- Chris Roberts-Antieau makes her home and her art in an airy four-story “Dr. Seuss house” in Manchester, Mich. Credit: David Lewinski.
Chris Roberts-Antieau’s friends joke that the towering two-story entrance and main living space of her Manchester, Mich., home looks like a chapel. Chris thinks calling it “a Dr. Seuss house” is more fun, but she agrees that its open design and pristine natural surroundings are inspirational.
Large windows overlooking a crooked pond suffuse the interior with natural light. Tall white walls open up to balconies and a fabric studio in the loft above the living room. The soaring four-level space is filled with art and antiques, many of which she’s collected during her frequent travels.
The self-taught textile artist designed the house, which sits on 11 acres of picturesque forest, to capture that sense of serenity, and she says she values the solitude she finds working in such an environment.
“When you’re an artist,” she explains, “you have to be constantly expanding your thoughts. There’s a lot of space here and I can let my mind go to a lot of different places.”
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Take a photo tour through the home of Chris Roberts-Antieau
Chris began her art career with little more than some scraps of fabric and a kitchen table. Completely self-taught, she invented a radical new process for creating fabric art, pushing the age-old tradition of appliqué to its outer limits with bold designs and unique stitch work.
She calls her work “fabric paintings,” colorful, cartoon-like depictions of people and animals that frequently poke fun at the absurdity of pop culture and find humor in everyday life situations. Oprah Winfrey collects her work, as does John Waters, Lyle Lovett and Senator Sam Nunn, and she’s represented by dozens of galleries all over the country, from Just Folks in Summerland, Calif. to Abacus in Portland, Maine.
“Chris’s art doesn’t look like anyone else’s,” says Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. “She is supremely intuitive and has an enormous gift for communicating a sense of humor that appeals to a very broad range of viewers.” Indeed, the museum has included 12 of Chris’s pieces in “What Makes Us Smile?,” an exhibition co-curated with Hoffberger by cartoonist Matt Groening and artist Gary Panter that runs through Sept. 4.
Chris travels frequently to exhibit her work. She participates in eight or nine major art shows every year, and she makes regular runs to New Orleans to tend to the Antieau Gallery she opened last spring in the French Quarter.
“Getting out of Michigan during the winter is my idea of brilliant,” Chris laughs. “Coming back in the spring? Also brilliant. I love the contrast between the two places: the North and the South, the hot and the cold, the isolation I have in Michigan and the stimulation I have in New Orleans.”
Along the way, she picks up art and antiques that track the people and the places she encounters. “I like to buy art from people I know or people I meet,” she says. She describes the bulk of her collection as “funk art, primitive stuff, handmade things, found-object art and a lot of antiques. I would say ninety percent of the artists I collect are self-taught.”
A pinball machine encased in a coffee table on the enclosed porch off the living room was a Baltimore find. An antique painted drum on the living room fireplace mantel was picked up at the Ann Arbor Antiques Market. The mantel itself was pieced together from three different purchases Chris made at an antiques fair in nearby Saline.
Large murals cover a hallway ceiling and frame the front door. They are the creations of Bryan Cunningham, a self-taught artist who worked for her for 10 years. A sculpture by Butch Anthony assembled from animal bones sits in the center of her dining room table and reveals, she admits, how her sense of humor “can be a little dark sometimes.”
Building Chris’s dream house was a real family affair. Her father Finch Roberts, who lives on 10 acres next door, learned the property was up for sale while trading local gossip about a tractor. Chris’s brother Carl Roberts, an architect, drew up blueprints based on her designs. And in 1997, after 18 months of construction, Chris moved in to her home and studio with her son Noah and Carlos, her English Bulldog.
Spectacle and amusement are incorporated in a number of art works and antiques in Chris’s collection. Cartoonish characters in a set of early 20th-century carnival sideshow signs for the “World’s Smallest Cowboy” and “The Human Pretzel” look a lot like characters in her own art works. She says the “old timey” aesthetic has had a pronounced influence on her own style.
Three large paintings that probably came from an old carousel, a large painting of a Ugandan wrestler by Lamar Sorrento, and a humorous looking puppet mask set atop an antique altar all point to the carnival aesthetic.
Another source of inspiration that pervades Chris’s home studio is music by singer-songwriter and balladeer Tom Waits. The feature-length documentary, entitled “The Life of Chris Roberts-Antieau: A Love Letter to Tom Waits” and shot by Chris’s studio manager Angela Kline, pays musical tribute to him, as well as incorporating demonstrations of Chris’s appliqué techniques and thousands of never-before-seen works of art.
With Michigan’s natural beauty outside and Tom Waits’ story-telling tunes strumming along inside, Chris takes a moment to let her eyes wander across her home’s visual treats.
“This,” she says, “is the environment that most inspires me.”