No matter where they go, LJ Roberts has a home in the activist tradition of textiles.
LJ Roberts’ 1996 trip to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, DC, opened their eyes to a world where they immediately felt welcome.
“It was the height of the AIDS crisis, and I was grappling with my own sexuality and gender,” recalls Roberts, who was 16 and attending an all-girls boarding school in Maryland. “The quilt covered the mall; it was so huge, and it represented so many people dying. And, also, it was the first time I’d seen a queer lexicon and militancy. It just took my breath away.”
Roberts’ most recent trip to DC was in November, as one of nine people across the country chosen to receive a White House Champions of Change award for LGBT artists who advocate for their communities (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender). Roberts, 35, who considers themselves genderqueer, or outside of the male/female binary, and self-identifies with plural pronouns, has spent the last 13 years creating textile pieces, especially large-scale knitted installations and embroidered works, that explore queer and trans politics, activism, and craft.
Roberts, who was brought up in a tiny suburb of Detroit, felt stifled by their childhood surroundings. “Growing up, I was dykey, angry, rebellious. I was always different, conspicuous, but was being raised in an area that concentrated on ultra-high achievement and unbreakable conformity.”
As a teenager, the artist was sent to the Maryland school, then to a self-styled therapeutic boarding school in California that had an agenda to “feminize” Roberts, in behavior and dress. “I was just trying to survive it all,” Roberts recalls. “But the way my gender manifests is very visceral. It’s not something I can subdue.”
Roberts attended college on both coasts, eventually putting down roots in New York City after grad school. Last year, they and their partner, J Dellecave, a choreographer and performance artist, moved to California for Dellecave’s work in San Diego. On the West Coast, Roberts stays in Joshua Tree, in an “enchanted cottage that’s very, very quirky. I’m enjoying the quiet and the nature.” Roberts continues to spend chunks of time working in New York, however. “My work doesn’t have a lot of institutional structure, so I don’t need to be in one place.”
Roberts had learned to knit from their grandmother, but didn’t take it up independently until a foot injury kept them bedridden during their junior year at the University of Vermont, a school they chose for its progressive politics. (Roberts has bachelor’s degrees in English and studio art.) They were living in a radical environmental collective on campus while coming to terms with their sexuality and gender. Their first activist textile piece, in 2003, and part of their coming-out, was a guerrilla banner drop unfurled on a church steeple on campus. The 15-by-10-foot hand-knit inverted triangle with the words “Mom Knows Now” paid homage to the similarly shaped signs used by AIDS activist group Act Up in the 1980s and ’90s.
Art courses introduced Roberts to textiles viewed through a feminist lens. “I felt really excited about the theory and politics that were embodied in the materiality in fiber, and how art could be a tool of social change,” they recall.
Another activist piece came in 2005, after they started an MFA program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. The school had recently dropped the words “and Crafts” from its name, a change Roberts and others found disparaging.
“I knitted the words ‘& Crafts’ and reinstalled them where they’d been on the sign. They stayed up for a week, and the students and staff were ecstatic.”
In 2007, after they earned an MA in visual and critical studies and an MFA in textiles, Roberts moved to New York, first to the East Village and then to Brooklyn.
“That’s when I started doing a lot of the embroideries,” Roberts says. “I had to really meld my practice to fit into a tote bag. I worked on the subway, on my bed, at my 24-hour Polish diner. My practice has long been a transient one. That’s why I have small dogs – they can come everywhere with me.” (Roberts’ Chihuahua mixes, Sparky and Ziggy, are comfortable on airplanes and subways.)
In Brooklyn, Roberts found the community that inspired their best-known work – a cascading knitted and quilted masterpiece titled The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck, and Midwout During the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“There was a time, in 2009 into 2011, where there was a cohesive but loose queer community that was collaborating, putting on performances and workshops, and there were these collective communities called queer houses,” Roberts says. “They’d have Queer House Field Day, where they’d form teams and wear costumes – super-silly. It felt like a very hopeful way of life for me, as someone transient who had a hard time creating family.”
Their friend Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky had drawn a colorful map of the houses, and when the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery invited Roberts to create a piece for its “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” show in 2012, the image of the map came to mind. “It was a time and place that I wanted to hold onto and celebrate,” they say.
Their energetic interpretation measures 11.5 by 9.5 feet on the wall, with another 9 feet of fiber spreading over the floor, featuring a middle of loosely quilted pieces surrounded by multicolored connected knitted tubes, with pink triangles marking the locations. Tossed onto the floor in front of the piece are 1-inch pins, free for the taking, with the name and representative illustration of a queer house.
While much of Roberts’ work upends gender norms, the artist remains frustrated that fiber art as a field “falls into binary gender traps that are overwhelmingly Western and white.” Furthermore, exhibitions featuring male artists riff on “men who sew” or promote the idea of “women’s work,” they say.
As their own work goes, they see parallels with gender, in that both play out over long stretches of time – and sometimes take a lot of work.
“As an artist, I produce work rather slowly because it is so labor-intensive. I think gender is labor for everyone – though much more intensive for some people than others,” they say. “I’ve had to work to embody my gender, and when moving through the world as a non-passing, non-binary person, the first interaction I often have with people is them attempting to read my gender and experiencing confusion, and then more emotions or thought processes built on that confusion. I then negotiate that. That’s labor. And then choosing to educate them, correct them – or not – is labor. And I approach these decisions politically, as I do my creative practice. Every step matters.”
Moving forward, Roberts is working on a slew of projects, including an ongoing series of single-strand embroidered portraits that document members of their New York artistic and activist community; a collaboration with collage artist Kate Huh for a piece in “Cock, Paper, Scissors,” an exhibition up through the summer at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries; and new collage work using deconstructed screenprints. They’ve also begun another major work based on the 1970s separatist lesbians the Van Dykes, who lived out their utopian dreams while traveling around North America in a van.
For Roberts, a counterculture activist, receiving the presidential honor last year felt a bit ironic. That’s true, too, of recognition from another source; they recently learned that their & Crafts piece was documented and archived by the Oakland Museum of California.
“As I’ve gone through my career, I don’t think I ever expected to see the work land in big institutions,” they say. “That said, when I have those opportunities, I can use that space as a platform – to bring in issues I care about.”
Diane Daniel is a writer based in Florida and the Netherlands.