U of M student wins big in Canada-wide competition

Gabriel Roberts discusses inspiration, rationale behind his award-winning art installation

Image provided by Touchwood PR.

Gabriel Roberts, set to graduate from the U of M’s school of art next summer, has been named the Manitoban winner of the 2020 BMO 1st Art! competition.

His winning piece, A Closet Painted Blue, is a multimedia installation work that explores his own sexuality within the confines of a closeted relationship.

Inspired by the work of artists such as Joe Sinness, Aaron Skolnick, John Dugdale and Ivan Forde, among others, Roberts has always sought out opportunities to experiment with alternative photographic processes. This has led to continual experimentation with these mediums throughout his artistic practices and is especially relevant in his work A Closet Painted Blue, which was the very first piece in which he used the cyanotype process.

“I love the physical nature of exposing and processing images manually,” Roberts said.

“For me, it is the most rewarding medium and I plan to continue using alternative process photography as my main medium.”

Roberts also spoke about how the nature of cyanotypes supports the core concepts of A Closet Painted Blue.

“I wanted to use cyanotype photography as my medium to express A Closet Painted Blue’s core concepts because of the numerous steps that have to be undertaken to produce the image and the automatic reflection that comes with engaging with my images physically.”

This brings him even closer to the subject matter and artwork as it is slowly created, step by step.

In addition, Roberts also commented on how A Closet Painted Blue was an important venture into a being more vulnerable in his artwork.

“It was the first time that I made work about my sexuality,” Roberts said.

“I had promised myself to create a personal piece for my honours year, and part of that promise was to step outside of my comfort zone to share it with others.”

Sharing this subject matter is important to Roberts for many reasons, including but not limited to connecting with other gay artists.

“I created A Closet Painted Blue as a contemplative exploration into my sexuality within the constraints of a closeted model,” Roberts said.

“This project allowed me to be meditative, vulnerable and honest while exploring the consequences of a closeted relationship and the prevalent fear of coming out.”

For those approaching A Closet Painted Blue without any context about Roberts’s work, the first thing most viewers notice is the predominance of the colour blue throughout the piece itself.

The abundance of this colour is a direct result of the cyanotype process, yet this colour represents much more in the piece.

“Firstly, blue is associated with sadness, so I was attributing the colour with my feelings in my relationship,” Roberts said.

“Secondly, we all currently live in a society that associates people assigned male at birth immediately with the colour blue.

“As a person who continues to identify myself as male […] it seemed appropriate to express the work through the context of blue.”

Another intriguing part of A Closet Painted Blue’s installation is the presence of various objects and items of clothing, all of which hold special significance in the piece for Roberts and were yet another place of experimentation in cyanotype’s versatility as a medium.

“My goal for the year was to fill a ‘bedroom’ with cyanotypes,” said Roberts.

“I was slowly experimenting with the process of printing images onto a variety of objects and ultimately working toward the goal of using different pieces of furniture […] the hangers are a small nod to the closet […] and I chose to experiment with leather because of the denim and leather subcultures in the [LGBTTQ*] community.”

The assemblage aspect to A Closet Painted Blue’s installation very much drives home the idea that the piece we are viewing is made up of a multi-faceted experience — one where memories and emotions become tied to the things around us that we see and interact with every day. In this way, A Closet Painted Blue also imparts the idea that a self-portrait or time capsule of experience can be found in the most mundane of objects throughout our daily lives.

On being named Manitoba’s winner of the BMO 1st Art! competition, Roberts was ecstatic.

“It felt incredible and empowering to be recognized by an esteemed selection committee outside of my community.”

Roberts also expressed gratitude.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the faculty and staff at the [school of art] for all of their support and behind-the-scenes assistance that allowed me to create A Closet Painted Blue,” he said.

“I would also like to thank BMO and the BMO 1st Art! team for their support.”

“Leaving art school, this award will allow me to continue to create meaningful artwork.”


Gabriel Roberts’s artwork A Closet Painted Blue is available to view in the first-ever virtual BMO 1st Art! exhibition from Sept. 15 to Oct. 16 at artmuseum.utoronto.ca.