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Spotlight Iowa City: The mother of whistlers

BY ALISSA ROSEN | OCTOBER 09, 2009 7:20 AM

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Connie Roberts makes whistles.

But they’re hardly the typical, 25-cent plastic noisemakers a gym coach would wear around his neck.
No, Roberts makes condom wrappers, teapots, pizza boxes with “mafia” men atop, a 6-foot high arch — all whittled out of wood, and all you can whistle into.

“I like to use everyday objects and give them a little twist,” the 60-year-old Iowa City resident said, then laughed and blew into a sculpture at the Iowa City Gallery Walk, where she was showing her art last week. “It’s just a really good gimmick.”

The idea for the whistles came randomly one day in 1987 when she was creating whistles for her nephews as Christmas presents. Something clicked, and she ran with it.

She started by using random scraps of wood to make the creations — broken chairs, or a broom handle, maybe. Now, she’s a frequent Menards shopper, favoring pine or a stronger oak as her choices of wood.

Business has grown. Roberts said she might make one or 50 in a day, depending on the complexity of the pieces.

She also ships her artwork around the country, and said some celebrities — including Steven Spielberg and Robin Williams — have Roberts’ work.

Originally from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Roberts came to the UI in the early 1970s for graduate school to get a master of fine arts in painting. During school, Roberts met now-husband Michael Roberts, and the pair stayed in Iowa to raise their two daughters. Along the way, she’s developed a strong following of customers.

Davenport resident Lisa Arbisser is a longtime collector of Roberts’ creations.

“We think they’re great, primitive art. So we’re just delighted to have a few of her lovely pieces,” Arbisser said while waiting to purchase a fisherman-cat sculpture from Roberts. “It’s always amusing. There’s social commentary here and there, as well.”

Social commentary indeed. Roberts meticulously plans messages in her works, sometimes even taking years to come up with an idea for a whistle.

The message might be about sinning, domestic violence, or even “hating skinny people.”

One example is a whistle with a thin blond woman in a mini skirt and heels, one hand on her hip and the other carrying a teacup. The bottom reads: “So sweet artificially.”

Other works get a little more provocative.

A collection of whistling condom wrappers draw attention by appearance and sassy slogans.

The “salami skins” condom whistle is decorated with the colors of Italy, with a huge sausage and the saying, “For your Italian Stallion! Ciao Down!”


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