Something happens when suddenly we can count the degrees on one hand. It comes with the securing of a hat, the coiling of a scarf. It’s a gaze downward and a shuffle of boots along the path, marking with percussive treads the transition between dirt, ice, and asphalt. When at last those boots reach the linoleum in the Smith Union—the largest piece in the country, in fact—the gaze might lift and it might just intersect with another traveler who has also found refuge in the Union’s warmth.
Robin Brooks shows me a digital image of her painted paper collage “Winter Wood,” and at once I’m reminded of what I’ve seen a thousand times but perhaps lately have been too wind-bitten to register. A horde of streamlined trunks extends vertically, shifting between grey black and brown to reiterate their bareness. Hints of green edge their way into the foreground, but it’s just the teasing burst of color of coniferous trees. The image is still winter in its most familiar form: a patchwork of shards of sky, stalks of wood, sheets of ice.
The layering of paper reminds me that a selfless hand has reassembled what I’ve failed to see by keeping my eyes on my boots.
“There is a dialogue between artist and medium,” Brooks, who works with media ranging from oil paints to collage, tells me, recounting the experience of pasting these layers. “Something happens as I move from medium to medium: painting, pastel, photography…all these different ways of interacting with a technique lead to different ways of seeing. That’s the role of the artist—to help people see.”
Brooks has seen a great deal. She currently works as a visual artist in Topsham, but the scope of her art extends throughout multiple spaces and communities. After earning a B.F.A. in arts education at Boston University in 1979, Brooks studied at Parsons School of Design in New York. There, she found herself among a community of art students, romantically reviving the European Salon tradition.
“We worked from life and we worked from museum pieces,” she explained to me. “It was an incredibly rich experience.”
Brooks moved to New Jersey after college and worked in the Newark Museum of Art, where she accessed another artistic realm, another community.
“They have a large collection of African-American art,” she recalled. “I grew up near the Museum, but I never knew this huge collection existed until my work brought me there.”
And twenty-six years ago, when she uprooted, yet again, to Maine, she found herself navigating a new network of paths. “I felt like I was moving into a small world of artists,” she told me. “I felt like I could do a lot more here.”
Brooks is now busy collaborating with twelve other local artists creating banners for political rallies in Augusta and Portland. She shows me another image, this one of white and red block letters spelling “Citizen’s Unite against Citizens United!” printed unapologetically against a green backdrop.
Brooks explained that the process of creating political art is a collaborative effort. The artists come in with sketches and together they refine the image and settle on a specific aesthetic, “so it’s a powerful artistic statement as well as a political one,” she says.
Though the banners are definitely compelling in their striking acrylic tones and cartoonish emblems, as I look back to “Winter Wood” and her several other landscape collages, I get the sense that Brooks values the local as well as the global in her mission to help people see.
She first got the idea for “Winter Wood” while snowshoeing through a friend’s backyard, taking snapshots of snow and trees.
“I like looking at things that aren’t scenic, that someone would bulldoze over without thinking twice about,” Brooks says.
When not focusing on her own work, Brooks teaches visual art at Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta.
The glimpses of the Maine landscape that she reconfigures remind us of the duty of perception just as powerfully as a banner expressing a national concern. And this patch of nature that she has superimposed upon a canvas in “Winter Wood” is a restoration effort of sorts. It has restored, for me at least, the beauty of a five-degree day.
It’s hard to say if it is, in fact, a seasonal occurrence—this trope of the solitary traveler passing from point to point unbothered—or if it’s a reality of our age. Brooks’ art offers an alternative for when we do wish to be interrupted and made to look at something. Her collage work layers lines and planes and suggests the gaze not of one, but of many.
“We need more art in our lives to make us feel whole and connected,” she tells me.
“It’s how tribal people lived. I think we still have a hunger for that.”