Meg Roberts - Artist Study
This is part of an ongoing series on the how, where, and why behind some people making amazing things in the Midwest.
I met Meg Roberts last fall during Fargo's studio crawl and immediately wanted to photograph her work and space. In addition to being a phenomenal person and compassionate friend, Meg is a talented ceramic artist and the founder of Plants for Patients and is doing some very important work in the world of social justice.
Zach: Tell me who you are and what you do
Meg: My name is Meg Roberts and I am a ceramic artist. And sometimes I’m a potter, like today. Sometimes I make sculpture and I’m a vegan and I have a cat and I’m interested in community and how art and community intersect.
Zach: How did you get into ceramics?
Meg: The ironic bit is that I was not going to do ceramics at all. I just wasn’t going to do it. I grew up with my parents running a commercial ceramics business out of our basement. So they had tons of molds and they would slip caste those. They would sit me down next to my grandmother with a trimming tool just scraping seams. It was work then, it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. It was definitely not a thing I was gonna do.
All the way through school anytime we did ceramics I sort of had an aptitude for it, sort of understanding the material and the processes. When I came to school I knew that I wanted to be in art, but didn’t really know much more than that. It just ended up being the material that I really understood and spoke to me. So I stuck with that. I called my mom and was like, “Dammit, I was never gonna be you, wasn’t gonna do it, but I’m declaring ceramics.” She had a good laugh. She thought that was wonderful. So it was really great, we had that point of connection.
Zach: Walk me through a typical piece from start to finish.
Meg: So a pot starts by wedging the clay, what you saw that looked like kneading dough. That’s working out all of the air bubbles and making sure that the clay is consistent all the way through. And that gets thrown on the wheel and taken off the wheel. Then that has to dry for a period of time. Sometimes just for a couple days, sometimes for a few hours. But once it’s able to be handled I’m able to flip it over and carve the foot of the pot. And then that has to dry again until it’s at a state that we call bone dry, meaning that all of the natural water in the piece is gone. And that gets put into a kiln and fired to a temperature of about 1800 degrees or so. From there it comes out and is glazed and fired again at any number of different temperatures depending on what somebody’s going for, depending on the clay body, the glaze, the type of firing, whether it’s electric or wood firing. Then it can be done at that point, but some people might do many firings, an initial firing and then do a layer of decals and then fire it again and a layer of luster and fire it again. So a lot of possibilities.
Zach: What is Plants for Patients?
Meg: It started as my undergrad thesis. It is a community benefit organization that creates a framework for people to support their neighbors through the gift of a hand-made planter, a paired plant and a note of support. Those are offered as gifts of compassion and love to women who have had abortions at the Red River Women’s Clinic as a way to just show people that they have that support system, whether or not they already have one of their own. It’s just a way to show people that this is how we do community. We laugh together, we grieve together, we make art together; we creatively support each other through joys and through sorrows. That’s been going for about three years and we have served two thousand women and their families in that time.
I make the majority of the planters, but there are several other really talented artists that do as well when they have time. We organize events where people can come together and plant the planters and write hand-written notes of support. And then they’re offered to women as they’re leaving the clinic, no strings attached. They don’t have to take one, but it builds off the research that says plants are healing, emotionally, physically, the idea that art and hand-made objects carry so much more with them.
I found it really depressing, the idea that I was gonna take something, this clay, if I were to put this back into a bucket of water is gonna become liquid clay again and then I can throw it again, but as soon as it goes through the kiln it can never revert back. So in this culture of consumerism, I was just like, “Oh my gosh.” I could visualize it going from here to that kiln and maybe I’ll sell it for a couple bucks and then eventually it’s gonna end up in a thrift store when somebody’s like, “I don’t really want this anymore.” So I had a really hard time with that. I couldn’t justify that without it doing some good in the world first.
Zach: What inspires and influences you?
