“Since I was a small child, I knew art was my calling,” declares contemporary abstract painter Monique Rollins. “I had a wonderful mother who put me in classes at the Delaware Art Museum and the Christina Cultural Arts Center as young as 6-years-old. The seeds then planted, took root and grew.” Rollins is “Zooming” from her home outside Florence, Italy, a 1200s villa that she and her husband plan to restore as a luxury rental. In the backdrop, a tapestry of sandstone, patina roof tiles and verdant hills rolling beyond what the eye can see might seem the ultimate quarantine for most people.
But Rollins misses home; a Wilmington native, she returns regularly for work and to see family. A graduate of Archmere Academy, Rollins studied at Syracuse University, where she spent her junior year abroad in Firenze, falling in love with Venetian Renaissance art as well as with the man who is now her spouse and the father of their three young children. The couple spent a decade in Brooklyn, New York, where Rollins earned two master’s degrees—in contemporary painting and art history—at the Pratt Institute.
Today, her series of works— comprising vibrant oil paintings, monochromatic charcoal drawings and collages, mostly large in scale—are on display downtown at the Chase Center on the Riverfront and the Hercules and Brandywine buildings, among other notable spaces. She’s also exhibited at The Delaware Contemporary and DCAD as recently as last winter, and her body of work has also traveled to Miami’s prestigious Art Basel, and as far as Africa and Asia.
Here, Rollins reflects on the evolution of her oeuvre, and why Delaware will always remain special.
Did your mother see potential early on?
She wanted my siblings and I to have exposure to everything—art and music and dance and sports—in order to find our inner light and let it shine. Through all of these new experiences, I found mine.
Where was your first exhibition, and what was that experience like?
I had my thesis exhibition show right out of Pratt. My niece, who came up on the bus for it, took pictures and then showed them to her art teacher at Tower Hill. The school contacted me and said, “We’d like you to have an exhibition here.” It was in the P.S. du Pont Arts Center, which was brand-new at the time. That was my first exhibition as a professional artist, and I got a big collector base from that experience, some who still follow me 20 years later. The Delaware community is special that way—it lifts you up and helps put you out there in the world.
Describe your studio.
My studio is a warehouse that I drive to. I need ceiling height—some of my pieces are as big as 12 feet by 18 feet—and space to step back and take it in. It’s great because I can move between different works and I have a desk for collages.
Do you have a ritual when you’re creating?
I always put music on—anything from Led Zeppelin to Prince to [jazz artist] Yusef Lateef to Italian pop—it frees up my mind’s eye to really see what I am doing and let the painting process unfold.
What’s a memorable response you’ve had to your work?
[Laughs…laughs again]. Well, when I was installing a painting in the entry of the Brandywine Building, a guy in a suit came to me and said, “Oh, God, look at this garbage! Who in their right mind would put something like this up there?” You know, art is subjective—maybe he prefers birds or lighthouses. It was funny.
How does commissioned work differ from the personal?
Some collectors who love my work will say, “Here’s the size I want…do what you want.” With others, there’s a lot of feedback on color and form—they want the piece to be in my language but reflect their own feelings in that space. I find this fun because it’s challenging. Someone might want me to use a palette I would never think to use, but then what comes from it is exciting and fresh. It takes me out of my groove and introduces me to other ideas. Sometimes, my next best personal work comes after a commission that kicked me out of my comfort zone and made me grow. [She notes a Jamaican charity event that commissioned a series of fluorescent pinks, blues and greens.] I hadn’t used these colors since I was a kid painting T-shirts! But with that hot climate and sultry air and blue sea, it just came alive—and was one of the strongest series I’ve ever made.
What role does art play?
Art has an enormous responsibility and brings magic to the world. It has the power to heal, uplift, unify, communicate—and communication is essential to…everything.
How do you balance work and motherhood?
[Smiles.] That’s why I commute to a studio. If your name is Mommy, you’re not getting any work done at home. But I feel so lucky to be a mother and to have this rich experience. I think it informs my artwork and has changed my brain chemistry for the better. I always say, “I came alive the day my son was born.” That was the first day I really began to exist. It’s so important for communities to support working mothers. In many places, this still isn’t being done through a modern lens.