Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Margaret Robbs works a lot. Maybe too much. She gets up in the morning and paints for two hours before going to work at UNCW where she runs the costume shop. Margaret builds most of the costumes for shows and supervises labs in theatre classes. She works a night job waiting tables. Then she comes home and paints. She has a loving boyfriend that solidifies her life. She is fortunate that her day job is creative and her relatively new passion is as well.
“I work 60 hours a week and I feel there’s not enough time to produce at the level I feel I should be doing,” she says.
Her new passion, for the last year and half, is painting. And she prefers oils, not acrylic.
“With acrylic, you gotta work fast and I don’t work that fast,” she says.”
Working in oils is still a swift process for her. She won’t start with one piece and stick with it. As if some frenetic assembly line were concocted just for her, Margaret will start numerous paintings and work a little on each and as they dry, go back and work more. The process also involves doing a preliminary sketch first and by the end the pieces look completely different.
“I’ll have a concept, do some sketches, maybe change the idea,” she says.
As an artist, Margaret has a soft spot for the strange, that which is beautiful and a little off center. It is this interest that propels her work, which catches your attention and stays long after you’ve left the paintings. The work exudes originality and subtle repulsion laced with color and beauty.
A recent art show at ArtFuel, Inc. showcased a series of portraits of sideshow characters. Looking at them you think of the old world, circus era sideshow freaks, but there exists a sense of playfulness to them, rich in color and pleasant in the strangest way. You are reminded kindly of Tim Burton and childhood dreams and the surrealism they once held. Or still do. The character’s round eyes in the series contain fixated stares that are distinct, as though they have been caught doing something irregular or are about to meet their fate.. Playful, yet dark, combined with innocence.
One piece, ‘Flipper,’ added lettering at the bottom on a turquoise piece of ribbon. Margaret saved the lettering for last because she was nervous, no, terrified of doing it. She’s always held an interest in tattoo work and has many friends who are tattoo artists. Her work derives some influence from the tattoo world as was the lettering.
Tommy Carey did a piece of tattooing on her arm and was a strong influence on getting her to paint again. He was a huge part of what really got her going, seeing preliminary work and sketches at her house.
“I miss having him to bounce ideas off of. He told me I needed to do this, to keep doing it. I attribute a lot of the fact that I’m doing this to him,” she says. “He has affected a lot of people. He absolutely has. I really wish he had known how wonderful a person he was.”
Many of the sideshow/circus pieces are framed instead of existing as singular canvas or galley wrapped. The frame accentuates the artwork, adding to the surreal tone and adding an aged quality it wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I started going to flea markets and antique places and finding frames and trying refurbishing them,” she says. It’s a process that demands time to scour for mirrors or framed art that she can rip the frame off of. Many selections are mirrors because she discovers they have more interesting frames since, with mirrors, the frame is the artwork.
“Usually I work backwards, find the frames and then do the artwork, the frame is inspiration,” she says. “Sometimes I do a piece and can’t find a frame I like for it.”
That show came from research and costume design from a period show at UNCW. She will do tons of research for shows and had a lot to pull from when time came to paint as far as inspiration is concerned. The figures come from her imagination, that of Siamese twins, or the concept of having a bearded lady or twins. Some were just little creatures like a lamb or sheep with a girl’s head.
“I have a fascination with darker themes,” she says. For the series of sideshow paintings Margaret also found a set of cards on ebay of circus sideshows. They were images of old circus performances, many Victorian era.
“They were interesting to me, the whole idea of how acceptable it was at the turn of the century to completely exploit human oddity, you still see it now,” she says. “It’s so accepted to turn some strange physical aspect from birth into a career. I find that interesting. I did a lot of research before that show at ArtFuel.”
It was a show that came together by a mutual friend who was getting tattooed. ArtFuel was doing a Halloween art show and the friend suggested Margaret.
“You guys need each other,” the friend offered. “You’re the kind of artist she’s looking for and it’s the kind of gallery you need to be in”

