Peter E. Roberts is the man about town, both figuratively and literally.
Roberts serves as the gallery director of Location Gallery, is a member of Kobo Gallery, and makes intricate papercuts that are easily recognizable. His Headcases series, inspired by New York’s most iconic people and things, is about to go on display at the Blackbird Gallery in New York City.
Also this month, Location Gallery celebrates its fourth anniversary with “LUSH,” a group show that as always is a visual who’s-who of artists in Savannah.
We talked with Roberts last week.
1. How do you choose what Headcases to make?
There are 45 pieces in the show, and individual heads are over a thousand, but they’re not all New York. About 60% is New York-inspired and 40% is pop culture.
I go through and look for foods or inventions or companies that originated in New York, things that are iconic New York. Like the Big Apple, or the subway token, or the Greek coffee cup. They’re iconic, everyday beloved things by New Yorkers. I did expand out of the five boroughs—there’s definitely some state stuff because there are a lot of odd things that were invented there, like Jell-O or Rock Em Sock Em Robots. There was a lot more material to work with, so I had to go through the list and see if that particular train of thought—box of thought, I should say!—was sufficient.
There are a lot of great writers—Melville with a white whale on his head, that’s great. But how do you ideate something like Catcher in the Rye? You kind of can’t, because you want people to get it within that context.
I got to draw some really weird and fun things. When else would I get to do Ruth Bader Ginsburg? When would I get to do George Burns or Jerry Seinfeld? Does it land visually pretty quickly? That was the challenge. Some things you have to let go of because you love it, but just because you love it doesn’t mean that other people will get it.
2.How did you get started making Headcases?
The first Headcase show was here in Savannah and that was probably, gosh, five and a half years ago. People really loved them, so I did another one six months later. At that Headcase show, my friend and deeply philanthropically-minded Austin Hill came to that show and loved the Savannah series I did. We got to a conversation about the building on Taylor and Whitaker, which became Location Gallery and his real estate office. So Headcases have been interestingly good to me. I’ve taken Headcases to Oklahoma, Florida and now New York.
It all started because I was just messing around one day and I realized I needed a certain someone’s birthday present, so the very first small nine heads are Archiheads and they belong to my husband. Now to come full circle, the actual 64 Archiheads will be in the New York show. The big Archiheads have been slated to be in shows for all these years, and I just never make the deadline. It’s literally years in the making; it’s really detail-oriented, lots of windows, lots of detail, and it takes a lot of time.
3.Location Gallery is celebrating its fourth year. What does it feel like to hit that milestone?
I really just shake my head and go, “We’re starting on our fourth year? What? How did that happen?” I guess because we just roll out the shows and have a really good time and show some great art. We also pull together some really cool group shows and keep the ideas coming. We’ve got a great year lined up already, so I’m excited about that. It’s good to be already scheduled because then we can take more time with stuff. In the beginning, it was the mad dash—we were just chasing things all over town. Now , not that we can be more selective, but we can certainly pattern our shows a little bit more thoughtfully because we actually have the time.
4. You also have the Pundred Project at Kobo Gallery right now; tell me more about that.
I’m nearing 50 now, and eventually it will be 100 papercut puns. There’s another side of me that is a writer, and I love wordplay. Kobo and I had been talking and doing the dance for a little while and we just had to figure out when I was starting. I just knew I needed to do something that was immediately packable in a suitcase, because we do get a lot of tourists.
I wanted to do something for tourism that wasn’t Savannah specific. I wanted to something a little more lighthearted and made people smile. I just feel like it’s important, for me and my work, that when people see it in their homes, it makes them smile or laugh. It’s a better scenario than something that needs explanation.
That being said, I knew I wanted to do that. I came up with the idea of puns and was like, “Oh, I need to do 100, so pundred, ha ha.” I came up with about 400 and then went back through and judged them on, could I immediately get a visual of what I could do? Some ideas were really funny, but I couldn’t land the joke. And you can’t be too obtuse; you can be clever, but you can’t be too obtuse. You have to have that initial connection of it being visually appealing and then draw them in to look and then pretty quickly get the joke. If they don’t get the joke, there’s no point.
I now call myself a serial artist because I have a bunch of different series of art, each with their own different style. This allows me to bounce from Headcases to Pundred to the other stuff I do.
5. You have so many things going on. How do you balance it all?
Well, I’m a listmaker. They shift every day, but it keeps me on track. Like, what are the ten things that absolutely have to be done today? And if you can get in that mode, and you can get five things done before 11 a.m., then you’re in really good shape. So then your list becomes shorter. You always have to be looking two to three months in advance. You have to be proactive, especially if you’re dependent upon other entities. You really have to be right out in front of it.