The artist Rita Robillard grew up in New York City and later spent time in California and Brazil. She’s made her home in the Pacific Northwest for decades now, first moving to Pullman, Washington, in 1986. Since 1998 she’s lived in Portland, where she served as the chair of Portland State University’s art department.
All of these places have made an imprint on Robillard’s work.
She is a photographer, a painter, and a printmaker — a visual artist who uses multiple media on individual works to convey a place’s history and ecology. She creates layers literally and figuratively.
A major retrospective of Robillard’s art is on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem through March 25. It features 54 works created during the last 40 years.
Robillard gave us a tour of the show, where she talked about her work and her life.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the artist Rita Robillard. Robillard grew up in New York City and later spent time in California and Brazil. She’s made her home in the Pacific Northwest for decades now, first in Pullman, Washington, and then since 1998 in Portland where she became the chair of the PSU (Portland State University) art department. All of these places have made an imprint on Rita Robillard’s work. She is a photographer, a painter, a print maker, and a visual artist who uses multiple media on individual work to convey places, history and ecology. She creates layers, literally and figuratively. A major retrospective of her art is on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem right now. It features 54 works created over the last 40 years. The show is up through March 25.
We met up with Robillard at the museum recently to talk about her work and her life. She chose to start our tour in front of a large print depicting the Columbia River Gorge. I asked her why.
Rita Robillard: Well, it’s on the billboard outside the museum for one thing and I’m not often on billboards. The piece comes from the Historical Society and it was a very tiny lithograph done in the 1800s.
Miller: When you say the piece, you mean as a basis for this?
Robillard: Yes. And that is the Gorge. I’ve lived in so many places and I am interested in history. So, I went to the Historical Society and I researched the area and since I came from Pullman to here, I went through the Gorge. This is the Gorge at the Dalles. So the lithograph is blown up and it’s underneath this. You can see the small parts. This is actually the original lithograph screen printed on here and then I repainted it. So I guess maybe I made the territory mine in a certain way. But now I’ve given it a Native American name because I think we are coming full circle.
Miller: So this is a very clear example of the layers that you use in a lot of your work. So you started with a 150 or so year-old lithograph, a small thing and you blew it up, you made a screen print out of it, printed it on this panel and then you got to work even more and you added your own layers of paint on top of it.
Robillard: Right. I wanted it in color. And so the original was black and white. (Laugher)
Miller: It was as simple as that? You wanted it to be in color?
Robillard: I wanted beautiful colors. Well, also I’m interested in the geology of the Gorge. So you can see how I painted here to kind of give you a sense of this. Because I’ve read a lot of books about how the Gorge was formed, I was interested in actually showing some of that and you can see the textures here.
Miller: Let’s go way back in time because we started here in the middle of your career, but you grew up in New York City.
Robillard: I did.
Miller: Your father was a musician. What were your days like?
Robillard: Well, we had a lot of musicians in the house a lot because he worked on things like “Guys and Dolls.” He coached singers such as Janette Davis for the “Arthur Godfrey Show.” So, there were a lot of people in the house and he played music a lot. We had an upright piano. It was also a rent-controlled apartment.
Miller: So you could survive with an artist father?
Robillard: (Chuckles) Exactly. Yes.
Miller: How much freedom did you have to roam around the city?
Robillard: A lot, especially when my father died when I was 12, so especially then. And I have a sister who is disabled so my mother’s life was really difficult and really challenging. So, yeah, I took the bus. I didn’t take the subway that much, but I did take buses everywhere. I went to the Metropolitan a lot.
Miller: By yourself when you were 13 or 14?
Robillard: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Miller: Because your mom was a single mom at that point, you were taking care of your younger sister and you were just sometimes on your own?
Robillard: Yes and it was free. The other important thing was that the Metropolitan was free.
Miller: So as a young teenager what would you look at?
Robillard: Oh, well, what’s interesting is there was a Rembrandt that I really loved and years later I was there and it wasn’t there anymore. Well, it turns out it wasn’t really a Rembrandt. (Laughter) So this is..
Miller: But what struck you about that painting?
Robillard: It was a self portrait and I don’t know, there were the eyes, I think. There was some beauty in it, some real depth. It was maybe that it was also just human size so it was handable.
Miller: So from an early age, you were interested in looking at art?
