple of years then I have to take a step back for four or five years because the publicity, the exposure and the interaction overwhelms me. In those times I box everything up and say I’m done, and I’m nearing one of those points again. However, what happens is I’ll find something interesting and then something else that goes with it and before you know it I’m arranging it on a board that washed up on the beach. It is wholly outside my control. In the last decade I was able to avoid the cycle by just opening my studio to a small group of collectors who bought entire bodies of work. That way I didn’t have to do public shows. However, part of what is fulfilling for me is seeing the delight on someone’s face when they really connect with one of my pieces – then discovering they can afford it. It’s such a pure moment to share with another human. I wasn’t getting that with people who were storing my work as an investment, so I started showing publicly again late last year. In that sense I am still, and always will be, an Outsider artist – an artist who operates outside the lines of the formal art world.
Robin Howard is a full-time artist and writer who experiments with words, found objects and adhesives in her Mount Pleasant, South Carolina home studio. In her art, Robin explores the roles between science, nature, magic, language, myth and storytelling through mixed-media works that incorporate language and found objects. She invites the viewer into imaginary worlds through vignettes that are inspiring, mysterious and playful. Born in rural Indiana, Robin was inspired by the outsider artists of the rural South and Midwest. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Anthropology and studying papermaking at Columbia College in Chicago, her art evolved to incorporate traditional techniques with the innocence of the outsider genre. Robin is a former member of the Indianapolis Chinese Lion Dance Team, an honorary member of the Nandi tribe of Kenya and was christened Adi Shakti (God’s Primal Creativity) by the late Yogi Bhajan.
Repetitive themes still run throughout my most recent work and they are easy to spot. The ‘suit’, the ‘bun’, and their different formations and combinations make up the shape of things over the last year and a half, even the last few weeks. The images were found as illustrations in the children’s books I so frequently encountered with my small children. I fixed onto them for their strong, formal nature as shapes and because of the significance I felt they had in my life at the time as personal symbols. They morph and become stories themselves, possessing a narrative, telling of a journey, a hardship, a triumph, a commitment to endure, in any form.
Amidst all these conclusions and stories and obsessive, repetitive image-making is a deep interest and commitment to formal abstraction at its core. I try to combine two approaches. Simultaneously and conversely appear the intuitive flow and the deliberate drawing, the subconscious wanderings and the direct voice, the universal image and the extremely personal one. It is this last pairing that I hope attracts and grips the audience the most; that in the work is something deep and innate and universally human but also very specific to each viewer and their own personal story.
If this can be achieved with a degree of humor and lightness, if the work is open to approach, well…that’s my hope.
Do you have any favorite quotes or nuggets of advice to share?
A quote that I’ve been coming back to again and again is from Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. I think there’s this myth about creativity—that it just drops down on you from the universe if you’re lucky and you have no controlling it. But if you only work when you feel inspired you’ll never get anything done. I think you have to work until you’re inspired. That’s also about making lots and lots of things that might suck. Then every so often a magical moment happens when that thing that was sucking turns beautiful, just like that. But that only happened because you showed up in the studio that day in the first place. Creativity is as much about blessed moments of clarity as it is about the dirty work of problem solving. Which leads me to the other hand which is a quote I remember my grandfather saying to me: “The harder you work, the luckier you get”.
Another great quote is one I just came across the other day from the artist, Kiki Smith (who’s work I’ve admired for a long time): ‘Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I’m given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one’s own vision.’
‘Do your work anyway’—I love that. To me it’s about doing your work for yourself and staying true to who you are and the reasons you started in the first place. Because that very quiet, very original, small voice that drives you to make things probably isn’t about making money or even the outside world at all. I love the idea of letting go of control and in doing so, making room for the unexpected—for surprise.
What cracks you up and why?
Definitely my kids. They just don’t give a shit. They’re in a magical place right now (almost 6 and 4 years old). They’re becoming who they are and so far they are pretty unfiltered. They haven’t been wrung out by societal pressures and what’s appropriate or not, like the rest of us. They say and do these hilarious things…sometimes my husband and I just look at each other with raised eyebrows, like ‘Well huh. What the hell was that? Pretty awesome.”
If you had another talent, besides making art, what would it be?
A ballerina or some other kind of dancer. Salsa, anyone?
What would your last meal be?
A big, fat pizza. The ‘Drunk Hawaiian’ at D’Alessandro’s in Charleston is my all-time favorite. I’m seriously sad I can’t order it right now.
Could you list a few words that you would use to describe your work?
Thoughtlessly careful, casually precious, carelessly precise.
We often have a person(s) who influenced us and helped set us on a certain path. Who was it for you?
Teachers. I can’t give enough credit to the art teachers I had throughout school. At every point along the way was someone who gave me specific help and encouraged me. Either within a specific project or assignment or regarding my next big step, like going to grad school.
Can you share a childhood memory that may have influenced your choice to be an artist?
I remember being in elementary school–maybe 4th or 5th grade and my friends would all ask me to draw things for them. Well, that’s my memory, it could actually have been only like three people. But remember the old school Mtv logo? With the tongue sticking out and the big lips? I got REALLY good at drawing that. I remember that making me feel good about myself, like it was something special I could do. I just kept going I guess…I’m still repeating, making the same image over and over.
I am always fascinated by the whole notion of why artists do what they do. Can you let us in on WHY you paint/ collage/ do what you do?
I feel a drive to make things. And I find joy in the materials and the physicality of the paint and glue and brushes and the colors and textures. Paint is such an emotive medium–and actually painting–it’s a release. You know, I feel happiness and pride and gratitude about lots of things but I also feel sadness, anger, and grief about others. All of those exist inside, as energy, pure energy. Painting for me is a way to release that. When I go through periods where I can’t work very much, I feel unsettled and so antsy. Oliver Jeffers writes and illustrates some of THE most wonderful children’s books I’ve seen. He said that he is lucky enough to be doing what he loves and so has a responsibility to enjoy it. I feel the same way. When I heard that it struck me as maybe the point of ALL this—and that’s really about gratitude. It’s not exactly WHY I do what I do but it’s an important concept to me and I think, I hope, it comes through in my work.
Sarah lives and works in Charlottesville, VA with her husband and their two children. She received her MFA in painting from James Madison University. Sarah completed a residency and was a fellow at VCCA in the fall of 2013 and was recently awarded a professional fellowship for 2014-15 from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Here is an article about her in the Charleston City Paper