A Queer Future While Stitching Its Present

From strikingly embroidered masks of New York artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz to portraits of current queer artists and activists such as Visual AIDS’s Ted Kerr to an immersive knit map of the queer collective houses in Brooklyn, artist L.J. Roberts merges the often-maligned genre of craft with references to historical and contemporary feminist, queer and transgender activism. Inspired by the public art activism of groups such as Gran Fury and fierce pussy, Roberts, who identifies as transgender, employs a wide range of craft techniques such as embroidery and knitting, which are often associated with early feminist art, to represent both past and present queer communities in New York.


Roberts showed us around their Brooklyn studio, speaking on their current work and revealing a few works in progress, which promise to continue Roberts’s powerful focus on creating an artistic archive of queer communities and activism.

NYC-APs: Starting with the work “Censorship Protest Mask (David Wojnarowicz)” in Visual AIDS’s recent exhibition Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS at the LaMaMa Galleria, which both recalls Wojnarowicz’s own art and the censorship of his film A Fire in My Belly by the National Portrait Gallery in late 2010, what inspired you to use Wojnarowicz’s image?

Censorship Protest Mask (David Wojnarowicz). Embroidery on Cotton 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

L.J. Roberts: The piece is an embroidery based on the mask you could download during the protest when the censorship happened at the National Portrait Gallery. I was teaching in Virginia when the censorship happened and I felt really angry about it. I went to the protest march in New York, which marched from the Met to the Cooper Hewitt Museum, which is a Smithsonian Institution. People were wearing those masks all over and it was a very eerie sight.

I think the mask is about making current work about AIDS and not historicizing AIDS. It’s a work about the present. It feels really important to talk about how a video by an artist who has been dead for many years can still be censored by a major institution of the United States. Why is it being censored and how is it being censored? How do we make art in reaction and what are the things we need to keep talking about? The dialogue about AIDS talks about so many different issues that we are still scared to talk about it.

NYC-APs: I recently read your essay, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory,” which compares the use of the word “craft” and its low position in the hierarchy of the artistic mediums to the use of the word “queer.” What is your relationship to craft?

LJR: My use of craft doesn’t have a lot of irony in it. I use it because it’s the way I was taught to make stuff. My grandmother taught me needlework and knitting when I was seven like her grandmother taught it to her and I’m sure like her grandmother taught her. It has gone so far in my family that you probably can’t even map it. It’s something that I feel very invested in, particularly how it’s used in feminist and queer art. It’s a legacy that I want to see continued on.

Ted Kerr at the ACT-UP 25th Anniversary Protest, NY, NY. Image courtesy L.J. Roberts.

NYC-APs: Not only do you use traditional craft techniques such as knitting and embroidery but you also use unexpectedly glittery machines such as the Barbie Knitting Machine. When did you start working with these toys and how does it affect your work?

LJR: I make a lot of my work on the Barbie Knitting Machine and the Cool Corder, which is this small cranking machine that you thread the fabric through and it comes out in these tubes. A lot of my work is made using toys that I buy off the Internet. I started using them in grad school after I was told I wasn’t making my work fast enough. My professor saw the Cool Corder on the Internet and said that I should try it. It was the gayest thing I had ever seen. It was also a way of de-skilling craft as much as possible and use techniques that are literally for ages eight and up. In terms of having a gender queer identity or a transgender identity, it is this interesting mix of using a machine and having it be very feminine. 

L.J. Roberts, Portrait of Deb 1988-199? (Work-In-Progress). Single-Strand Embroidery on Cotton. 2013.

NYC-APs: Looking around your studio, I’m noticing quite a few works in progress. What are you working on now?

LJR: An older couple, Deb and Anne, who are friends of mine, just split up after ten years. Deb moved to California and her partner Anne gave me this huge archive of Deb’s radical queer ephemera from the late 80s and the early 90s. She was in ACT-UP, Women’s Health Action and The Lesbian Avengers, as well as involved in a lot of fat activism, body positivity and sex positivity. I started embroidering this archive as a portrait of her (the piece is called “Portrait of Deb from 1988 to 199?”) and a portrait of a specific time. There are a lot of politics that crossed over, trans-activism, gender nonconformity, women’s rights and body rights. The fact that someone who was lesbian-identified was doing all this intersectional activism is such an interesting portrait of that time.

I am also doing embroidered portraits of my friends. When I did the “Queer Houses of Brooklyn,” I was looking at a loose community of people that were living together collectively, but also there were a lot of artist and activists. Those things intersected. So I started making portraits of people who are in that community. I’d love to make about fifteen to twenty embroidered portraits.

The Queer Houses of Brooklyn In The Three Town of Boswyck, Breukelen, and Midwout in the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era (Based on the drawing by Daniel Rosza Lang/Levistsky and with illustrations by Buzz Slutzky). Image courtesy L.J. Roberts.

NYC-APs: Much of your work, such as your work-in-progress, “Portrait of Deb from 1988 to 1990?,” manages to make current work about AIDS and activism rather than historicizing it or resorting to nostalgia. Being young during the height of the AIDS crisis, how did that period of AIDS activism affect you as an artist?

LJR: I’ve thought about this for years. I grew up in a really conservative area outside of Detroit. It was a very intense place to grow up since I was super different than everyone else as a kid. I left home at thirteen because of this. Shortly after I left home, I was sent to boarding school. I ended up at an all-girls Episcopal school even though I’m Jewish. I was very queer and stood out a lot. They had field trips that you could sign up for on the weekends. One of them was to go visit the AIDS Quilt that was laid out on the Washington Mall for the last time since it grew too large to be shown.

It took me forever to put my name up on the sign-up sheet. I was terrified that it was something gay and I was dealing with this deep internal shame about being queer. I signed up at the last minute and was the only person on the field trip. At the AIDS Quilt, I thought first that there were so many people that had died. You’re seeing all the people who have died when you’re fourteen and having sex education but the sex education doesn’t relate to you. There’s all this fear and then, there were signifiers of militancy and queerness. It was the first time I had ever seen anything like that. The quilt was giving me the language to identify myself and talk about myself. 

NYC-APs: Your work powerfully evokes feminist and queer activism. What effect would you like to have on the viewers?

LJR: I think the work by Gran Fury and fierce pussy were so powerful for me. The fact that there was so much consciousness raised by images that were wheat-pasted on the sides of buses or on billboards. That was so powerful and educational. It put pressure on political forces and drug companies. I think there is a purpose of wanting to make things visible and heard, as well as to use materiality to reach viewers whether in an emotional or educational way. I’m trying to talk about the imaginations of a queer future while still thinking about critical issues that feel important to organize around.

Article by Emily Colucci