Miller: Were you also interested in making it?
Robillard: I was. I actually went to an all girls high school with 4000 girls, Washington Irving, where I had four periods of art a day and then regular academic classes and it was very important. So one of the teachers from there told me to take the test for Cooper Union, which I did and I got in. And being a first generation person to go to college, they sent me a letter saying that, “well, we’re pleased that you got in. You’re accepted.” And of course, I didn’t realize that I had to write back and say, well, thank you. (Laugher)
Miller: “Yes, I will go.”
Robillard: I’m coming. So then I got another letter and said, we’re so sorry. So, of course, I had to fix that, which I did.
Miller: What were your first big artistic influences?
Robillard: Oh, that’s a good question. Let’s see. It’s really hard to say because I really saw a lot. Van Gogh’s work was certainly important and Georgia O’keeffe, of course. There were so few women known about in those days. Just the traditional, I mean, really quite traditional. But my teachers at Cooper Union were mostly Bauhaus people who left Germany obviously after or during the Second World War and it was very rigorous. We had to cut things out of color-aid paper which is hand screen printed paper so the colors are absolute. And then we had to paint the same thing and I learned calligraphy.
Miller: Skills that you use to this day? Some of those?
Robillard: Oh, I think my sense of color is good from that. Yeah. The kind of painting that was done at the time was mostly abstract expressionism. And there’s a little thing I might tell you. So, they were all male teachers and there was a bar in New York at that time that was in the neighborhood and the teacher would take the students to that bar, but women were not allowed in that bar. So, it’s interesting.
Miller: There’s a chance to get to know the faculty afterhours?
Robillard: Of course, and to know something about what you do after you graduate, right?
Miller: Right. And it just was not open to female students?
Robillard: No, not to females. It wasn’t just students. Yeah. So it’s interesting, I mentioned it because it puts things in perspective in terms of then. So I graduated in 62, I believe. So how things have changed!
Miller: And then eventually you became the chair of the Department of Art at PSU?
Robillard: Right. I did.
Miller: How much were those early experiences on your mind–experiences as a student and the sexism that was pervasive–on your mind when you ran a department?
Robillard: That wasn’t the issue. I have been a member and on the Board of the Women’s Caucus for Art and the College Art Association and so I think I’ve worked with those things. I don’t think that the faculty at PSU had issues about that. It has issues of having a huge number of adjunct faculty and not enough money.
Miller: An issue which is pervasive in American academia.
Robillard: For the kicker, I think we should all donate it to higher ed. (Laughter)
Miller: Then to fast forward, you’ve lived a lot in your years, but you got married early, had children, two girls, and then moved to Brazil with your family for something like 2.5 years. What has most stayed with you from those years in Brazil?
Robillard: Well, because I grew up in Manhattan, the landscape of the tropics was new. It was understanding how difficult life is because there are poisonous insects and the kinds of illnesses you can get from poisonous caterpillars. There’s a real danger of schistosomiasis in the water. So it was kind of learning a much broader sense of ecology and environment.
Miller: What about artistically?
Robillard: Artistically? It was the trees again, the trees really from New York in Gramercy Park and the gated trees to California and Brazil. I think the trees are the thing that stays with me and the beautiful shapes of the trees.
Miller: And that’s part of the experience of just being in this gallery and we can walk here and almost everywhere you turn, we can see more trees from your work over the course of decades. It has remained an abiding interest.
Robillard: It has, well, especially here in the Northwest. Well, coming from Pullman to where there are not many trees, I had to find a view. But, these trees came from my residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Miller: The ones that we’re near right now?
Miller: What did you learn at the City Center for Art and Ecology? This is in Otis, Oregon.
Robillard: Well, it’s the way things grow. There’s an experimental forest on the coast that I was taken to and you learn what kind of trees grow first. It really is like learning how the forest develops. The reason we can’t just cut it all down, for instance, is that it does need to be nurtured by a different series of growths.
Miller: How is experiencing that and learning the science, maybe talking to foresters, and how does it filter into the images you want to make?
Robillard: Well, all of them have a historical background.They have old engravings. I feel like it’s our inheritance that we have not only the knowledge of the forest but then these different layers. So the image that’s on the catalog for this exhibition, which is in the Portland Art Museum and is seven feet long, is all the different layers and some of it is 19th century and some of it is my hand painting. It has a very Chinese feel because I studied Chinese art at Berkeley.
