Local assemblage artist Robin Howard’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival show “She Promised to Bring Her Books” is a love letter to books and reading.
Howard is presenting 15 works created within the last six months that explore her relationship with books, nature and growing up in rural Indiana. She uses boxes to create narratives with found objects ranging from a laboratory retort stand, clippings from naturalist books, bird eggs and even magnify glasses.
The show is on view through June 30 at the Saul Alexander Gallery in the Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun St.
Howard spoke with The Post and Courier about her creative process and aesthetic choices.
Q: Can you explain the show’s title “She Promised to Bring Her Books”?
A: The “she” in that title is the woman who volunteered to drive the book mobile in the little town where I grew up. I grew up in rural Indiana and I didn’t have access to books. I did have access to the Bible, which a lot of rural Indiana kids did because it’s the Bible Belt, but I didn’t have any other kinds of stories, and I love to read. I had no books, especially in the summer, and I had nothing to do because I grew up in cornfields. One day the book mobile came to our house and then I had books. I was afraid the book mobile wouldn’t come back, and the driver promised me, “I’ll always come back.”
Q: What attracts you to making personal narratives in wood boxes?
A: My mom accidently gave me a role of tape when I was five for Christmas and I just started sticking things together.
Q: What does your creative process look like?
A: Usually I just see a piece made before it’s made, which is odd. It just comes to me. Sometimes it starts with something that I find or something that someone gives me and I know that it is a visually interesting thing and then it just becomes an expression of my connection to that.
Q: Where do you find your objects?
A: I travel a lot. Traveling is always a great place for me to find things. We were just in London and I was digging things out of the Thames River. People bring me things. There are a lot of sailboat parts in these pieces because I sail. I have a lot of sailor friends and their boats break and so I get big bags of sailboat parts.
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from seeing your work?
A: The very base of everything I do, especially with this show, is: Whatever your situation, education and knowledge truly are power. You take a young girl like me — I had very little mentorship, I grew up in really crappy school system, and I went so far with just self-education.
Q: Does your work have a connection to box artist Joseph Cornell?
A: Yeah. I learned about Joseph Cornell when I was in college. I didn’t know assemblage art was a thing until I saw Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg’s stuff, actually.
Q: How has your work changed over the years?
A: I’ve gotten more courageous to show it and just accept what people think. I love seeing the delight on people’s faces. I think it’s changed in that it’s gotten much more narrative. The stories within stories are definitely something that has developed over the last few years. If you look, it’s not just assemblage of objects, but the objects within these assemblage have also been assembled. It’s sort of a Russian doll.
Jonathan Williams is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.