The multitalented Natalia Roberts is about halfway through her Visiting Artist of Color Residency conducted by the Art Students League of Denver.
Roberts brought a wealth of talent to the position: performer, choreographer, filmmaker, photographer and teacher. And she also studied architecture.
Through her work, Roberts “aims to tell the stories of those who are often overlooked, and let these overlooked subjects know that their beauty, physicality and potential are seen,” states a news release.
The ASLD opened in 1987, with artists teaching 100 students that first year and pushing them to reach their potential. Today, the league operates from the Sherman School at 200 Grant St. in the Speer/West Washington Park area. More than 14,000 students attend its classes, workshops, teen studios and summer camps.
ASLD’s Visiting Artist Series got started in 2003. The BIPOC focus was added in 2021 with Kevin Snipes, a ceramicist who wants to combat the inequity of opportunities for artists of color and thereby enrich the Denver arts scene.
“We started this residency as an acknowledgement geared to BIPOC, starting with the idea that the art world is harder to access because of racism,” said Tessa Crisman, communications manager at ASLD. “So we wanted to make this program to provide resources to artists who might be given those resources, and to connect our community and different voices than those that teach every day.”
Roberts is the second person to fill the position. She is originally from Detroit and was living in San Francisco when she learned about the Denver residency, which includes housing and financial support.
“I was a little hesitant because I didn’t know anything about Denver or the Denver art scene,” she said. But “I was particularly attracted to this organization because I had been working as a professional dancer in New York City.”
An injury halted her dancing for about eight months. She found a New York organization that was similar to ASLD and took classes in photography subjects such as how to shoot and edit.
ASLD’s selection process includes a panel of community members who assess applicants on the quality of their work, how their work fits in with media currently offered at ASLD, and the clarity of their plans for both community engagement and personal growth as an artist throughout the residency, Crisman said.
“Natalia was chosen for her mastery of dance and photography, as well as her excitement around building artistic community as a new Denverite,” Crisman added.
Roberts moved to Denver in early 2022. She divides her time several ways, including having open studio events, teen and adult photographing workshops, and preparing an exhibition scheduled for this summer. It is slated to open mid-June and run through the end of July, when the residency ends.
Throughout her work, Roberts tells the stories of people often overlooked, and lets “these overlooked subjects know that their beauty, physicality and potential are seen,” ASLD said in a news release.
The teen workshop Roberts instructed including her teaching the students the basics of photography, such as lighting and how to direct models during photo shoots.
It showed Roberts that “there’s a learning curve for me in teaching teenagers photography,” she said. “By the end of the last couple of classes, I let them make choices for themselves. They did some really amazing things.”
The residency is twofold, giving Roberts her own studio space where she can photograph models for projects.
Roberts also has a duty to promote community engagement.
“She’s been offering tours of the studio to her audience,” Crisman said. “They can ask about her creative process.”
Roberts will conduct a master class in photography for adults titled “Photography Abstraction, Surrealism and Storytelling with the Human Form.” It’s scheduled for March 11-12.
Roberts said the best thing about the residency is getting her own, dedicated workspace.
“It’s all pretty amazing,” she said. “In photography, you are constantly having to rent space and manipulate it, or set up a space in your kitchen, or bathroom or backyard. It’s always a hurried situation. There’s a lot of negotiating with other people.”
She cited another benefit: “You don’t have to worry about breaking it down and setting it up for the next shoot. You have more energy to spend on the craft of photography.”
This experience has given Roberts the freedom to work on and develop her own style more deeply, she said.
“So much of art-making now, you have to make it quick, (and) you have to make it cheap in order to make a living,” Roberts said. “Perhaps more than anything else, it enables us to play and make bad art, (and) learn how to make it good art. Without getting to experiment, you can’t grow.”