Miller: It all gets layered together.
Robillard: I get these layers, yeah.
Miller: It’s a very helpful word for your art. It seems deeply rooted in almost every image here.
Robillard: That and tactile.
Miller: What do you mean by tactile?
Robillard: A sense of the iridescence and then with the matte colors on top of it so that it gives you a surface.
Miller: I do want to touch these works, but I’m not going to.
Robillard: I’m glad you do.
Miller: So after spending some years in California, after Brazil, then you had a long stretch of time in Pullman at Washington State University in the southeast corner of Washington State.
Robillard: I did.
Miller: And that takes us to a lot of Oregon’s galleries, including this installation that we’ve just arrived at. Can you describe what we’re seeing and then we can talk about what’s behind it?
Robillard: Sure. Well, my partner, Doug, and I went to forest fire lookouts in Idaho on different weekends. You can pay to rent them. The Beat Generation actually used them as fire towers. I mean, they would do that looking. They’re not used anymore and that’s why you can rent them. But during a similar time, I had a sabbatical in Southern France and so on the substrate here, what you have are the walls, first of all the cave paintings and you see these big ones. Underneath there are images that come from the French caves, more or less. It’s an interpretation. And then on top of that, you have the French walls and these are from the Marquis De Sade’s place which was at the top of the hill.
Miller: A lookout place either for looking for forest fires or looking at prisoners or whomever you want to look down on.
Robillard: Exactly. Yes.
Miller: But then you put these which act like windows. So there are brilliant, very orange images of sunrises or sunsets that we’re looking at that look a lot more like fires.
Robillard: Right. I did take them, I took the pictures from the lookout tower and we have a picture of a lookout tower here and then I manipulated them on the computer to make them look more fiery.
Robillard: Yeah, it’s the idea that you see what you’re looking for in a certain way. We never did see a fire from any of those lookout towers, but this was metaphorical.
Miller: In this work there is screen printing, there’s all kinds of digital manipulation of the background and of the cloud photos. In the other works that we’ve been talking about, there are our layers of printing and paint or pigment or other things added or subtracted. It seems you’re a restless user of tools. Very few of these works are just one medium.
Robillard: That’s interesting. Yeah, the layering printmaking lends itself to that for one thing I think.
Miller: But often printmaking is a way to make a lot of work, to make editions. These are one-off.
Robillard: That’s right.
Miller: And it’s also a way to, I don’t know, potentially make more money for commercials. You can make editions of 100 and sell all of those. Why are you not interested?
Robillard: Maybe if I were in New York.
Miller: But you’ve never been interested in multiples? For you, the work is to make one.
Robillard: I didn’t really have time. I never had time. No, I really worked in various ways academically and on all committees and things like that. So I never really, even in the summer, felt like I had enough time to make a whole edition. I think it would be wonderful to have somebody do an edition for me.
Miller: Oh, because you could farm out that work?
Robillard: Mark Mahaffy, who did the first piece here with me, is a master printer and they print an edition for you. Yeah.
Miller: Speaking of time, I’ve read that when you were getting your MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) and at that point you were a recently-divorced mother of two and getting an MFA. What were your hours like?
Robillard: Oh, I worked in the middle of the night. That allowed me to have the whole printmaking room to myself. I often worked in the daytime as well as taking classes and it took me a few years and I didn’t graduate with much debt either (laughter) which is unusual today.
Miller: But you didn’t graduate with much debt?
Robillard: With much debt.
Miller: Oh, with much debt because you were working and taking care of two kids? But you literally would go to your studio in the middle of the night?
Robillard: I did.
Miller: When did you sleep?
Robillard: Well, in the morning. I did put in a little time in the morning. I didn’t do this forever. This was only certain months that this was….
Miller: That was the way to survive and work, take care of your family and make work.
Robillard: And it was a really beautiful studio space. So I was able to actually take it over and do things that are unusual. The first room here has prints from that period which were influenced a lot by Brazil.
Miller: If you don’t mind, let’s walk to another room here. We’re walking to a painting called “Reclamations.” Can you describe first of all just what we’re seeing?
