Meet Myra Roberts

Out­rage shapes so­cial out­look, speak­ing to in­jus­tices, her Florida deco is fun

Gulf & Main - - Gulf & Main - BY CRAIG GAR­RETT

It puz­zled young Myra that her fa­ther triple-bolted the door in their mostly Jewish neigh­bor­hood in sub­ur­ban Chicago. What could pos­si­bly elicit such fear, she re­mem­bers won­der­ing. Myra Roberts later learned that her fa­ther, who was Jewish, had fled Poland from the Nazis, ex­plain­ing the dead­bolt locks, she says. A cru­cial sec­ond episode: Roberts is privy to the di­ary of a child­hood friend’s mother in Chicago, a Holo­caust sur­vivor crushed by her or­deal. Roberts is dev­as­tated, sud­denly un­der­stand­ing the num­bers that are inked on the woman’s fore­arm. She re­calls di­ary en­tries such as: “I am ly­ing in a hospi­tal. I can no longer walk. My end is near. How long will it take? How dif­fi­cult is it to die?”

These dif­fi­cult oc­cur­rences―and cor­re­lat­ing the bu­colic art­work that brought her fame in South­west Florida and be­yond to the mod­ern in­jus­tices that she per­ceives―Roberts says, sparked a flurry of paint­ings be­gin­ning in 2011. Her most re­cent se­ries, Dream Peace: Im­ages of Holo­caust Hor­rors and Heroes, and other work re­lat­ing to that pe­riod, in­clud­ing paint­ings of the young di­arist Anne Frank, is in­tended as so­cial commentary. It’s a way to keep alive the mem­ory and vic­tim­hood of mil­lions, Jews and oth­er­wise, a sa­lute to those step­ping up dur­ing that dark pe­riod to save oth­ers, she says. “Art is a les­son [for peo­ple],” Roberts adds, “an im­por­tant one that lasts.”

She has shown her work in one-per­son ex­hibits, and gives lec­tures at schools, mu­se­ums and other venues. Roberts was rec­og­nized with a WGCU 2016 MAK­ERS award, given to women mak­ing a last­ing im­pact in South­west Florida.

Be­fore her emer­gence as a so­cial ob­server, there was the whim­si­cal artist, the painter of lovely and mostly an­o­dyne works in oil, de­pict­ing Amer­i­can life and es­pe­cially Florida from the 1920s to ’50s, post­card and pin-up por­tray­als of her adopted state. The art­work was quickly ac­cepted, for ex­am­ple, not­ing that the late Cap­tiva artist Robert Rauschen­berg had hon­ored her by pur­chas­ing a por­trait of Au­drey Hep­burn, whom he knew.

But things hap­pen for a rea­son, a zeit­geist, Roberts says, be­liev­ing that her easy de­pic­tions of sim­pler times trans­lated well with her later il­lus­tra­tions of life in a Europe un­der Nazi con­trol. You just have to look harder—her Project Tol­er­ance se­ries, for in­stance, tells Anne Frank’s story. Many scenes show the same pic­nics or beach views as on Sani­bel, only in Project Tol­er­ance we see death-camp kilns in the back­drop; same vi­brant artistry, en­tirely dif­fer­ent sub­ject mat­ter. Roberts’ newer se­ries, Dream Peace: Im­ages of Holo­caust Hor­rors

and Heroes, de­picts other Holo­caust vic­tims, of geno­cide, in­clud­ing the sto­ries of such peo­ple as Tu­via Biel­ski, for in­stance; the Pol­ish par­ti­san and soldier whose de­scen­dants Roberts has be­friended. She uses a graphic lay­er­ing tech­nique in the se­ries.

Myra (she pro­nounces it Meera) Roberts today works from her Sani­bel home―ev­ery­where are paint­ings, sculp­tures and books. A re­cent paint­ing, ti­tled Big Su­gar, is of a man­a­tee with a breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus, the an­i­mal swim­ming amid un­der­wa­ter clut­ter. While climb­ing to her up­stairs stu­dio and pick­ing through her stuff, Roberts touches on life chap­ters, in­clud­ing time spent at col­lege in Ari­zona, re­sid­ing again in Illi­nois, and now Florida. She’s mar­ried with grown chil­dren.

The stu­dio is a jolly jumble of paint­brushes, draw­ing pads and ev­ery­where vin­tage fashion cat­a­logues and other mag­a­zines. It’s a very happy place; on an easel is a nearly fin­ished com­mis­sioned ren­der­ing of a woman por­trayed as a mer­maid, in seashells and vivid blues.

Yet among this vi­brancy and skill is the Holo­caust-re­lated art­work that’s al­most too much to ab­sorb, that she has metic­u­lously re­searched and worked so hard to con­vey. Roberts eases dif­fi­cult mo­ments such as these by apol­o­giz­ing for bring­ing Amer­i­can politics into the con­ver­sa­tion. “I’m hop­ing that through the vi­o­lence” of Holo­caust de­pic­tions, she says, “this de­mo­niza­tion of the Jews, we can change this … we

don’t have to be blind­folded.”

Back down­stairs, her yoga in­struc­tor sips tea as Roberts notes that her next one-per­son show will be at the Sid­ney & Berne Davis Art Cen­ter in Fort My­ers in Fe­bru­ary, a third such show­ing. “One les­son I’ve learned from this,” she adds, her blue-green eyes alight, “is that you don’t sweat the small stuff. Make your life full.”

Be­fore Roberts’ emer­gence as a so­cial ob­server, there was the whim­si­cal artist, the painter of lovely and mostly an­o­dyne works in oil.

Myra Roberts was rec­og­nized with a WGCU 2016 MAK­ERS award, given to women mak­ing a last­ing im­pact in South­west Florida.

Dream Peace: Im­ages of Holo­caust Hor­rors and Heroes (right) de­picts vic­tims of geno­cide. Roberts’ other work (be­low) brought her ini­tial recog­ni­tion in Florida and be­yond.

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