Wilmington abstract-expressionist Dick Roberts talks 2020, new works

Dick Roberts has a new show featuring 27 paintings on display virtually through Art in Bloom Gallery. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — Local artist Dick Roberts is drawn to the magic of painting because of its quixotic allure — something he says can’t really be explained. The abstract-expressionist starts with a mark and then allows another mark and yet another mark to lead the way toward each painting’s outcome. Recently, he produced “Tributaries of Abstraction: Art by Dick Roberts,” now on display as a virtual exhibition with Art in Bloom Gallery through Jan. 29.

“The paintings are about the act of painting,” according to Roberts.

Twenty-seven works are featured, with only five or six being older pieces. “All the others were done in the doldrums of 2020,” Roberts said.


The novel coronavirus prevented the artist from traveling to a few of his favorite spots this year. He usually heads to Macedonia where he has a second home in the village of Sloestica.

“My friend and colleague Sergej Anreevski hosts international art residencies twice a year at Art Poin Gumno,” Roberts said. 

But not this year — well, for the most part. The residency was hosted virtually.

No Boundaries International Art Colony didn’t happen in November either. Roberts cofounded the local art colony in 1998 with fellow artists Pam Toll and Gayle Tustin. Essentially, it’s like a camp for artists worldwide to retreat to and create. They then exhibit their works in a show in Wilmington through December. In 2020, it evolved into a retrospective show of works over the last two decades since artists couldn’t gather.

Roberts has made an indelible impact on North Carolina and Wilmington’s arts scene, not just as a painter, ceramicist, poet and organizer. He worked for museums, including Science Museums of Charlotte and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, and has helped with North Carolina Museums Council, Southeastern Museums Conference and the African American Heritage Foundation. In 1991 he also cofounded Acme Art Studios, a collaborative space on 5th Ave. that hosts numerous artists. Roberts works there in his studio still today.

Port City Daily interviewed the artist about his latest show and how the rollercoaster ride that is 2020 influenced his new works.

Port City Daily (PCD): So tell me how 2020 has treated you insofar, as an artist and as a human dealing with a pandemic.
Dick Roberts (DR): 2020 since February has been a time to wear a mask, social distance, live at home, etc. I spent the bulk of my studio time painting — that is one reason I am having the virtual exhibition “Tributaries of Abstraction” in collaboration with Art in Bloom gallery.

PCD:  Do you think it’s altered your inspiration/output?
DR: Even from the beginning, the threat of Covid has caused me to work in order to stay sane. Painting keeps me somewhat sane. The act of making  a painting allows me to discover a new world. Back in February, I did not have the goal of having an exhibition. I just needed to work.

PCD:  I see a few pieces in the exhibit reference the virus and are very different from your abstracts. Can you walk me through their creation, from inspiration to completion? 
DR: There are three “odd” pieces I would call ready-mades or assemblages.  One, titled “Children in Cages,” is a response to the situation with children split from their parents on our southern border. It is not very “deep” but illustrates the evil practice by our government regarding immigrants. Faces behind a screen.

Dick Roberts has a new show featuring 27 paintings on display virtually through Art in Bloom Gallery, including “Facing Dusk.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

The other two pieces “A Day With The Virus” and “Virus” are boxes that depict a scene for a person (me) in a forest of danger. The virus is represented by a thick cat briar forest, dark and dangerous. Making those helped me process the reality of what the virus actually is.

PCD: I really love “Border,” “Bluepiece” and “Grennpiece.” Give me some background on these and their processes.
DR: Those paintings are examples of the why sometimes I like to paint “large format and color strong.” I want the piece to dominate, to be an environment in where one can become immersed. I am not interested so much in making paintings to go with somebody’s couch. If you like the painting enough to buy it perhaps you should consider changing your couch. Each painting has a unique identity. Discovering that identity is one reason why I paint.

PCD: “The Conversation”’s negative space is also interesting, with its bright white texture. Is that indicative of the act of talking?
DR: Contrasting values, colors, and textures are tools for making a painting. When I begin, I want to be blank … open … no idea of what I want. If I have  a successful painting in the room, I turn it to the wall. I do not want to see it.

Usually, I begin with three of five or some odd number of random marks on the canvas. Next I respond to those, then I respond to those marks with more marks, and so on. In a sense the painting shows me the way. Somewhere in the process a title might suggest itself, sometimes not. At some point in the process the piece is “finished.” I stop. But some wise person said, “A painting is never finished, only abandoned.”

The integrity of the painting is only as good as the integrity of the process of making it. Kind of like music.

PCD: Other works reference nature, music, time. Is there a central idea or theme to this show that threads it all? How did you land on it?
DR: I believe painting is a time medium, just as music, growth in nature, and aging. It is all in how well you do it. In many paintings, one is able to find these things. I am really not much of an art critic. Artspeak to me belongs in the realm of promotion and sales.

PCD: Can you walk me through your color palettes on some of these pieces and how they influenced you and the work? Do you decide the colors first?
DR: I rarely decide on a color first. Not blindly, but perhaps randomly would be a good way to describe it. As far as the palette is concerned, I use all the basic colors provided by art supply outlets. I keep it simple. Less is more. I rarely mix a color more than three times. Mostly straight from the tube.

I favor blue but am trying to keep a lid on that. I do mix colors with white to ease them down. I do love the way colors respond to one another. They help me see the evolution of the painting in front of me.

PCD: What do you love most about immersing yourself in abstract work? 
DR: Easy question. It is the mystery of the painting growing before me. As it shows me the way, I become more grounded. There is harmony in life. The act of painting is an ally and a guide.

PCD: Goals, plans, new shows or techniques you’re looking to tackle in 2021?
DR: The future holds several juicy projects. After Covid and it is safe to travel, I will go back to Macedonia.

Also, I will continue to paint at Acme, in Germany, and Macedonia. Also, a new and daunting project: I will edit and organize my writing, poetry and journals. So the future will be busy as usual!

“Jazz” by Dick Roberts is now on display on the virtual gallery of “Tributaries of Abstraction: Art by Dick Roberts.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy of the artist)

Have arts news? Email Shea Carver at shea@localdailymedia.com

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