There have been 23 queer-owned auto mechanic shops in the United States and Canada from the 1970s to the present, according to artist LJ Roberts. As halley k harrisburg ’90 and Michael Rosenfeld Artist-in-Residence, Roberts was on campus October 17-27 mapping these businesses with textiles.
Roberts was chosen by the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) and the Visual Arts Department to join the campus community for the 2023-2024 academic year. Their role as Artist-in-Residence includes completing their textile project, encouraging student engagement and leading upcoming programming throughout the year.
Roberts has worked with textiles for several years and first learned about the art form through their family.
“I learned sewing and knitting through my grandmother when I was a young child…. I found textiles to be a really good medium for traveling,” Roberts said. “I make very large pieces when I have the space but I make very small pieces when I don’t or when I’m traveling. I also do embroideries, and I bring them with me everywhere.”
To Roberts, textiles are a universal medium and serve many purposes beyond their ordinary uses.
“I think that people can relate to textiles, because we use them every day,” they said. “When you see textiles, a lot of times they have associations having to do with gender or race or class. So, when you work in textiles, there’s commentary, there’s legacy.”
For the textile map, Roberts collected information on all 23 queer-owned auto shops and plans to plot them through collaged textiles. They utilize knitting and “eccentric” quilting to bring the work together.
Roberts added that their current textile project at Bowdoin is intended to honor queer resilience and prosperity in a heteronormative society.
“I think it’s important as a queer person to understand that queer people are able to survive and thrive in different parts of the country, having homes that they’ve created for themselves, having, in this case, auto repair shops that they have created for themselves and their greater community,” they said. “This project matters in particular to me because auto mechanic shops are typically seen as a very heterosexual male enterprise.”
Roberts also brought up the importance they place on their work highlighting auto shops given the role of transportation for people seeking reproductive healthcare.
“With current legislation being passed that restricts abortion or that restricts medical care from trans people or trans youth, we are understanding that part of coping with that is transportation so that people can get those services,” Roberts said.
BCMA Co-Director Anne Goodyear reached out to Roberts after working with them on an exhibition called “This Is A Portrait If I Say So” at the BCMA in 2016. Roberts’ embroidered work, “Portrait of Deb (1988-199?)” was featured with multiple other artists’ non-traditional interpretations of portraiture. Roberts was invited to Bowdoin to be the artist-in-residence in the early summer of this year.
Goodyear cited community engagement and the depth of Roberts’ involvement with their subject matter as reasons for their selection for the residency.
“Something that really interests me about LJ’s work and that I find incredibly meaningful is the degree to which the subject matter they undertake with their work intersects with the practice that they’re engaged with,” Goodyear said. “LJ’s work is so involved with the values of community and at the same time, that is an aspect of what it means to LJ to make work.”
Last week, Roberts set up studio hours for students to meet with them, ask questions and experiment with the sewing machine.
“People are very thoughtful. There’ve been a lot of interesting questions when students come to ask about the work,” Roberts said.
On October 20, Roberts hosted an event with the Sexuality, Women and Gender Center (SWAG) for Postcards from the Edge, an organization that allows contributors to make and sell postcard-sized artwork, the proceeds of which go to Visual AIDS, an organization that supports HIV-positive artists.
harrisburg, founder of the residency program, does not have a say in the recruitment process but finds that the selection committees tend to choose an artist whose work will interest and engage the College community.
“I always look forward to coming back to campus to hear the artists talk and lecture, and I love seeing the diversity usually in the audience reflected in the questions that are asked,” she said. “I think that the committee is selecting the right artists for the times because that audience is usually very full and engaged.”
Since 2015, the residency program has brought various artists to the College, most recently multimedia artist Abigail DeVille last spring. The residency’s benefits for the artist—and the College—include multifaceted engagement with the campus community and beyond.
“What I have loved is the fact that there has been such a direct and meaningful pathway for students to engage with LJ, and in turn for LJ to be able to engage with our students,” Goodyear said. “I think one connection always begets another connection, and part of the power of the Artist-in-Residence program is that it connects Bowdoin to the great big world beyond Brunswick.”