Artist Gabriel Roberts turned blue into green with his honours thesis project at the University of Manitoba.
His mixed-media installation A Closet Painted Blue won a BMO 1st Art regional prize worth $7,500 earlier this month. The award is aimed at Canada’s top post-secondary students, and Roberts used the large piece, which he began in the fall of 2019, as the artistic highlight of his time with the U of M’s School of Art.
"When I was making this piece, I never thought in my wildest dreams it would be received like this, because my goal was to do it for myself. But I’m thankful it has been well received," he says. "A lot of people have been coming out of the woodwork to congratulate me."
The competition, sponsored by BMO Financial Group and now in its 18th year, names one national winner and 11 regional winners, with $15,000 going to the national winner. All selected works — chosen by a jury from among 295 nominations provided by deans and instructors at 110 undergraduate art programs across Canada — can be viewed as part of a virtual exhibition until Oct. 16 at artmuseum.utoronto.ca.
A Closet Painted Blue is large; the collage has grown to be the size of a room, Roberts says. It consists of found objects such as photographs, jeans, linen, a coat, cushions and even a blue wooden chair. The work is an exploration of his sexuality and closeted relationships.
"It is an introspective look at my sexuality," the 22-year-old says. "I identify as gay. I was trying to deal with the prevailing fear of coming out — coming into your own, I guess, becoming who you’re supposed to be. To me that’s what the piece represents."
Every part of the installation comes in a shade of blue, which is a trademark of the cyanotype process. It was invented in the 1840s and is most commonly associated with architectural blueprints.
"I took digital photos that I manipulated into negatives. They’re referred to as digital negatives," he says. "Then I made, essentially, large contact prints of digital negatives from an emulsified material with cyanotype chemical.
"For example, I would paint the chemical on a pair of jeans and then I would lay a large digital negative on top and then I would allow it to expose that way and transfer the image."
It’s sounds complicated, but it has proven to be a handy technique for Roberts to continue making art during the upside-down world that is 2020.
‘It’s actually, as far as all the alternative-process photography types go, it’s I think one of the easier ones, because a lot of the work can be done outside the darkroom and doesn’t need the special machines, like enlargers, that the other ones require," he says. "It’s great for the pandemic to transition to working from home. I was able to make cyanotypes from my basement."
Roberts, like all students at the U of M’s School of Art, studied and worked with all kinds of media, from painting and sketching to sculpting and photography. He was excited about the chance to focus on one technique for his honours thesis, he says.
"The honours really allows you to do whatever you wish to do, whatever it interests you to do, so I guess that’s the beauty of that project. I was given the opportunity to try many different media, and ultimately I settled on alternative-type photography as my favourite one," he says.
While Roberts’ honours thesis is complete and he has the credits to graduate, he hasn’t applied for a degree yet. He continues to take classes, and is considering turning toward education, architecture or a masters in fine arts.
He received an A-plus for his honours thesis, so it wasn’t just the BMO 1st Art judges who appreciated A Closet Painted Blue.
"I found it difficult to get A-pluses in art school, so I’m thankful to end my year with that grade," he says. "I had learned previously that a successful piece I found personally was one I found to be vulnerable, so I made a goal for myself to make a vulnerable piece."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.