Sabrina , pastel, 18 x 15.
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Minnesota painter Bonita Roberts still remembers her first encounter with a great work of art. She was about 9 when her family visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts one Easter Sunday with her two preteen boy cousins in tow. “I think the boys just wanted to see the nudes,” Roberts says, laughing. But while her cousins searched for those paintings, Roberts wandered away and soon found herself staring at a magnificent portrait of a young girl, Hortense Valpincon, by Edgar Degas. To this day Roberts remembers that experience vividly, right down to the sharp sound of her black patent-leather shoes on the hard granite floor as she ap-proached the master’s work. The painting of a girl about her own age spoke to her as she stood before it, and the portrait’s lush reds, oranges, and ochers, as well as the Japanese motif of a black tablecloth, left a lasting impression.
Roberts remains enamored of Degas—especially his brilliant colors, impressionistic style, and “his passion for
Amanda & Sebastian , pastel, 18 x 24.
people”—and her own palette and choice of subject matter clearly reflect his influence. In Amanda & Sebastian, for example, Roberts chose warm ochers and reds punctuated by black, and the young girl’s lace-trimmed white dress has a timeless quality that could just as easily have been painted in 19th-century France.
Works in progess occupy nearly every corner of Roberts’ studio in tiny Battle Lake, a resort town in north-central Minnesota. She rents the top floor of a renovated Victorian/Gothic-style church, whose large windows reveal sweeping panoramas of the village below—in the winter she sees snow-covered bungalows, in summer lush green
Forever Tess , pastel, 20 x 16.
gardens bursting with lilacs and apple blossoms.
The studio is also home to Roberts’ doll collection, a long-standing passion. Victorian dolls in lace dresses and ruffled bonnets sit around the room, resting against walls and propped up on cabinets where she can reach them easily if she wants to include them in a painting. “The dolls’ faces take on real personality—they seem to have a life of their own,” Roberts says.
She also relishes the intense, otherworldly quality the dolls bring to her work. Early on, some observers thought they looked somewhat strange in her tradi-tional still lifes, but Roberts was undaunted by popular opinion. “When you do something un-usual, it takes a while for people to adjust to it,” she says. “I like the edge, the surreal quality. I like paintings that pull me in and make me wonder, ‘Is there something more here?’”
Japanese artifacts, fans, and teacups also decorate the room and are just as likely to appear in her work. And on one wall of the studio is a
Piano Man , pastel, 19 x 151⁄2
newspaper clipping about the 1989 riots in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The photograph shows a man trying to stop a hulking army tank by himself. “Even though those events were terrible, I like that photograph because it reminds me that passion is alive and well,” Roberts says. “I think it’s wonderful that people feel so strongly about an ideal that they would give their life for it.”
Over the years Roberts’ style has become looser and more impressionistic, but her philosophy of art remains the same. “Whether the subject matter is a still life or a portrait, I always want to paint subjects that tug at my heart,” she says. “A well-painted portrait is more a depiction of the artist than the model. What we artists are really painting is ourselves—that’s what good art is.”
Roberts has been passionate about art for as long as she can remember, but her journey to a career as a full-time painter has been punctuated by stops and starts. By the time she reached high school she was already sketching portraits of
Peonies & Puppets , pastel, 27 x 181⁄2
people in her town, often on rolls of freezer paper her father brought home from his job at a local dairy. She considered attending the Art Institute of Chicago, but her father discouraged the plan; she eventually left behind her dreams of life as a professional artist for social work but continued to visit museums and libraries to study on her own.
In 1981 Roberts married a teen-age sweetheart, and he soon convinced her to give up social work and return to art. When the couple moved to North Dakota, Roberts picked up a camera for the first time and began her art career anew. “Photography is painting with light,” she says. “Taking photographs taught me a way of seeing the world and helped me learn about composition.”
When Roberts and her husband returned to Minnesota, she set up a studio in their apartment and began a career as a commissioned portrait artist, working mainly in charcoal. The ’80s were a decade of experimentation and development, and it was also about this time that a serendipitous meeting with another artist influenced the course of her life
Roberts had become fast friends with her next-door
neighbor Hazel, who had moved to Minnesota from Chicago. When Hazel invited her over for a visit, Roberts was surprised to come face to face with numerous paintings and drawings by Richard Schmid [SWA JUN 98]. “That’s when I found out that Hazel was Richard’s mother,” Roberts recalls. Two years later, in 1986, Hazel invited Roberts to meet her son, who was coming to visit. Schmid offered to critique her portfolio and pored over her work for several hours.
“Even though my work was very unpolished, he was extremely kind and encouraging and told me never to apologize for where I was as an artist. He made me feel like there was no limit to what I could accomplish with dedication and hard work,” Roberts says. Looking back, she views this chance meeting with Hazel Schmid and her son as a turning point in her career.
Roberts’ star began to rise from relative obscurity in 1993, when she sent a portfolio of her work to Stuart Johnson, owner of Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, AZ. Johnson says he returns almost all unsolicited work, but Roberts’ pastels caught his eye. He included one of them, Theresa’s World, in his miniatures show and sold it immediately.
“Bonita’s paintings were clearly accomplished,” Johnson says of Roberts’ portfolio. “I liked the colors, the softness, and the obvious empathy she had with her subjects.” Since then Roberts’ work has been in shows in Arizona, Washington, and Wyoming, and in 1994 she was invited to join the American Women Artists group.
The past several years have brought continued artistic growth and recognition. Accolades from well-known western painter Howard Terpning, who purchased one of her works and publicly declared her one of his favorite new artists, gave her a big boost. “I’m an admirer of Bonita’s head and figure paintings,” Terpning says. “They’re done with a lot of feeling. She must care for people deeply, because her work shows great sensitivity.”
Roberts says she has come to believe that there are no coincidences in life, that there is “a grand plan” for everyone. “I believe that once you decide on a course and head in the right direction, the whole universe gets behind you and gives you a push.
Photos courtesy the artist and Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; and Big Horn Galleries, Cody, WY.
Featured in September 1998