A world of whimsical creations
By J. Chambless
Roberta Little in her home studio in Kennett Square: 'I just have to do something different.'
By John Chambless
Roberta Little's life experiences are
reflected in her artwork, which unites antique bits and pieces in
objects that are both whimsical and compelling.
“I've always had trouble doing just one thing,” Little said during an interview last week. “I get bored easily. It's a gift to be able to think of new things and do them. I have the capability of drawing and painting anything I want, but I choose not to. There are enough people doing that. I just have to do something different.”
Sitting in her tidy, sunlit home built next to her daughter's home in Kennett Square, Little was surrounded by her artwork last week as she traced the road that has led her to become one of the art community's newest members.
As a child in rural Ohio, Little made her own entertainment by creating things. “I had a sister who was four years older. My mom was a huge influence, because she was always suggesting creative things to do,” she recalled. “My mom had a flair for being artistic, but she didn't pursue it.”
Steered toward a career in teaching by her pragmatic father, Little got a bachelor's degree in art education before a road trip changed her life.
“After graduation, a friend of mine and I got in a car and drove west,” she said. “We ended up in South Lake Tahoe, California, and we worked in a casino. I met my husband there, and my kids were born in South Lake Tahoe. It was a beautiful place to be.”
Her husband's job eventually brought the family to Atlantic City for the opening of Harrah's Casino in 1980, and the couple's young children were raised in New Jersey. Little kept her hand in art during this time, creating a line of cards based on her watercolors, and working in commercial art, as well as selling at art and craft shows. “It was a fun, growing period,” she recalled.
After her son and daughter graduated, Little moved to the coast of Mississippi, where her husband worked at the Grand Casino until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina uprooted their lives. “The casino was destroyed,” she said. “It was picked up and shoved across the highway.”
The family home in Gautier, Miss., about 13 miles from Biloxi, had a view of the Gulf of Mexico, but the devastation from Katrina not only structurally damaged the home, it struck deep in their emotions.
“It was an experience that I worked really hard at trying to grow from,” Little said. “A lot of people say things happen for a reason, but I always struggle with that. I don't believe everything happens for a reason, and that I need to spend – along with 150,000 other people – the rest of my life working out what that was. What I think I've learned is that, when stuff like that happens, you have an opportunity. You can turn it into something positive. We've worked really hard to do that.”
With a desire to move closer to her daughter's family, “and get away from Hurricane Alley,” she said, Little and her husband moved to Kennett Square but couldn't find affordable housing right away. They discovered Lancaster, and immediately found a home and a place in the small city's arts scene.
“We lived in a row home there, and in the 10 years we lived there, the arts scene just exploded,” Little said. “I just loved it. I associated myself with Lancaster Creative Factory and the Red Raven Art Company.”
Several solo shows in Lancaster built Little's regional reputation, and her unique necklaces became a mainstay. The handmade jewelry incorporates tiny scraps of wood and other objects, each of which contain pages of paper so that the owner can write a personal story or notes. For one of her last shows in Lancaster, Little worked with a theme of unfolding, and several of those pieces hang in her home. The works are like scrolls or opened pages of a book. One of them has hiding places that can hold handwritten messages. They function both as purely decorative objects, but also hint at hidden messages and beckon the viewer to get close.
Last year, Little and her husband moved into the sleek, modern apartment that sits just a few steps from her daughter's back yard. Grandchildren are nearby, and large windows face the back yard so she can see them playing. At a work bench, Little has drawers full of antique shoe forms, bits of wood, tiny antique baubles and other things that strike her fancy, all awaiting their place in a future artwork.
The impulse to re-use things may spring from her years in Mississippi, Little said, where a folk art aesthetic of letting nothing go to waste influenced her work. Now she scours the area's antique shops and flea markets, and people bring her things.
Sitting on the island in her kitchen is “Mad Max,” a shoe on wheels with fluttering limbs stretching like streamers behind it. “I haven't seen the movie,” Little said, smiling, “but I picked up the rusty piece of metal in it on a walk here in Kennett and thought, 'This is really cool. I wonder what I can do with this.' I've had the shoe for years. I loved the idea that it could take flight at some point.”
For “Tasha Lynn's Exotica,” named after her daughter, Little started with the sail, which has a heart design drawn by Tasha Lynn. The resulting object is an exotic sailing ship covered with designs and details that are both very personal and universally appealing.
Since arriving in Kennett Square, Little has found a home for her art at Mala Galleria on State Street. One of the pieces there has a shelf full of tiny books that can be taken out and read, but Little said most people are reluctant to touch the art as she intended. “I love that kind of interaction. But a lot of people don't want to touch things,” she said.
Alongside her sculptures and assemblages, Little makes richly detailed scarves that swoop and swirl as artistic statements. “I started making them during a motorcycle trip my husband and I took to the West,” Little said. “It was the trip of a lifetime. We had a Gold Wing motorcycle, and when we'd stop for the night somewhere, I started knitting for something to do. My mother-in-law taught me to crochet, and I know how to knit, but I don't know how to follow directions, so I got myself some yarn and started doing scarves.
“On that trip, I named them for the parts of the country that inspired the colors I chose. We saw some beautiful parks. Mount Whitney was amazing, we saw Yellowstone. It makes you appreciate America so much – how big it is, how different the people are. It really is wonderful.”
While there are autobiographical details in most of Little's work, “I do it for me, and then I think it's time to not see it anymore,” she said. “I've always looked for venues to move my art into somebody else's hands who appreciates it.”
During her years of doing art shows, Little has collected a list of things browsers have said about her work. “Is this art?” is one of them. “Do people really buy this stuff?” is another.
“But I also get plenty of compliments from people who get it,” she said, smiling. “They see the humor in it. I don't think like anybody else, and they don't either. When I do a show, I like to watch people's faces, and when I see a smile, I know I've got them,” she added, laughing.
Next up for Little may be a series of walking sticks that are mounted on bases, each one richly decorated and embellished. A couple of the still-bare sticks are in her small studio space, but the goal is to finish them and exhibit them at Mala Galleria in the coming months.
They are, in many ways, a logical summation of Little's journeys – both geographically and personally – over the years.
“I've been amazingly lucky,” she said. “I've been through some stuff, but I'm always grateful.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/RobertaLittleArt.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.