LJ Roberts is an artist and Parsons School of Design faculty member who works in large-scale textile, sculpture, and collage installations that investigate themes of queer and trans politics, material deviance, alternative kinship structures, archives, and narrative. Currently, two of their installations—including one on loan from the Smithsonian’s permanent collection—are on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” exhibition until December 8th, 2019. LJ lives and works in Red Hook, Brooklyn with their partner, J Dellecave, and will be an artist-in-residence at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works cultural center this fall. You can find them in the studio—or on a plane—with their two rescue pups, Ziggy the chiweenie and Sparky the desert Chihuahua.
Did you grow up with animals?
When I was born, my parents had two Siamese cats. Then, when they passed away, we adopted another Siamese cat who was a lot like a dog. I prefer my dogs like cats and my cats like dogs.
And that’s something that’s continued through my life. So, I had this Siamese cat that fetched and used to follow me to school and my parents would have to come pick her up—she was a great cat. Then, I also grew up with horses and ponies. I was a competitive rider until I was 16, which I don’t talk about very much, but I really, really love horses.
Then, I went to college and this cat that I adopted was just a pass-around cat named Jade—different students would take him. A roommate of mine was watching him for a summer and he just completely adopted me. He just made it that I was his person. He was 26 pounds and all black. He was just like having another human around—he was so smart and so engaged. He drove with me cross-country a couple times. I snuck him into Canada. And that’s when I started taking my animals to the studio. He would come to the studio with me. My friend’s dog Yo-Yo would also come and they would just pal around together. He was very easy going—he was a great cat.
He passed away the fall of 2010. I made “The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck, and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era,” which is a large-scale textile installation acquired by the Smithsonian based on a map drawing by Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky, in 2011.
I then moved into a collective house and there were three pit bulls living there. By the first week, two of the three pit bulls were sleeping in bed with me. That was really healing after Jade’s passing.
“I prefer my dogs like cats and my cats like dogs.”
Thank you for sharing. How did Ziggy and Sparky come into your life?
When my partner and I started dating, she had a cat named Molly, who was a very aggressive calico. When she got older, she had kidney disease, and we ended up moving to Joshua Tree, California, for a few years. Over there, we watched a friend’s dog named Bruno, and Bruno’s a wonder dog. We call him “the gateway drug to dogs.” It was like Molly came back to life—it gave her a second wind because she was old and sick and we were preparing to say goodbye. And then after we finished watching Bruno, we were like, well maybe we should get a dog. My partner said, “I’m going to manifest a dog coming into your life.” Really soon after that, I saw an ad for someone who was trying to re-home Ziggy.
I went to meet him that night. He was in a foster home with the biggest German Shepherd I’ve ever seen in my life, and a Great Dane puppy, and then Sparky. Ziggy running around doing his own thing, playing with toys, and Sparky jumped right onto my lap and just stared into my eyes with the saddest puppy eyes I’ve ever seen. I ended up walking out with both of them.
They’re definitely the light of my life.
You had mentioned when we were taking photos that they were bonded, right?
They’re bonded in an interesting way. They’re really the odd couple in every sense of the word. They’re complete opposites from each other in a lot of ways. Ziggy is very confident—he doesn’t have any fear or nervousness. He’s extremely mellow. He loves to play with tiny tennis balls—that’s his favorite toy. Sparky is just wired a little differently. He’s the quintessential garden-variety desert Chihuahua, and he’s a little bit more nervous—he’s not as confident. He has tendencies to guard around food, or people, or bags. Ziggy has none of that.
The way that you can tell they’re bonded mostly is through play. They love to wrestle each other and play chase and they have a completely comfortable dynamic playing with each other. When Sparky is nervous or scared, he’s on top of Ziggy. He sees Ziggy as a safety net for him. They don’t really cuddle together so much, but you can really tell that they trust each other and that they’ve lived their lives together and that they have a real understanding as siblings.
Wow, I can tell you’ve thought about this. I love that.
Our lives really revolve around them. My partner has a Pomeranian mix named Cecil, so he lives with us, too. He is their stepbrother and was rescued from a kill shelter in California when he was seven years old.
