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. Her work is available for purchase at Art Mecca of Charleston, as well. Link to her personal site here.