“Yeah, I have nothing to do with this,” says Robin Howard of her life-sized Spirit Guide assemblages. “This is the first show and the first body of work I’ve done where I can say that. I just show up. I’m just the hands.”
On Aug. 2, the Guides will gather in Miller Gallery for Howard’s Guided by Voices exhibition. Each measures close to 6 feet tall and sits atop a narrow pedestal made of reclaimed steel piping from Charleston single houses. Their polyethylene cores are thickly swaddled cocoon-like beneath layers of textiles and twine. Found objects and miscellaneous pieces complete the sculptures and give them their features: one sports rabbit ears and a steampunk monocle eye, a curvy feminine Guide holds a silver heart that Howard purchased during a trip to Naples, others are topped by whimsical antennae made of bent copper wire with a patina created with vinegar and salt.
Howard is known for her Charleston shadow boxes made of compartmentalized found natural objects, typewritten texts, small paper sculptures, and magnifying glasses. They’re carefully sourced homages to the history and beauty of the Lowcountry. The Spirit Guides, on the other hand, came to Howard of their own accord. She posted a photo to Instagram of the assembly standing in her living room. In the caption, she refers to them as her “kids,” and they really do radiate a childlike spirit in their playful wrappings and curious gaze toward the camera. Someone comments, “I swear I can hear them talking!”
And talk they do, says Howard. They were the directors of their own creation. They are spirits incarnate that she simply assisted in becoming tangible. The rabbit is one of her favorites, she says. “He just came to me fully drawn and formed and I was like, ‘Oh my god, one of these things wants to be in a rabbit suit’,” she says. Every detail from its single floppy ear to the friendly “hi” displayed across its front was requested.
She maintains her connection to their voices by learning to tune in to their spiritual channels. “You just have to have a sort of natural curiosity and be open,” she says, “and I have to clear space. We all have to clear space. I have to protect my mind very carefully by being aware of how much time I spend on the internet, what I watch on TV, who I’m around. There’s a signal, and I have to be careful not to interrupt it.”
Creating the Spirit Guide series meant staying as far away from the media as possible. The assemblages could even be considered a form of passive resistance to hate and violence. “I can’t deal with the anger that’s in the world right now,” says Howard. “In fact, the entire series is a reaction against that. It’s something peaceful and funny and happy. I know what I need to know, and that’s that we need more equality, more civil rights, more kindness, more compassion. These are really powerful in their happy energy.”
Would she compare them to the spiritual totems various cultures have made throughout history? “I would absolutely,” she says. “A totem, a house god, absolutely.” Howard has always been interested in the intersection of art and spirituality. She went to college for anthropology and has widely studied religions of the world. “All religions speak to me. And being open to all the different concepts that people have … Well, let’s just say it becomes a very sweet thing to find your own spirituality. It’s freeing.” Nature, she says, is her church and a great source of inspiration.
She hopes that the playful personalities of the totems will add “flavor” to Miller Gallery. Their presence amongst the wall hangings is “like salt,” she says. “It makes everything better. I have a feeling it’ll be a little forest of these things. The gallery itself becomes a backdrop for displaying sculpture. It’s a different feeling than when you have a completely 2D show. I think that they will just make everything else in the gallery pop and come alive.”
Miller Gallery has played an important role in supporting Howard’s artistic momentum. She’s hit pause on her passion before, but her devotion to creation and nudges from support systems like those at the Miller Gallery have been an anchor. “It’s a really scary life to put yourself out there like this. But every time I’ve walked away from being an artist, I felt like I wasn’t living authentically. I’ve sworn I’ll never walk away again,” she says. “To have Miller Gallery show my work in Charleston is incredible. It’s full of supportive women and creative people who are doing their own thing. It’s wonderful, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”