Robillard: So there’s a movement called Pattern and Decoration and it is about women’s handicraft and this movement has gone on for quite a long time. And so I have used lace in this and it’s 19th century lace that I got from a book that’s screen printed onto what is a kind of a watery landscape with bugs in above it. There’s some more lace on top and then the water lily flowers. I actually was thinking about what influenced it. And I took my granddaughter—I wanted to be the first to take her to New York–to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and I think that this is what influenced me to make this, even though it could be down the street from me. At the Rhododendron Garden is the same thing. Why does one thing catch in your mind?
Miller: What are you reclaiming or what is this work referring to when it’s called reclamation?
Robillard: Well, so lace was used on furniture. I always say this wrong. Antimacassar, I believe is the right word, for the lace that was put on the arms of chairs and my grandmother’s house had them, my mother’s mother. And it was supposed to protect the furniture, but I heard it as an anti-massacre, and my grandmother made all of this lace. So it’s the idea of protecting the landscape. I’m pretty adamant about not wanting my art to be political because I don’t really think that art changes things in that way, rather seductive so that you might think about the landscape in a certain way and maybe…
Miller: This one is from the whole series “Polarities: Patterns in Time, 1880/2016, 2.3 Degrees Fahrenheit.”
Miller: What does that temperature mean?
Robillard: With the change in the warming of the earth. Yeah. So it’s true.
Miller: You’re treading a fine line here.
Robillard: That’s right.
Miller: Because you’re saying this is that you don’t see this as political or activism, but in some way it’s hard to see this as not…
Robillard: But it’s what I think about but I pay environmental organizations money so that I hope that things can change.
Miller: You see yourself as doing political action in that way.
Miller: But the work is different. The word you use is seductive.
Miller: So, your hope is to actually get people to see the world in a different way but in a kind of sneaky way?
Robillard: (Laughter) Yes, that’s true. Can I dare say in a feminine way?
Miller: You could say that, but I’m not sure what you mean by that.
Robillard: Well, the lace for one thing. It’s a handicraft. In southern France, I also saw women making lace with bobbins and everything, but the images all come from the landscape.
Miller: The word that comes up over and over in the titles of your exhibitions or series is time. It’s in more than half of your shows over and over in different ways. Where do you put yourself in time right now?
Robillard: Well, I’d like to be able to be in my studio and finish three paintings.
Miller: Right now as opposed to talking to me?
Robillard: (Laughter) No. Well, it’s not, it’s not personal.
Miller: Yeah, I get it.
Robillard: But you can imagine this has been going on for three or four years now. And so it’s wonderful to see it.
Miller: But for you, time is wasting on some level. You want to just be back in the studio, making more work.
Robillard: Yeah. Perhaps it’s because with the pandemic we spent so much time inside and now I’ve been out in the world for a couple of months here.
Miller: Too much time in the world. It’s time to get back.
Miller: I’ve heard from artists, especially dramatic artists–that for some people, the pandemic meant they couldn’t do the work that they needed to do or wanted to do. But for writers or visual artists, people whose normal lives were spent by themselves, often write that the pandemic wasn’t necessarily a disruption to their work life.
Robillard: I did a whole series of flower paintings which was not my normal thing and then I did those, those trees.
Miller: What was your experience of the pandemic overall?
Robillard: Because I had this show coming up and I have asthma–my parents both smoked and I lived in New York–I had to be really careful. So I did not. I’m a ballroom dancer. I didn’t dance.I really stayed at home.
Miller: You were a homebody and not a studiobody?
Robillard: And I was, yeah. So I did things like many of us did: online seminars and various things like that. But basically, I worked in my studio. But in this piece the Rhododendron garden is actually near my house and I walked there often. And these so in these trees are the nesting eagles and Audubon Society is always taking pictures of them. So this is a local tree and this is the solo dancer tree because I noticed all these solo trees and was missing the dance floor.
Miller: You’re a ballroom dancer?
Miller: So this was done in 2020 at a time when you couldn’t dance, but you saw dance in this tree?
Robillard: Yes. There are hemlock trees which have this beautiful little top on them and I don’t think they normally would grow alone.
Miller: Rita Robillard, thank you very much for giving us a tour.
Robillard: This was my pleasure. Thank you.
Miller: Rita Robillard is a printmaker, painter and photographer who lives in Portland. A major retrospective of her work is on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through March 25.
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