Deborah Roberts: Austin Artist Counts Jay Z and Beyonce Among Her Collectors

Deborah Roberts has been an artist since she was eight years old. “I used to love different types of little cars,” she said, “drawing different people and it just started going from there.”

Now she has celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé buying her creations; and world-renown institutions including the Whitney, the Tang, and the Studio Museum of Harlem adding her work to their collections.

Roberts honed her craft and sold work for decades before gaining international recognition and the financial rewards that come with it. She started her career painting the scenes she saw growing up black in Texas at a time when “people wanted you to be a respectable human being.”

It was like growing up in black Americana

“We were in our own little bubble in East Austin,” Roberts said. “We never really ventured outside of our neighborhood. Everybody was involved in your life, it was a village. It was like growing up in black Americana.”

Act of Power

Roberts described her early paintings – black families and neighborhood scenes – as romantic. Through these paintings Roberts hoped the world could see, as she did, that black people cared about each other, wanted the best for their children and had dreams like everybody else. “It was okay,” she said of her earlier works, “but it wasn’t what the world was projecting of blackness.”

The artist’s first inkling that her work needed to change came from a 2004 story on CNN. Fans at an Indiana Pacers vs Detroit Pistons game were heckling and throwing things at the players during the game after a shoving match broke out on court. Ron Artest went into the stands and retaliated – on camera. CNN replayed that clip over and over again. The anchors comments labeled Artest more a crazed animal than a hot-headed young man as they projected the images world-wide.

To Roberts, this was the worst kind of stereotype and she thought, this is what they see.

The Step Back

How the world viewed blackness and black beauty became even more of a focus for Roberts in graduate school at Syracuse University. Syracuse was also where she began working in collage. Her creations were a reaction to the world’s insensitivity to black bodies and how black images were too often sexualized or dehumanized. “I thought that maybe I could dispel some of those myths by being forward, you know, right in your face.”

“I’ve always advocated this notion that people didn’t really see black people – who we really are,” the artist said. “The idea of the collages – you have to almost focus in on one face to see all of it.”

Roberts describes the experience of viewing her work this way:

I’m just as human as you are.

“When you first approach it [a collage], it just looks like a bunch of blotches – different colors, a jigsaw puzzle. As you get closer, it does form a face, but then it’s distorted. So then, naturally, your eye is going to try to find one image in that. The idea is that once you find that face, you find me and my humanity, and through that – hopefully – you will see yourself and your humanity, and realize I’m just as human as you are.”

For Roberts the collages have an impact she couldn’t achieve with her painting. Her patrons must agree because there is a long list of people waiting for her work.

Austinites can see Roberts’ work locally at the Blanton Museum on the UT Campus.

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