Pctured above: The Owl Bench made by Gail T. Roberts, commissioned by the Little Lending Library located in the Catalina Vista neighborhood in Tucson.
Once a dental hygienist who chipped away at various artistic endeavors, Gail T. Roberts is well known for her clay murals adorning Tucson. Not only are her murals vibrant, but they’re also serviceable, promoting donors from a University of Arizona sorority, to various neighborhoods and organizations, to the Reid Park Zoo.
In 2008, in the midst of the economic recession, Gail devised the mural for large rocks that stand at the entrance to the zoo’s new elephant section. “Kids were getting injured on those rocks. We made something beautiful but also functional, three-dimensional, touchable,” she says. “We’re problem solvers.”
Gail takes on projects by commission, producing the murals by starting with paper templates for the design. Every part of the clay is hand-formed, then fired in an electric kiln behind her backyard studio.
“We don’t smash plates. Even the tiny shapes,” she explains, “are cut from a flat clay slab for background designs.”
Becoming a flourishing artist didn’t come easy. Growing up in a Detroit Conservative Jewish family, “art wasn’t encouraged,” says Gail, who always loved to doodle. She admired creative types, but her parents often reminded her of an uncle who was “a starving artist.” Their advice was to pick a profession by which she could support herself.
When she was eight or ten years old, recalls Gail, her father convinced her to enter an art show. “My father was really good at sketching. Dad said, ‘you can do it’ but he took over the project. I was humiliated because I entered and won. I never drew again.”
Following her graduation from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry with a B.S. in dental hygiene, a hygienist colleague mentioned a ceramics class starting at the local community college. Gail signed up immediately. It was the early 1970s.
“I fell in love with ceramics, which screamed at me ‘you’ve got to do this!’ ”
The aspiring artist and her husband (retired Pima County Juvenile Court Judge Stephen Rubin) moved to Tucson in 1974.
Gail has never looked back. First, she tried creating ceramics on a potter’s wheel. Making stoneware became a kick for a while. She presented an annual exhibit of plates and other dinnerware at her Tucson home, “all functional stuff. I was practical,” says Gail.
“Some artists stick with one thing they’re good at – I was restless.” Discovering that she loved working with geometric shapes, Gail ventured into a whole new firing process.
Raku firing, a process where pottery is fired at a relatively low temperature and then moved while red-hot to a closed container with materials, such as paper or sawdust, that ignite and cause a reaction creating colors and patterns in the pottery’s surface.
“It’s primitive and spontaneous,” notes Gail. “I put on a fire suit and work in the open kiln with tongs and fireproof gloves. You take whatever you made and put it into a garbage can filled with combustibles,” transforming carbon into a design of beautiful black lines.
That was twenty years ago. Gail felt she still had much more to learn in the field of art. She started taking art classes at the University of Arizona. Intrigued by her burgeoning knowledge of color, design and surface, Gail jumped into painting in acrylics, producing canvases of large vegetables and smaller still lifes.
“I wanted to take a closer look at nature,” she says. By this time, she and her husband had two children, who are now grown. “I loved raising kids, but creating art fed my inner self.”
In 1998, Gail was the founding director of the Perlman Art Studio at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, where she worked with young children. She also brought art experiences to children in Tucson Unified School District’s south side schools.
Her passion – and success – as an artist reached her parents. “It was really sweet when my parents came for a few months and watched me work,” says Gail. At age 80, her mother started dabbling with clay in her daughter’s studio.
This month Gail, with one or two assistants, will be teaching a mosaics class in an assisted living home for seniors. “It’s a way to keep seniors satisfied by being able to create something. It’s empowering for them,” she affirms.
“Often in life, someone or some incident tells us we can’t do something,” as during her own youth, says Gail. “Making art comes from deep inside. We’re so vulnerable from criticism it can be very discouraging.”
Keep at it, she advises. People may find creativity at an older age, which is great because “they haven’t learned to do things ‘wrong.’ ” Take a class in sketching or another artistic medium. You discover that making art isn’t innate. “You have to learn it,” says Gail.
In her childhood Conservative Jewish home, she remembers, “we broke all the rules. Keep kosher at home, but you go out for spare ribs.”
Ultimately, her fervor turned to trust in her intuition. “I thought, it’s OK to break all the rules. That’s what art does!”
For more information on Gail and her art, visit gailtrobertsstudio.com.
Sheila Wilensky is a writer, editor and educator living in Tucson.