by Lisa Peet
Delia Bell Robinson is a Vermont-based painter, sculptor, illustrator, and maker of clay whistles—a craft she learned from her mother. At 71, she has recently published her first book, A Shirtwaist Story (Fomite Press), a graphic history of the 1906 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and her relationship with “Peter,” a friend and neighbor whose grandfather was one of the factory’s two owners. (You can read the Bloom essay on the book, and the Triangle fire’s place in a long history of American protests, here).
In addition to a rich and busy artistic practice, Bell currently has a book of ancient Scottish ballads in the works, illustrated with photographs of her own wonderfully detailed sculptural whistles, as well as a novel that lives, for now, on her hard drive. And, knowing Robinson, no doubt there is more. “The best feature of time at this point in my life is an odd one,” she said. “I feel all of my greatest interests have flowed into one stream and I am in it.”
Bloom: What was your creative evolution like? How did you grow into the artist you are now?
Delia Bell Robinson: My first years were lived in a big old house in Princeton, New Jersey. WWII was over and refugees were pouring in from Europe. Many of the scholars among them ended up at my father’s table where they sat drinking wine and talking until late at night. We children eavesdropped on the conversation of great thinkers, listened to poems and tales of valor or of cruelty and persecution which forever altered our thinking.
When I was five, our family was re-arranged by divorce and we moved to rural Southern Indiana. We were bused a long way over dirt roads to a crowded country school with ten hole outhouses and water in a dipper. Rough play and singing were the entertainments. Aside from George Washington’s portrait in each room, there was no such thing as “art” in that world, though I decorated my school papers with doggerel verse, drawings of garlands of flowers, and mice wearing dresses.
Our mother and stepfather were both trained musicians, so our home resounded with music, there was art on the walls, and books, newspapers and literature at hand. We attended concerts and lectures at the university and hauled mountains of books home from the library. We were children of privilege living in a poor rural landscape in a world full of contraries. We were expected to fend for ourselves and leave the grownups alone. We ate alone in an alcove behind the refrigerator, swam unattended in a nearby lake, were expected to work in the garden, to gather wild foods and berries in the woods, to feed ourselves without any cooking instruction, and to wash our clothes by stomping them in the bathtub. We sang and played instruments but were given no lessons. Our art supplies consisted of a pile of broken crayons, pencils, a pair of scissors, and fabric scraps. Clay from the creek bed was available for sculpting, and we drew on classroom bluebooks from the university where our stepfather, a mostly silent man, taught mathematics.
Not infrequently, we’d leave the countryside to visit our father, now with more daughters and teaching at the University of Chicago. Wine-drinking scholars still argued around the table, there was music on the gramophone, and art history slideshows, poets reading, painters painting, and oh, bliss, mountains of books and fabulous museums. As long as we were there, our stepmother worked valiantly to shape and mold us in her image. We tried, but haircuts, clean clothes, and choosing the proper fork can only do so much. Basically, we were little beasts, the sort of children who wipe their noses on the curtains.
Reading became my salvation. Any book on any topic would do. I yearned to write stories, but after being around too many geniuses, I was convinced I had nothing to say, so I read and waited and observe the world with baffled amazement.Naturally, after that beginning, I sidestepped any schooling in the arts. I was on a lone path and wanted no instruction. I traveled widely, spending months soaking up the art energy in the museums of the world. I read like a fiend and continued reading for my college degree. Later I returned to the university and got a nursing degree; I needed an income to live and pay for paint. All the while I hid my work from everyone, except for the whistles.
Bloom: Why whistles?
DBR: Making figural whistles from clay is like turning dirt into sunbeams. They are charming, intricate, and have voices like twittering birds. The human breath brings them to life, a bit of magic they share with the songs and ballads of my childhood.
Bloom: You seem very comfortable with the written word. Why did you wait until your 70s to publish a book? Do you have others that you haven’t brought out into the world?
DBR: Years ago when Terry Gross asked the Canadian writer Robertson Davies why he waited so long to publish a book, he said in a mellifluous voice, “Well, Terry, I had to wait for my parents to die.”
I howled with laughter at that, failing to recognize that was true for me as well, except I was hiding my work from everyone. I have been secretly writing since childhood. The early efforts long ago fell into dust, and some of my so-called novels exist in computer codes so ancient they can no longer be opened.
Bloom: What made you want to tell the story of Peter and the Triangle fire?
