As she brings her experience of being a foster child to canvas, Julie Roberts tells why landscapes and abstracts will have to wait
• Julie Roberts' newest works provide a poignant insight into the lives of children brought up in care
The artist Julie Roberts laughs. "I'm like Snow White," she jokes. We are sitting in a suburban garden in Carlisle with her dog Shiner, and the former stray cat Black, who she befriended when she was on a scholarship at the British School in Rome (he was Nero back then.) The latest addition to her menagerie is a juvenile blackbird she has nicknamed Chicken which seems to be semi-tame and is bathing in a dish of water beside us as we talk.
This rather extraordinary scene is not Roberts' home but her studio.
Inside, everything is rigorous discipline. In laboratory conditions of cleanliness Roberts is finishing three new works, part of a major exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, one of the sure highlights of the Edinburgh Art Festival.
That exhibition is called Child. The 46-year-old Roberts' new paintings and drawings - rigorously constructed and highly stylised works reminiscent of children's books or instruction manuals - are drawn from historic archives on subjects that document children under duress, estranged from conventional family life or displaced by circumstances.
They include many images drawn from a mid-century world of Barnardo's children's homes, of evacuees and children in foster care. When Roberts talks about these works she does so with particular tenderness. She shows me a work called Human Material, an image of a boy in a bath, from a photograph probably taken to demonstrate that the institutions that cared for children had high standards of hygiene.
"There's something very wrong about this painting," she says. "And it's not the way it's painted. It's this little boy in this very austere institutional bathroom, washing his own body and there should be a mum there doing it. It's quite a sad little painting, just him and a little bit of carbolic soap."
These placid images in mute colours, which often feature domestic details such as flowered wallpaper or textiles, are testaments to hidden lives. They are historic images but clear signals to a modern world that is superficially obsessed with the welfare of children, but which often fails to listen directly to them.
The paintings are about the fundamental oddness of these situations - the dormitories, the little people in uniforms, the posed photographs of children at prayer - but also about the paradoxical survival of the children who have been through them. They do not condemn the social care system, they acknowledge its necessity, but they also call on us to look directly at the constrained lives of children adrift within its history.
This dynamic is important, because in confronting images of children apart from their families, Roberts' art is also privately addressing the brief spells she and her three siblings spent in foster care and children's homes more than 40 years ago before being reunited with her family in Fflint, North Wales.
It's a period of which, because of her youth, Roberts has few clear memories but which it seems she has been gradually creeping towards in her work. She reminds me of the actor Samantha Morton, herself a product of the care system. Like Morton, Roberts has never been defined by her background but has brought a complexity and depth to her work that is in some part drawn from her life experience.
Roberts maintains close contact - "bonds of love" - with her siblings and her long-separated parents, despite the difficulties arising from her father's alcoholism that took her into care. She is able to draw on extraordinary reservoirs of knowledge and emotion when she chooses and she has the artistic bravery that comes from being a bit of an outsider.
When she first went to art school in Wrexham, followed later by Glasgow School of Art, the transformation was instant. "As soon as I walked through the door I never had a day off, I felt like it had walked into my real world for the first time, it just clicked for me."
Today she has work in major museum collections the world over, and a strong following in America, where she shows with the New York gallerist Sean Kelly, but she lives and works away from the apparent centre of things, in ordered and simple domesticity.
In part, such quiet conditions might be essential as since the mid-1990s she has trained her forensic eye over some of the most difficult and dark of subjects: death, violence, and the historic constraint of women's bodies by systems such as medicine and psychiatry. Her unique attribute was to combine the eye and skills of a very traditional painter with the research-orientated mindset of a conceptual artist.
Her work has been, by turns, outraged, chillingly forensic, a call to justice and an unflinching confrontation with inequality. "It doesn't come from ideology," she explains, "it comes from the pit inside of me, somewhere in my soul. I've always felt strongly about justice, about talking about when something isn't right. If I had a nine-to-five job I would probably be a campaigner. Will I ever get to paint landscapes? I don't know. Maybe one day I'll feel I've earned the right to a landscape or a pure abstract painting"
These images of children are gentler in tone and technically far more complex than some of her earlier keynote works; they are the works of a mature painter who has learned to acknowledge both her artistic and emotional resilience."My childhood gave me this resilience," she says now. "I work really hard and every piece of work I do I think this painting has to be the best I've ever made."
Julie Roberts - Child is at the Talbot Rice Gallery at the University of Edinburgh from Friday until 25 September www.edinburghartfestival.com
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on 25/07/2010