ARTIST PROFILE: DEIDRE ROBB
Deidre Robb is a maker and textile artist fascinated with the stories embedded within textiles and second-hand materials. She creates functional items like quilts and clothing, as well as sculpture and interactive artworks. Although she’s moved between the world of fashion and textiles, and the museum and library sector, her multifaceted career is connected by ideas around mending and rejuvenation. We met with Deidre at her home in Falcon, a coastal suburb just south of central Mandurah, to learn more about her practice.
Sitting in Deidre’s living room decorated with mid-century furniture, her love for second-hand treasures is immediately apparent. She grew up in New Zealand and recalls the first time she discovered an op-shop; peering through the window, a young Deidre glimpsed a 1960s Jackie O style suit on a mannequin and returned after school the following Monday. She had found her place; she fell in love with op-shops and taught herself how to sew and mend her own clothes. “I’ve always made things” she says, “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making things”. She’d spend a lot of time in her father’s workshop “mucking around with him, doing woodwork things, making dollhouses” she shares.
Although she was creative, Deidre was encouraged by her parents to undergo library studies and to get a ‘sensible’ job. She worked as a librarian for several years, before studying textiles and fashion. “Ever since then, I’ve sort of swapped between the two worlds and sometimes they’ve overlapped” says Deidre. Working in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector exposed her to the world of historical textiles that would come to inform her practice. While putting in a new computer system for a museum in London, Deidre was invited by a curator to view some new acquisitions. She was shown a set of layettes from the mid 1800’s that a woman had made for her nine pregnancies. Sadly, none of them were ever used as the babies were all stillbirths. Deidre asked, “How else is that story told in a collection?”.
We headed out to Deidre’s backyard studio, with her dog Pluto following along. The space felt like a finely put together op-shop with timber furniture, pigeonholes full of craft books, crates of collected fabrics, an impressive number of thimbles and vintage scissors arranged on a pegboard. On collecting, Deidre says “I’ll sit on something for a long time before I then think, oh, what am I going to do with it?”. She connects these materials to her ideas and concerns, tuning into what they might have to say. For example, Precious Remnants, a series of small hand-embroidered works on linen and cotton, utilises remnants of fabrics to reference remaining pockets of bush in her area and the dividing up of land. As urbanisation increases in the Peel region, the series speaks to the local and global concern of land clearing and loss of natural environments.
While Deidre employs similar techniques across her work, she points out “I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing. It’s the idea, the message is what I’m interested in. Not just, oh, that’s pretty and it’ll look nice on the back of my couch. I’m not interested in that”. We are not OK, which was exhibited at Holmes a Court Gallery in 2022, holds a deeply personal story for Deidre. The work consists of eighteen glass petri-dishes that frame intricate needlework, beading and sequins, reminiscent of growth or new life. Underlying this work however is a more sombre message; We are not OK was made after losing her brother to suicide earlier in the year, Deidre shares. The petri-dish became a form through which Deidre began to question “What is this world that we’ve made that so many people are struggling?”.
Unsurprisingly, she is a champion of handcrafts and their benefits to individuals and communities. On the revisiting of traditional crafts she says “The things that were good about village life was there was a place for everyone, like carding wool. So there were all these repetitive jobs that just needed to be done. So people who didn’t want to be the leader in the community and do other things, there were roles for them and they were very valuable to the community sort of roles. And I think that’s sort of what we’ve lost”. Deidre emphasises the health benefits of slow and repetitive processes. Rather than an engagement in mindfulness, she sees her work as a kind of ‘mind wandering’. “Quite often I will just have music on and I love CDs not Spotify. And so I’ll just listen to music or just have complete quiet while I’m doing my stitching. And that’s the kind of brain processing time. I mean there’ve been lots of studies, but it’s well known that it has a beneficial effect for everyone. Whatever your thing is, do that”.
Deidre’s library background has landed her jobs like project managing at the WA State Library and arts administration with Writing WA. But after commuting to Perth for work for many years, and with COVID-19, she began to reassess her situation and what she really wanted to achieve with her creative practice. She decided “I’m going to ignore some other things in my life and put more time into this. If I’m ever going to achieve what I want to achieve, then I had to do that”.
Deidre is focusing on her art practice and enjoying making at her own pace. Referring to a beautiful second-hand smocking machine, she says “Smocking is my thing that I’m kind of nuts on at the moment”. She wants to develop sculptural outcomes with smocking, and continues to play with ideas around touch and not-touching, and how textile artworks are not conventionally meant to be held in galleries. She says, “I want to make some things that aren’t to someone else’s brief finally. And I’m getting to that point where I just make the things I want to make and see what comes up in terms of where I’ll exhibit it rather than thinking, oh, there’s that deadline and it has to fit in with this”.