What’s a typical day for you and Sparky and Ziggy?
Well, we all wake up together in bed.
Ziggy sleeps between my partner and I, smashed between us. He really likes having as much bodily contact with people as possible. Usually we find him sleeping on his back with all four feet in the air and his tongue sticking out. Sparky is at the end of the bed. I’m usually up before they get up. They’re a little bit like teenagers and they like to stay in bed for a long time. We go for a long walk in the mornings. I usually walk them down to the Red Hook waterfront and they have dog friends in the neighborhood that they like to see in the Red Hook waterfront. Then, we come home, they get a couple treats and I make them their breakfast, which is Blue Buffalo Basics Salmon and Potato with an orange vegetable added to it—either boiled sweet potato or shredded carrots and then fish oil and a supplement that’s called Missing Link Kelp Hip and Joint Formula. Usually they’ll just hang out with us as I return emails. If I’m going to the studio they usually come along with me. They love to run around the studio and then they both fall asleep, sometimes on my work.
They’re not exactly great artist assistants but they’re really lovely to have in the studio with me. Sometimes, they’ll come out and about in the city with me if I’m going to an art opening or hanging out with friends. Sometimes, Sparky will stay at home. He’s more of a homebody. Ziggy would come with me everywhere. And then sometimes on days that I teach they’ll come with me as well.
So Ziggy’s more of the party animal?
He definitely loves the social scene. He was at an opening the other day at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division, which is a bookstore in the LGBT Center for the exhibition, “Y’all Better Quiet Down.” No less than five people held him, and then he sat on a stool and did his interview routine where you ask him questions and he turns his head to respond. He completely sucked up every second of it. Both he and Sparky are good with people, and cats, and kids, and other dogs. But Sparky has a limit to his socializing whereas Ziggy doesn’t at all.
I can relate to Sparky, definitely.
I always say that Sparky is my mirror and Ziggy is the goal.
“It’s just nice to love a being that mirrors a lot of my own neurosis. Instead of feeling bad about these qualities, I can appreciate them because I love him so much.”
Love that. So I read in this Hyperallergic interview that you brought them to Sweden.
I did. They’ve gone twice to Sweden with me.
Amazing. What was happening in Sweden?
The first time they went—I have a really nice group of Stockholmer friends who are also queer artists in Sweden. My Swedish friends actually came to the States and met the dogs and loved them. Due to the Swedish agreement with the U.S., it’s fairly easy to bring your dogs. Stockholm has really great dog parks and you can sometimes bring your dogs to cafes, which is really nice.
The second time I brought them was this past fall. I had a residency at Iaspis—it’s the International Artist Studio Program in Sweden. I was in Stockholm for three months. They give you a really nice apartment and a beautiful studio and I just loved having them there in the summer and the fall. It’s such a wonderful city to have a dog in. I would go to my studio and break up that time by taking the dogs for long walks. And it was a really nice part of being able to take a step away from work for a little bit. I love traveling with them, they’ve been on so many different planes. For a while my partner was working in California, so we were going back and forth a lot and they always come with me. They’re very good travelers.
When I’m not around, our go-to sitters are the good people at Brooklyn Dog Walk. They are a woman- and queer-owned business and I get great updates on the boys while I’m away.
That’s a great travel tip. I didn’t know that Sweden was so dog friendly.
It’s such a walkable city. They had a dog sitter there, and I swear to you, they lived such a posh life because the dog sitter would go on vacation with them. And they would go to these weekends in the Swedish countryside and I was like, they’re getting better vacations than I am.
Your dogs sound like they have a dream life in general. So, I asked Sable Elyse Smith this question too and she said her dog, Lenox, is still a muse-in-progress. Have your dogs been muses or part of your creative process in any way?
Yeah, I actually have a really great c-print photo of them that was in a exhibition last summer that is them sitting under a Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece called “Perfect Lovers/Perfect Brothers” (2017). And it’s two clocks that are in sync with each other and it’s just this beautiful photo of them under it. And they’re about the size of the clocks; they’re so tiny.
I was in a show in the Smithsonian in 2012 and we had to produce a video about ourselves and our art practice. And we always get a laugh out of Molly, our cat, being in a video that went into the Smithsonian.
