Written by Bailey Ridenour // Photo by Balazs Balassa
Students, staff and faculty gathered in the Stevens Art and Design Center Jan. 24 to listen to alumnus John Roberts present an art talk.
The collection of art brought to Harding’s campus was primarily from the David Lusk Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee, where Roberts displays and sells his work. A few of the pieces had been previously sold and were borrowed back for the event.
“I think line is a very big tool that he uses here,” freshman art licensure major Paige Singleton said. “A lot of the time people try to exclude line because it doesn’t look as good or something, but it can be used in very special ways if you use it correctly.”
Line work was a theme visible across all of Roberts’ work, but another theme he heavily relied on was everyday environments. He explained in his talk that most of his themes were memories from his childhood or old family stories about supernatural occurrences. All the paintings, aside from two, featured bright warm toned colors.
Roberts grew up in Searcy, where he attended West Side Church of Christ and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Harding. He proceeded to obtain a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. After grad school, Roberts spent time as a missionary in Brazil but ultimately ended up living on land that once belonged to his distant grandmother in Sharon, Tennessee. He spent much of that time etching tombstones. In 2020, Roberts decided it was time to change back to artistry and started working half days etching tombstones while the rest of the day he painted in his garage.
During the talk, he said he used to believe Arkansas and Tennessee were not as beautiful as other places, such as Italy, Colorado and England, but as he grew in his artistry he came to love Arkansas and Tennessee. That is the reason Roberts showcases those settings in his paintings, such as “We Have Lived Our Lives in the Valley of The Shadow of Death,” “Hwy 64 to Marion, Arkansas,” and “Swish McBasket Had 9 1/2 Fingers.”
“I like [the paintings] because it’s just so beautifully done from something that’s so recognizable and so normal to me,” Roberts said. “When I first moved to where I am now, I thought it’s boring and not so beautiful … but I think they [the other locations] are equally as beautiful as Tennessee and Arkansas. You have to learn to appreciate what you’re used to, and that’s all anyone can do.”
Roberts’ most recent painting, “Requiem,” features a young man in the foreground holding a boombox with a trampoline and a cat sitting in the background. This man is a friend of Roberts who died. In the sky, there are three clouds, which symbolize the Holy Trinity, and a dove. Early in the talk, he said that while the painting was special to him, he was not ready to share its full significance. However, after many questions and comments directed toward “Requiem,” Roberts opened up that the painting was a prayer for the soul of his friend.
“The prayer tied to his friend, how special that is to him, makes it more special to me,” assistant Provost Dana Steil, who attended the event, said. “I appreciate that he decided to go ahead and share with us how special that was even though he was hesitant at first. That made it more special.”