Margaret Roleke: Getting a Dialogue Started

Margaret Roleke, Margaret Roleke: Made Visible, 2020, window installation of cyanotype banners and mylar, Creative Arts Workshop, New Haven, CT., photo courtesy of Rashmi Talpade

When Margaret Roleke finished her MFA, she was a sculptor and installation artist. From early on she created installations dealing with issues of water, sound and light and after becoming a mother to four children, notions of motherhood and domesticity became central in her work. As her children grew, current political events became increasingly part of her visual expression. For instance, around 2002 she started including toy soldiers in her sculptures, referencing the Iraq war, and also around this time for a public art project in Brewster, NY, she made seating for the day-laborers who were regularly gathering on that site. She continued to make work that spoke to issues that were important to her, mainly gun control, domestic abuse, and immigrant rights. She says she had no intention to be an activist artist, but became one in the course of making art and exploring her true voice — “The Trump presidency led me to march on the streets and register voters, but I feel I can be a better activist when I create work which starts a dialogue on these important subjects, as this seems to be what comes naturally to me,” she says.

Your work is diverse, from sculpture to prints and from public and mail art to gallery walls. Let’s start with your large-scale sculptures. You transform multiple small toys and actual bullet casings into jewel like abstractions and playful forms which resemble minimalist paintings or pop assemblage. You say in your text that you explore “relationships that develop when popular culture mixes with war and religion.” Can you elaborate on how you see this relationship and how is it reflected in two installations – Net Loss (2017) that was exhibited indoors at the Katonah Museum of Art and Shell Shelter (2019) that was exhibited outdoors at Beechwood Arts in Westport, CT.?

Unfortunately, guns have now become a popular icon in America, a country where we have more guns than people. The pro-gun lobby has turned gun ownership into a political issue. I lived near Sandy Hook at the time of the mass shooting and knew relatives of the victims. That event catalyzed me to create work that would start a conversation on guns and hopefully gun control. I realized that shotgun shells are beautiful and by using them in sculptures I could draw people in and get a dialogue started. In Net Loss the structure that the shells are strung through appears like a playful net reducing these once dangerous objects into something fun. In Shell Shelter, while the viewer is invited to go and relax under a canopy, the realization that the shelter is made from spent shells is disturbing.

Roleke, Net Loss, 2017, spent shotgun shells, wire, found object, paint, 75” x 75” x 75” photo courtesy of Margaret Fox

Margaret Roleke, Shell Shelter, 2019, spent shotgun shells, wire, painted steel, 50” x 120” x 126”

Toys appear to play a central role in your work. What brought you there and can you tell me more about your process? Let’s take a look for example at one of your monochromatic wall toys and at your installation Silence No More at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art (2018).

For years toys have been part of my vocabulary — in my early pieces, I dealt with issues of the consumerism of childhood and the gender bias in the toys given to boys and girls. Later I began using toy army men and other war toys to speak about war, abuse, and violence. Silence No More was a large installation in which I used dismembered dolls as a way to talk about violence against women. Sometimes using a “toy” or “doll” softens the serious subject and gives the viewer a way into the work. It’s similar to what I do with the shotgun shells.

Margaret Roleke, Barbie Lives in a Police State, 2015, wall relief; wood,plastic toys, spray paint 30” x 35” x 16” photo courtesy of Paul McGuirk

Margaret Roleke, Silence No More (detail), 2018, detail of room installation using painted dolls, toys, and found objects, dimensions variable

I am looking at images from your 1995 and 2002 public art projects in Empire Fulton Ferry State Park in Brooklyn. Tell me about these projects – how they were realized and what were your ideas?

I exhibited outdoor sculptures in the park for seven summers between 1994 and 2005. In the 1995 piece I was still dealing with light, but was also referencing a shelter. In this piece you walked up onto a lookout, but you could only look backward and not forward- you were caged in and became the object on view and the people below could observe you. The piece I did in 2002 was after the 9/11 attack and the World Trade Center was no longer in the background. At that time I just wanted to create a calm reflective piece that one could sit on and enjoy — it was made from reflective steel and colored plexiglas. I loved how both of those pieces changed throughout the day as the sun moved.

Margaret Roleke, Viewing/Viewed Stage,1995, wood, carpeting, aluminum, steel, corrugated plastic 14’h x 12’d

You initiated several mail art projects. Dear 33020 from 2017 for instance is a mail art correspondence taking place over a period of 60 days between you and Florida artist, Lisa Rockford as part of a collaboration between Art Space New Haven and the Art and Cultural Center of Hollywood , Florida. Can you tell me more about this project and what draws you to mail art?

I met Ray Johnson, who is considered the father of mail art, in the late 80’s. I became fascinated by mail art and have been creating it ever since. In the last four years I have done several pieces in which I enlarge photos taken from a protest march and cut them up into postcard-size pieces, creating a puzzle on one side and collages about current events on the other side. These are then mailed out and pieced together by the recipient who puts together the puzzle. This is what I did in Dear 33020, where I sent a postcard to Florida and to New Haven everyday. I would also photograph the mailboxes the cards were sent from and record the time of day as part of the piece. The intention was for Lisa to react to my cards, and me to hers. This worked to a degree, however while I was all in sending daily cards, she did not respond as often. In the end I sent 85 cards. It became a daily ritual, which I think is an important part of the mail art process.

You told me that since the pandemic you started working with cyanotypes. How did you start, what is your process, and how do you see this form in context of your overall work?

In 2019, I did a two day workshop learning the cyanotype process, and I really enjoyed the results. When three of my kids moved back home during the pandemic, I needed space to work and decided to see about creating the cyanotypes in my barn. It is a very simple process: You coat your paper with two non-toxic chemicals which makes it light sensitive, then expose the paper to the sun with objects, stencils and whatever else you want. Then, you bathe the paper in water and print. I completely took to the process. I had to plan for it because the setup was complicated but it also allowed me to put something on the calendar during Covid. I would plan for a sunny day and prepare the barn by making it into a dark room. Then I needed water and my barn is nowhere near a source of water so I would string hoses together to create a water bath. I ended up doing pieces as large as 38” x 50” in a small kiddie pool.

The cyanotype process for me was similar to how I create prints — monoprints and silkscreen but rarely an edition. I also layer and collage the same objects I use in my sculpture: dolls, stencils, silk screens themselves, and words. It is a very spontaneous process with chance playing a role in the final result.

Margaret Roleke, Glow, 2020, cyanotype, 50” x 38”

All Photo courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise indicated.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: