Marie Roberts has roots in Coney Island that reach back to the turn of the century, when her relatives worked the amusement park as electricians and carnies. Though she became a painter to escape carnival life, she later returned to the boardwalk of her youth to become the artist in residence for Coney Island USA. Now she's painting circus banners for a real life sideshow, uniting her colorful family history and classical training once and for all.
SCOUT: What initially led you to painting?
MARIE: I was an only child and had to entertain myself. Reading books and drawing were free. In high school, I wanted to learn how to draw the figure so I borrowed an anatomy book from the library and spent the summer copying the plates. In school, I followed the girl's basketball teams around to draw them as they played and practiced. When I got to college, I saw how much I didn't know, which set me on a quest to know. Painting is a way to make a universe.
SCOUT: Did you remember the Coney Island of your childhood?
One of my very first memories is sitting between my parents on the front seat of the DeSoto on Stillwell Ave, and my father giving me a sip of coffee from the Nathan's cardboard container. I remember begging my mother to let me wear shorts to Steeplechase (females wore skirts then) so the Blowholes would not get me.
Coney Island was where everyone went when I was young. Coney Island was FUN. Even in the decline years.
SCOUT: Are you inspired by your family's roots in the area?
MARIE: My family's ghosts are very important to me. We have been here so long; my uncles Harry and Guy were electricians working at Hellgate the night Dreamland burned in 1911. My Uncle Lester talked the front of the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920's. My father would drag me around as a child in the 1960's and point out: this is where the rum runners came in during Prohibition, this is where Dreamland was, here was Luna, there was the Gravesend Race Track. I look at Coney today and see three layers: my family's memories, my memories and my present Coney Island USA family.
SCOUT: Did you plan from the outset to work in the tradition of circus banners and iconography?
MARIE: I fell into it. I ran away from my family's sideshow lore to be a painter. In 1997 Dick Zigun, who started Coney Island USA the non profit arts center located in the heart of the amusement district, needed banners painted for the Surf Ave building. My Fairleigh Dickinson University students and I painted 27 banners for that season, and I never stopped. Painting banners for this real sideshow has made the two halve of my life a whole--the academic and the carny. In a funny way, I think I am painting in the tradition of Italian quattrocento painters, like Giotto and Maso di Banco. Coney Island USA lets me build on the tradition of banner painting.
SCOUT: Why do you think Coney Island history continues to capture people's imaginations?
MARIE: Where sand and water meet magic happens. Add to that the rich history (Lady Deborah Moody was the first woman to start a town in the US and Coney Island was part of it) and the accessibility. For a subway ride you can be at a world class beach (free), see live entertainment at Coney Island USA (affordable shows and free Mermaid Parade etc etc ), eat snacks, sniff the glorious air, bask in the light. Off season, the place has a platinum-like beauty. It is magic.
SCOUT: What other spots in New York inspire you to work?
MARIE: I draw everywhere I go in New York. I spent 3 1/2 months right after 9/11 drawing from the perimeters of Ground Zero. I draw on the subway, in the museums, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Governor's Island. Being a native and resident of southern Brooklyn, it is a treat for me to go to Fort Green, Park Slope, Bed Stuy, East New York, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan. I am totally portable, I draw everywhere.
Join Marie Roberts and performer Adam the Real Man for a celebration of her latest show, Coney Island Alive: Weird Women & Strange Men, at Dizzy's Diner on October 6.