Considering she leads her own militia, Christy Roberts is surprisingly charming in person. The Upland native isn't exactly secretive about her plans for global rebellion, but then again, this former high school cheerleader is hardly your garden-variety survivalist.
For one thing, her California Poppy Militia is armed with seeds rather than bullets. Whenever it rains, Roberts and her nonhierarchal army commit not-so-random acts of benevolent sabotage by scattering poppy seeds in deserted public spaces throughout the state. What would seem at first to be a fairly innocent form of guerrilla gardening is actually an elaborate and provocative art project that works on several levels.
Beyond exploring obvious issues about environmental degradation and the use of public land, Roberts also raises intriguing questions about the effect of bank home repossessions on nature, and whether a void is really blank.
Two years ago, the 30-year-old conceptual artist was “dealing with absence,” she says, reading desolate poems by Sylvia Plath, worrying about her dad's cancer diagnosis (he has since recovered) and finding herself obsessed with the profusion of vacant lots sprouting up in Southern California during the recession.
“I had to memorialize the vacant lots before they were built on,” Roberts explains. “I felt like I had to save the absence.”
She wanted to fill empty public land with gardens but felt guilty that the plants would just be ripped out by government landscapers. Then Roberts remembered that it's illegal to remove California poppies, the state flower. She went on a poppy spree, distributing seeds along freeway off-ramps.
Dressed like a Caltrans worker in blue jeans and caution vest, Roberts didn't attract much attention. “If you do anything with enough authority, people will think you're supposed to be there,” she says.
She does other projects as well. Last year, as part of her thesis exhibition at Claremont Graduate University, she created her own functioning public ice rink out of recycled plastic, along with “a video-projected climate,” where she blended images of warm- and cold-weather California landscapes with her own original ambient music. She received an A+.
Roberts topped that, however, with “Deforested, Defrosted,” a 2011 show at Track 16 gallery in Santa Monica, where she again created her own rink. The twist this time was that Roberts — wearing ice skates and a shiny purple dress paired with roller derby-style pads and a crash helmet — had to stay balanced on large, slowly separating chunks of ice, artfully evoking polar bears' shrinking ice floes.
“I was interested in trying to do something that wouldn't work,” Roberts confides, but she surprised herself by regaining her balance after a series of spectacular crashes. Roberts sustained “some pretty nasty bruises,” although she says her background as a cheerleader helped her know how to fall. At first, “It was all about failure, [but] it became about hope in a way I was not expecting.”