Margaret never thought as much about art as she has in the last year. Now she is consumed by what to do. Growing up she was surrounded by a lot of creative elements, an architect father and mother who made giant banners. Neither of which were painters but were artistic people. A lot of her childhood was spent doing one man shows. There are many videos of those one man performances involving dressing her younger sister up in costumes.
“I don’t know where the whole surrealistic element came from. I spent a lot of time on my own and being creative.” Margaret never got into Dali surrealism but was inspired by artists like Mark Ryden, artists who have created a new version of surrealism that blend pop art and surrealism.
“I think that’s where a lot of my style comes from. I want to produce things that I love to look at. I love color. I love cute and weird, beautiful and strange in the same world.”
Much of her life as a child was spent very alone due to a sizeable gap between herself and her other younger siblings. And then there was school.
“That whole outcast child thing, going to a school with a lot of wealthy children,” she explains, “I didn’t really fit in there.”
In high school Margaret only dabbled in painting. Once in college she did more but it was relegated to renderings for costumes.
“I did a lot of rendering work in college. I did them as very realistic drawings of seven inch figures.”
At the time she didn’t think she was good. During her freshman year she was having a good time taking figure drawing classes. While taking rendering classes she states that “my paintings looked like shit.” For Christmas that year the professor she worked for gave her water colors and it changed everything.
“From that moment on I could paint,” she says.
Margaret attended school for costume design at Winston Salem School of the Arts. After graduating, roads led to New York working several years in costuming departments but eventually decided not to stay.
“I left New York feeling really defeated,” she explains. “I had a couple of really bad experiences with theaters up there. I was working in some tough theaters and its cutthroat in that industry.” After giving it several years she came here to do something else. She moved back and didn’t know what to do at first. There were jobs waiting tables and working in a coffee shop.
“I went to hair school for a month. I was getting ready to go back to grad school,” she says. And then she started painting.
“Last year I started painting again. A lot. I didn’t have much going on in my life, didn’t know a lot of people, don’t drink,” she says.
Margaret reiterates several times her distaste of acrylic in painting. She’ll use it in backgrounds, to get a background up quickly and that’s it.
“It dries so fast and is so unforgiving. She says emphatically.
She does oil work now, even getting a set in college and never touched them.
“I was a little afraid of them, they’re so messy, so technical,” she says. “I never had formal painting classes.”
Two years ago, before painting began, Margaret started making t-shirts out of old ones she didn’t wear anymore. She was merely trying to find a way to redo shirts by making felt animals with tweaked out eyes sewed onto the old shirts. People liked them.
She wanted to keep that innocence. The shirts with sweet animals are cute but they all look a little wrong. Their eyes are a little tweaked out and look a little spooky but they’re still cute. There’s something disarming about seeing something that’s cute and wrong at the same time.
“I like that,” she says. “I definitely have a surrealist element in everything I do.”
Tommy Carey pulled Margaret into a show at the Soapbox in which she sold many of those shirts. The response was so good that she took them to a couple places. Now she does a line of shirts called Neighborhood Threat for 008 downtown.
“The owner liked them at 008 and started carrying them.” The characters on the shirts led to paintings of them. “I was playing around, experimenting, that’s when I started using those oils.”
There were shows where she hung a couple of pieces with This is Viral and received a good response. The pieces sold right away. That led to a show at Chet Fisher’s art gallery, ERA, on 3rd Street a few months after that. For that show Chet asked artists to create pieces on religion.
Her first painting, a zombie bunny, reminiscent of one of the t-shirt animals, is owned by Chet and he has no interest in parting with it.
“I love her work,” he says, enamored of her talent. Chet has another showing planned of her work in July.
But the bunny came first. Margaret was doing a series of zombie animals for a show that never came to fruition called Zombie Nation. She started a whole group of dead, cute animals - dark and cute juxtaposed together.
“That was the first of my oils.”

The next several months look to be busy. There’s a show at 008 on Valentines Day and it involves a series that will allow for Margaret to really begin expanding. The pieces will be a mixture of watercolor and oil. They consist of very sexy coquettish girls in underwear with great big creepy heads, maintaining that balance between beautiful and creepy and odd and cute all wrapped into one.
“I think I’m still in this experimental stage of figuring out what I want to do, a balance between improving my technical skill and figuring out what I want to paint,” she says.
Margaret’s style is a conglomerate of everything she’s been exposed to, living in New York on the lower East Side, going to art school and working in the theatre world. And having the opportunity to work on a lot of abstract shows involving costumes and a lot of mask work haven’t hurt her source for ideas either.
“I have a good eye for color and shading. Now it’s interesting for me to find a little more emotion in what I’m doing. I feel like some of my work is getting to that.”
Regarding the t-shirt creations brings forth the notion of getting into screen printing and taking the shirts in a whole new direction given that most are geared towards women. Then there’s finding a way to incorporate more 3D elements within the paintings, doing collage work or mixed media. And perhaps sculpture.
“I don’t understand sculpture as much, I don’t connect with sculpture,” she says as if wondering. “If I did sculpture I’d want to do metal sculpture and then I’d have to learn how to weld first. And that’s a whole other class and who has the time for that?”

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