DBR: I never meant to tell Peter’s story, but it was delivered as if by Scheherazade, arriving in unconnected episodes that somehow began to fit together. The pieces slowly developed a grip that held me in thrall. Before I knew it, Peter’s stories had taken shape in drawings and in words, and in no time seemed to take on a life beyond what he had told me.
Also, though Peter’s childhood was quite unlike my own, the story is threaded through with concerns and preoccupations from my own life.
Bloom: A Shirtwaist Story doesn’t end with any kind of resolution for Peter, other than his becoming an artist. Is there more to his story that you didn’t include? Was there a temptation to tie up the story neatly?
DBR: There was no resolution for Peter in the book because at that time there was none for him in his life. He was like a partially frozen man, carrying a secret he was not permitted to put down.
Relaying a true story with painful elements and balancing it against a desire to cause no harm is tricky. Initially I was just playing at drawing a cartoon without any intention of eventually publishing it. Early on, I found a book in the library discard pile. It was worn out but made with nice paper. Best of all, it was titled “Peter.” Its shabbiness allowed me to deface it with drawings so I began to draw in it. Most of his childhood stories were committed to paper before I accidentally learned of his Triangle Shirtwaist connection. From the start, Peter knew I was drawing and collecting his stories. Sometimes I’d call him and ask for clarification, and he was always gracious and generous in his replies.
When the book was awaiting publication (still NO interest in it by Peter), a cousin invited Peter to come visit. To his delight, her family lavished loving affection on him. Sharing memories and history with the one person able to completely understand his life was transformative. He seemed to melt a bit.
When the book came out, Peter announced that the childhood was “perfect” but he stopped reading at the first mention of the fire. It took him several more weeks to pick it up again. Then, to my surprise he pronounced it “A masterpiece.”
In a statement of real trust, he sent his cousin a copy of the book. Sadly, she died from a long-fought illness just as it arrived. For me, having Peter find he was not alone was the true resolution to his story. If I were to draw this book now, I would include the faces of Peter and his cousin among the final drawings, the faces of two more souls who suffered devastation from the fire.
Bloom: How has aging and maturing affected your work—what can you do now that you couldn’t do in your 20s or 30s?
DBR: One difficulty is that time, actual time, changes with age. As one reaches the end of the metaphorical toilet paper roll, the spin through the days gets faster and faster. A day, a week, or a month, seem over in a blink. Less is produced because one has fewer hours to work, or so it seems. I can see that health issues could dominate over time, but so far they have not yet begun for me. I remain as strong and healthy as I was when I was young.
I believe that age is good for creativity in many ways. One knows more, and understands the path one wishes to follow. The more urgent demands of love and procreation have been answered; with this, an enormous amount of time is freed up. And one is free in other ways; I no longer care much if someone likes me or admires my work. I am no longer afraid of a critical voice. I like what I do and that is good enough for me.
Bloom: The Triangle fire sparked a series of protests and, eventually, working condition reform. And now we find ourselves in a time of protests again. Do you feel like your art and writing have a place in the current spirit of resistance? Were you thinking politically when you started work on A Shirtwaist Story?
DBR: I am decidedly left wing, as is my family, so yes, the themes of labor organizing, safe working conditions, fair wages, decent housing for workers, the abolition of child labor, the welcoming of immigrants, and equal pay for women, and so on, all encouraged my decision to develop A Shirtwaist Story.
Since publication of A Shirtwaist Story, the new administration has begun the rapid erosion of all things decent and fair. This has horrified me but to my surprise, the cruelty of the times has invested this little book with a defiance that was not so visible before Trump entered our lives.
I am in sorrow for everything I believed to be fine about our nation; our years of steady effort toward greater egalitarianism, justice, tolerance, a fairer distribution of wealth, universal education and healthcare, and systems of governance to maintain the world in a state of peace. In addition, everything I consider essential for the planet is in peril; stewardship of the land, the sensible conservation of nature, water, and air, and the love of natural beauty and diversity in all its forms. Art is almost superfluous amid all this loss.
As part of my daily effort to resist, I have decided that improving our communities is vital. Even as the larger structures crumble around us, we can hold off destruction and in small ways make life better for those around us. I march, I protest, I make calls and send letters, and send what money I can to causes I value. I cheer on young activists who have stepped forward so bravely, and in addition, I have begun helping in at a soup kitchen and in a school literacy program, just as my own work has taken on dimensions I never anticipated.
There is a sudden challenge and obligation to make even the most simple work ring with universality, and to shine with truth.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s feature essay on Delia Bell Robinson’s A Shirtwaist Story.