In Her Own Words:

A Conversation with Artist Robin Holder and Curator Dorit Yaron

DY: Which technique did you use when you were working with black and white and grays?

RH: I was drawing and collaging. I was drawing with charcoal and I was painting. You know, I wanted to paint, and when I was seventeen and went to The Art Students League, that's when I decided that I wanted to be a metal-welder, because I had seen Richard Hunt's16 work, and I just fell in love with it. I studied with Ricky Mayhew17 at The Art Students League, and I told him that I thought Richard Hunt was a genius. I sent a package to Richard Hunt—probably some drawings and a letter just telling him how much I admired him—but he never answered me! That was very disappointing. So I decided that I wasn't going be a metal-welder but a painter. I was taking Ricky Mayhew's class, and I wasn't too into landscapes, but it was something about the colors; I just liked the colors. When I was at The Art Students League, most of my imagery was based on machine parts and bones. It was all abstract; I was completely convinced that I was going to be an abstract artist. I had the Gray's book of anatomy18 and I would just look at bones. And I would get motorcycle magazines and I'd look at the machinery. And I was just fascinated by the shapes and the forms.

DY: So what happened? When did you do the shift to representational, figurative, narrative art?

RH: Well, soon after I studied at The Art Students League, I left the country for about five years. I was in Mexico and found out that I was an American and not a Black American, and I started painting people, horrible images of suffering people. It was black and white and gray and then I was starting to use acrylics, and drawing with charcoal or lead pencil. I was just nineteen or twenty years old at the time. I felt a need to express my identity and I needed to communicate with people. And I was somehow convinced that the best way to communicate with people was to do figurative work. But I still think that there's a lot of abstract in there, for example, in They Damaged Us More than Katrina.

One time I was in the Printmaking Workshop and Elizabeth Catlett19 was sitting at the table, and I can't remember if it was a lithographic stone or a lithographic plate, but she was drawing. And she said, in Spanish, "I'm just making this cauliflower and I'm really into it." And she added, "Well, I can't just have a cauliflower; I'm going to put a peasant in the background." I thought, so you can't just have a cauliflower. I knew what she meant, and it was very sad for me to hear that. And I started thinking about when can I do something that is satisfying enough, and gives the message that I want, without using figurative work?

DY: When did you choose the medium of printmaking as the medium of your choice?

RH: When I came back to the States in the fall of 1977, I started working at Bob's Printmaking Workshop. And my son was only three-and-a-half years old. I was working three days a week at the Workshop, but I had to figure out what I could do at home with my artwork, because I couldn't be in the Workshop all the time. So I was drawing, cutting out the drawings, and sewing them together, and that's how I start doing collage. I also love colored pencils; they're sort of like the sophisticated version of those Crayola crayons. I was using the Prismacolors colored pencils, and I was drawing these floating, flying, figures. And those are the figures that later became the "Karnak" works. As my son got older and he had after school activities, I could spend more time at the Workshop, and that's how I got into printmaking.