The invitation read “Tea Party Attire Encouraged!”
On the afternoon of Dec. 3, St Matthias, Victoria, was packed with parishioners, friends and visitors decked in their festive finery. Christmas was still weeks away, but everyone was keen to celebrate nonetheless, raising a toast to artist Dale Roberts, or rather to his alter ego that day, Dame Mailarta. The “hostess with the mostess” was resplendent in a black and white ensemble, accessorized with a feathery hat adorned with flowers and an Elizabethan-inspired ruff around her neck. As tea was served, entertainment was provided by pianists who tickled the ivories with musical selections by Doris Day, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, and Celine Dion.
After a warm welcome by Dame Mailarta, guests were ushered into a room attached to the church. It is usually a place of worship and contemplation, complete with an altar, pews and stained–glass windows, but it also serves as St Matthias’s art gallery. Since its inception in 2019, the Chapel Gallery has continued to showcase artists on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Its mandate is to present artwork, in a variety of media, that inspires, engages, and encourages dialogue — especially around the pressing issues of today. As Mary-ellen Threadkell, a member of the curatorial team at the Chapel Gallery explained, the exhibitions serve to bring the community together and to introduce people to local artists and their unique perspectives. Dale Roberts’ show, Mary-ellen continued, has been most successful in that regard. Since it opened in mid-November, the exhibition has received an enthusiastically “huge response from all kinds of people.”
Dale is certainly talented, not to mention prolific. The Chapel Gallery’s walls were mounted with over 50 framed portraits of “Dames, Divas and Icons” as his show was called. Several were from the LGBTQ+ community of which Dale is proudly a part. Among his creations were well known figures such as drag artist RuPaul, writer Oscar Wilde and singer and songwriter k.d. lang. Dale had also paid tribute to other individuals to whom he has felt a kinship: actress Dame Angela Lansbury, comedienne Lucille Ball and writer Margaret Atwood, just to name a few. All have touched Dale’s life in one way or another.
One would think that Dale’s portraits were paint on canvas, but upon closer inspection — to the surprise of many visiting the show — they were anything but. They were in fact made of needle-felted wool. Each image was meticulously embroidered upon a support on which a sketch of a person was made. Then with a needle, coloured threads were pulled in and out and manipulated to carefully create shapes, hues and textures. Dale is so adept that his colours blend with great subtlety, especially in his creation of his sitters’ skin tones.
No wonder it takes him more than 100 hours to create one portrait, as he said. Not all of Dale’s work on exhibition was two-dimensional. He also created whimsical sculptures as tributes to some of his favourite divas. Upon the high altar — now an exhibition space — were busts of singer-actress Cher, television personality Dame Edna Everage and of course Dame Mailarta herself. Also nearby was a portrait of the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II.
Behind the busts were postcards and photographs of more famous faces. Dale is also a keen “autograph hound,” and he has reached out to many celebrities for their signatures. Inspired by one W. Reginald Bray who, in the earlier part of the 20th century, amassed a large collection of autographs and curios through the post, Dale himself has written to many people of interest by sending a postcard with their likeness on it to them in the hopes of a reply. Among those who have responded with their signatures were disco diva Donna Summer, comedienne Carol Burnett and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Dale has even received a reply from Buckingham Palace — though unfortunately without a royal signature — from an aide asking more about his work.
So where does Dale’s inspiration come from? “In spending on average 100 hours on each piece, I find it is often a meditation on who they are, and I will find songs, film clips or a series of visuals to give me further insight into the person and the character portrayed.” Dame Judi Dench was particularly inspiring as Dale recounted. “After seeing her documentary about her love of trees and naming them, I chose a tree at the entrance to Beacon Hill Park and named it the ‘Judi Tree.’ I then painted it, did photographic studies, and added it to the background of my felted portrait of her.”
While the time and effort it takes Dale to create his portraits can be demanding, he is undaunted as he is constantly inspired by the “dames, divas and icons” he has incorporated in his work as an artist. Such individuals, Dale explained, make us “feel better in the moment” and they “open up the hearts of people and allow spaces for love.”
So what’s next for Dale? A portrait of an ancient ancestor he has affectionately dubbed “The Earl of Wool.”
Dames, Divas and Icons ran from Nov. 18 to Dec. 4, 2022 at the Chapel Gallery, St Matthias, Victoria.
To learn more about Dale Roberts and his work, visit https://daleroberts.blogspot.com/.