In a Retrospective at the Front, Delia Robinson Reconnects With Her Past | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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In a Retrospective at the Front, Delia Robinson Reconnects With Her Past

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Published November 15, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


"A Diabolic Haircut" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "A Diabolic Haircut"

Girls and women fly, bears ride in a convertible, wild animals visit a museum, old folks straddle leaping tigers in a "geezer circus": These are not scenes from a children's book, although they could be. In her current show at the Front in Montpelier, Delia Robinson transmutes these fantasies into exuberant paintings, drawings and hand-formed clay whistles. Yet events in her personal life provide a through line for the exhibit, titled "Then and Now."

The show "celebrates 2 windfalls," Robinson's artist statement explains. A cache of her paintings from 20 years ago turned up in the closet of a Brattleboro gallery where she used to exhibit; both the artist and the gallery owners had forgotten about them. "Then my sister Robbie sent me a packet that my mother had saved — drawings from my childhood," Robinson said in a phone interview. "I had no idea she had saved them."

Robinson, 78, said she was fascinated to see the same motifs recurring over the years. "Childhood, middle-aged, old — all on the same themes," she marveled. "That's when I thought, I'm going to do my retrospective. I'm going to put in the baby work." Her new show mingles pieces from each of those eras.

"Ladies Night Out for Geezer Circus Workers at a Levitation Workshop" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "Ladies Night Out for Geezer Circus Workers at a Levitation Workshop"

In the gallery, paintings with similar themes or subjects — such as food, flying or circus — are grouped together. But animals, often anthropomorphized, show up throughout. Bears, for example, began to appear in her dreams some years ago, Robinson said, and found their way to her paintings.

"The bears started with a dream that I had a mother who was a bear — a giant Kodiak. She would put me on her back and we would travel — she would fly," Robinson said. "I had a series of dreams about this bear."

If her bears also pile into a car or sit down for tea, well, so be it. Rabbits, dogs, frogs and chickens are actors in her scenes, as well.

Robinson said she frequently dreamed of flying as a young girl, a wishful vision sweetly illustrated in her pencil drawing, "Floating Girl," drawn at age 6. The cut-out figure is affixed to the gallery wall, a solo flyer. But she has companions: Nearby, in "Ladies Night Out for Geezer Circus Workers at a Levitation Workshop," 10 older, gravity-free women frolic in the air over a verdant landscape. The tippy-top of a circus tent pokes up from the bottom of the frame.

Most of Robinson's characters, human or otherwise, appear to be living their best lives — but a few images are ambiguous or even dark. In her painting "Red Riding Hood," a man with a large wolf head, white suit and red shoes sits in an armchair as a woman clad completely in red stands over him. Both look menacing. Disembodied faces and other images loom in the murky background.

"Boyfriend Reunion" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "Boyfriend Reunion"

In "Boyfriend Reunion," Robinson indulges her mordant sense of humor. Five of the fellas surrounding the white-haired female at the center are skeletons. The artist playfully abetted the concept by hanging "Whistling Skeleton" next to the painting.

Robinson modestly downplays her painting skill, but numerous collectors would surely disagree. Her style might be called folk art meets Marc Chagall-esque magical realism. But the creative vision and vivacity are all her own.

Most of all, Robinson loves the narrative potential of art — which she also explores in hand-painted crankies (not in the exhibit).

"I love a story; I love that aha moment when you look at art — that sense of those doors opening in your imagination," she said. "I admire abstract, but I can never stick to it — a little head sticks out, and a story appears."

For the exhibit, Robinson augmented the stories in her paintings with short texts. In a myth-inspired piece titled "Mercury, Mailman of the Gods," the winged postal worker is handing letters to an angel overhead and a naked figure below — one of many writhing in a fiery pit. "Finding appropriate jobs in the modern world for the ancient gods was a challenge," Robinson writes in the accompanying caption. "Unfortunately, after six paintings, their murderous activities repelled me, but I like this hero, Mercury. He straddles the cosmos delivering the mail to heaven and hell."

"Floating Girl" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • "Floating Girl"

For years, Robinson was primarily known for her clay whistles — a craft she learned from her mother — and she continues to sell the one-of-a-kind items in gift shops. The Front exhibit features a number of whistles, along with a sign explaining Robinson's credo: "I believe a whistle should be a small, personal handheld treasure."

Most of the whistles are indeed minuscule, such as "Sleeping on an Elephant" — a teeny person under blankets snoozing atop an inches-tall pachyderm. But a few are larger and remarkably complex. In "Dawn Egg," an ovoid shape is painted with sea, soil, trees and sky; myriad animals are perilously stacked atop it. A recent whistle, comically titled "A Diabolic Haircut," consists of a woman holding both hands to her head, where little angel and devil figures vie for primacy.

Robinson may have had an "aha moment" when she installed her time-traveling exhibition. "When I put it in the room and hung it on the walls, there was a moment when I thought, It works," she said. "I got to see the continuity of my life and [that] makes it feel special."

Delia Robinson, "Then and Now," is on view through November 26 at the Front in Montpelier. An artist talk is Thursday, November 16, 7 p.m. delia-robinson.com, thefrontvt.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Painting From Life | In a retrospective at the Front, Delia Robinson reconnects with her past"

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