“The Queer Houses of Brooklyn” piece is on loan from the Smithsonian at the Brooklyn Museum right now, and there are takeaway buttons you can take. One of the buttons has Jade, the cat, on it.
Since you’re such a textile expert, have you ever knitted dog togs or cat toys?
You know, I’ve made some dog bandanas. A friend of mine, Hadley, runs a really great dog walking, pet sitting, and training business. It’s called the Dandy Dog Walker. They have a branch in New York and a branch in San Francisco. They employ a lot of queer and trans people. I’ve given them dog bandanas. I take excess fabric scraps and I can make a dog bandana in five minutes on my sewing machine—they’re really cute.
Do you ever shop for clothing for your dogs?
Ziggy and Sparky really hate wearing clothing.
They are pretty good about wearing their coats in the winter and that’s about it. Cecil the Pomeranian, on the other hand, really loves to wear clothing, of course.
We found coats from Canine Styles that have buckles on them. They’re kind of like horse blankets so they’re very sturdy and they don’t shift at all. Ziggy’s is black and Sparky’s is dark orange.
Tell us about the original piece—the 14-piece light box installation—you made for the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition, “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall.”
The piece, “Stormé at Stonewall” (2019), started off as a simple prompt in 2015 to re-imagine what a Stonewall monument could look like—and then that one page ended up morphing into a 75-page artist book that looks at the life and legacy of Stormé DeLarverie, who was a butch lesbian, a drag king, a bouncer at the Cubby Hole and Henrietta Hudson, and was this kind of guardian angel of queer and trans people in New York City. That’s not all of it—she’s just had an extraordinary life. She lived to be in her early 90s and she was also one of the instigators of the Stonewall uprising. So the book is largely about her, but also talks kind of about how narratives of Stonewall are formed and who is invisible, who’s visible, and who’s not visible—who is erased from narrative. She’s an example of erasure and also (in)visibility.
The Brooklyn Museum approached me about doing a commission for “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow” and because I’d done a lot of the research in the New York Public Library on microfiche, I thought that light boxes would just be a really congruent way of showing the collages to illuminate them. So, it’s a bit of scrambling the archives to create new narratives from articles that all came from the New York Times that present very different narratives of the Stonewall uprising. There are 14 light boxes with original collages, and there’s an oscillator, which makes the light boxes flicker, and the choreography of the flickering was designed by my partner.
The way that Ziggy and Sparky made it into the pieces is that when I was making the original boxes for the books, I used tape and paper so a lot of their dog hair would get caught in the tape because they’re always around. When you look at the light boxes, there are these tiny squiggles every so often and that’s their dog hair, just trapped in the collage.
I love that. It’s their contribution.
They also came to a lot of the fabrication meetings. They were very much around at production meetings—they were at the very first production meeting and then they were with me when the collages were made. They were very part of the entire process. But I really like telling people that when they look at the light boxes, the little squiggles are Ziggy and Sparky’s fur that made it into the collages.
How do you identify with Ziggy and Sparky?
That’s hard to say because I have different relationships with Sparky and Ziggy. To me, Ziggy is a very old soul. We always joke that he’s a guru or an alien from hundreds of thousands of years into the future. He seems to have a lot of wisdom and he’s very calm and very loving. And for me, he’s a bit of a teacher in how to move through the world in a very peaceful and mellow way. Of course, I take care of him and I’m his caretaker, but I really see him as this otherworldly being that landed with me. With Sparky, I think I’m much more of a parent. He’s a dog that needs a lot of structure. He’s really smart. He loves being trained. He loves going through exercises, he loves being challenged, he loves playing games, he loves playing fetch. He’s very active, and so there’s a lot of engaging with him to keep his mind busy, keep him playing and occupied. He’s also very neurotic. But like I said, his neurosis mirrors mine a lot. It’s just nice to love a being that mirrors a lot of my own neurosis. Instead of feeling bad about these qualities, I can appreciate them because I love him so much.
Photography by Tayler Smith
Special thanks to Pioneer Works
Additional photography courtesy of LJ Roberts and Brooklyn Museum