Meg: Good design, I’m inspired by good design. People that I admire. A passing smile between strangers. A cup of coffee and deep conversation with a friend. Connection and relationship in our community. Activists, artists, and advocates doing great work on the social justice landscape, working to dismantle oppression while opening our minds to our complicity and naivety. Things like great design and the work of my peers push me to strive for better craftsmanship and bring me joy. More and more I have been inspired by the natural world.
Zach: Tell me about your space here, how would you describe it?
Meg: Haha, filthy. There’s a really big layer of clay buildup on everything. There’s some organization. It’s very utilitarian. That’s one of the things I love about this space. I show up to work. It’s not a hobby, I come here to get stuff done. I do treat it like another job, which somedays is great and somedays is a little bit depressing. Somedays I just wanna come and play.
Zach: What do you want people to take away from your work?
Meg: There’s a really great quote, it was Michael Stand quoting Matt Long, so potters quoting each other, but his sentiment was that he wanted his work to be a silent accompaniment to something else. I think part of it for me is that I just really like design and problems. I like designing to that human element. With the creature sculptures that I’ve made, I want people to have a retraction or a repulsion which is really fun to play with. I’m really drawn to things that I have to touch or hold. I think I understand the world through touch very much. I want something that feels good in my hands to tough. So that’s what I strive for.
I think my work has little to do with it, but I hope they take the thing they do well and leverage it to the service of the thing they care about. Most days I am utterly heartbroken over the bigness of the problems we face on a human scale. The horrific ways in which we treat each other, our shared home, and our fellow inhabitants. Like a lot of folks, I carry the feeling that it's all too much; recognizing my complacency, privilege, and culpability in systems of oppression and unearned advantaging and disadvantaging. That's why I'm vegan. That's why I strive for minimalism. That's why I make art. I'm just hoping to take this little thing that I know how to do, this visual language I speak, to put something good back into the world for myself and in service of others. It's my hope that we begin to take a deeper responsibility for each other and our impact on each other all while laughing, smiling, and having fun in our short time here together.
Zach: What’s the last good book you’ve read?
Meg: I'm re-listening to the book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal about gameplay's potential to fix the problems of our world. I’ve read it before and I’ve sort of lost the message in the din so it was recommended to me again. It’s really cool. Essentially saying that we all want to work hard at something that matters to us, we all want to play and have fun and those are sort of the things that fuel us. So I was like yeah, I could get down with that. I just finished Everything That Remains, written by The Minimalists, whose work I highly recommend. And I'm currently reading A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen for a social justice seminar I've been attending this year that is blowing my mind wide open.
Zach: What’s on your playlist?
Meg: Ohhh, I am a very passive music person. I've been listening to Nahko & Medicine for the People obsessively on recommendation from a dear friend in addition to Sia, Perfume Genius, and the Dodos. Their art and messages have had profound impact on me. Annie Lennox is always on my playlist. And Eddie Money is always on my playlist. And I have a faux obsession with Hootie and the Blowfish, so I have this deep deep love of all that is Hootie and everything that is Darius. I like listening to playlist compilations and seeing what is being made now, I think it’s because I have a hard time taking in auditory information. I’m very visual and very tactile.
Zach: How do you think your work has changed?
Meg: Truthfully, I think my work is just beginning. From art school to the work I'm currently in to the work I hope to be doing in the future, I think the biggest shift is that the work has become less inward focused and become more outward-looking and reflective. There is already so much need for visual communication and creative problem solving, that I don't need to recreate the wheel -- just show up, offer my skill set and time. I'm still learning and still faltering as I climb the learning curve of justice work, but whatever I stumble into next I don't foresee it being outside the vein of compassionate practice.
Zach: What advice would you have for someone wanting to pursue a career in art?
Meg: I think it’s really cliche, but you just have to do the work. I like talking about ideas and getting validation for ideas too but you just have to do the work. I think that was one thing that I really found when I started working on Plants for Patients. When I decided that it was gonna be a thing and that it was gonna need to be bigger than me, because the idea was bigger than me and my ego, I was gonna have to prove to people that I was gonna do it. I was just gonna put in the work and hope that people followed me there. I was just like, “I’m gonna do this anyways, this is what I’m about” and hope that something good comes of it.