Steve Roberts: Years of rejection led artist to success


By James Walmsley, Contributor

Artist Stephen Cornelius Roberts nearly quit painting before he ever learned how.      

At the time, the then 19-year-old UNO student said he endeavored to independently master Leonardo Da Vinci’s technique from a borrowed book.       

“It looked like I was painting with bubble gum. It looked pathetic,” Roberts said. “I was about ready to quit – and I wouldn’t have gone on to do any art if I had quit at that moment.”     

Then he was hit with a stroke of lethargy.     

Instead of adding more paint to his already thickly coated canvas, Roberts began carelessly painting with the oil color still available in his brush, he said.      

A knee formed.     

“That one moment – that was it,” Roberts said,as his finger snap echoed off his surrounding bookshelves. “That’s when I knew I could paint and I’ve never stopped since.”     

Roberts, 60, proceeded to make a career of his self-discovery, becoming a New York gallery-represented artist and a muralist for the Nebraska State Capitol building.     

After graduating from UNO in 1976 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting, and attempting to work in his first passion, music, Roberts said he started selling his paintings locally.     

“I never had a day job.”      

At a show in Lincoln, Roberts said he was encouraged by Ivan Karp ,who discovered Andy Warhol, to take his work and his talent to New York.     

“He got into a gallery the first time he went,” said Roberts’ wife, Anne. “The more I studied art history, the more I could see how gifted Steve really was.”     

But Roberts said he endured nearly a decade of rejection from major New York galleries, before Allan Stone accepted him in 1990.     

At the exact same time he was hanging his paintings in a dance studio in New York to show Stone, Roberts said he received a phone call telling him he’d been selected as a finalist to paint the Nebraska State Capitol’s 14th floor Memorial Chamber.     

“It was just incredibly bizarre to get into both at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden professionally higher than that moment in time,” Roberts said.     

He eventually got the job and spent the next six years researching and painting eight 7-foot by 12-foot murals. For each mural, Roberts was given a theme to interpret, including,”The Ideal of Freedom,” “The Perils of Fire” and “The Scourge of Famine.”     

Roberts painted himself, along with his wife and two children, into the “Ideal of Self-Determination.”     

All were completed in his Omaha home, three in his daughter, Meredith’s would-be bedroom, four in the living room and one in the dining room.       Roberts, who uses photo-referencing in his work, said he took 300 rolls of film to complete the 107 portraits depicted in the murals. But Roberts drew them all free-hand, unlike other photo-realists who project and trace their images.     

“I always use photos just like I would use a live person – people want to know it’s a human thing not a mechanical thing,” Roberts said. “My thing is to have it be as if it’s the person, not a picture of the photo of the person.”     

And while he doesn’t entirely credit the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media for his development as an artist, he said attending UNO helped him put “art into context of society.”     

Otherwise, most skills are acquired through the amount of work a person does on his or her own, Roberts said.      

“I used to always push people into the idea of doing art. But now, I might be less likely to say give everything up and do it,” Roberts said. “It’s a different time, and plus, I also realized, if I can talk somebody out of doing it, they were never going to do it in the first place, because no one could talk me out of it.”     

Now, Roberts paints from evening into morning in his son Adam’s former bedroom, which is filled with large canvases, a giant easel and a record player.     

As far as his legacy is concerned, Roberts said he hoped to be remembered as painting images people cared about – that his paintings were important to people.     

“His paintings are timeless. You could take them back 1,000 years and they’d stand on their own,” said Paul Stultz, 57, a collector of Roberts’ work and a friend.”His paintings will be readable to people for many generations.”