Peggi Kroll-Roberts captures life’s lovely, tranquil moments
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the July 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art July 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Paintings by Peggi Kroll-Roberts quietly yet powerfully invite you to live in a world of simple, pure beauty. Her colors are clear and bright, from gemlike fruit in a bowl to a splash of flowers to turquoise waves licking at a shoreline dotted with sunbathers in candy-hued suits. Her scenes are hypnotically peaceful, their inhabitants clearly at ease and enjoying life, whether chatting on a sunny lawn, strolling through a piazza in late afternoon, or lazing on a beach towel. Life is good in a quiet realm that is simply ravishing to behold.
“Hey, I love pretty,” laughs Kroll- Roberts of the subjects she chooses to paint and the way she depicts them with oils or gouache, in a style she gently refuses to pin down but nonetheless loosely describes as being “tied to reality in some sort of ‘ism.’ There’s representationalism, expressionism, impressionism, fauvism,” she says, her voice trailing off as the list grows longer. “What I’m always trying to do is simplify, taming down the contours of things, looking for how much I can take out of a painting to say the most with the least, which allows a lot of participation from the viewers, inviting them to draw their own experiences.” And, it might be added, beckoning them irresistibly to enter the scene.
The results are so downright cheerfully welcoming that viewers are more than happy to come along. “I am not at all a painter with a lot of angst,” Kroll-Roberts continues. “I like happy, I like pretty, and I’m annoyed with people who think that pretty isn’t cool.”
If Kroll-Roberts seems to be offering a consistently upbeat view of life, well, the personal facts she shares in her down-to-earth manner don’t do anything to contradict that. Born almost 60 years ago, she grew up with supportive, nurturing parents who moved the family from Ohio to Arizona when Peggi was 8. Following in the footsteps of her mother, a fashion illustrator for top department stores, she says she was always “busy drawing ladies with these really elaborate hairdos, or drawing horses”—even during group readings of books in elementary school. “Whenever the teacher called on me to read,” she says, “I never had the place.”
All that drawing began to pay off during a third-grade art class. “The teacher put a drawing of a cowboy up on the wall,” she says, “and said to the probably 25 kids in the class, ‘Let’s all draw the cowboy!’” Then the class voted on which drawing was best. “The whole class voted for my cowboy, and I won a pack of M&Ms,” she says.
Art continued to be a sweet pastime for her, but in her teens other passions emerged, vying for her attention. In her junior year of high school, she went out for the golf team and excelled at the sport. She also began taking flying lessons, eventually earning her pilot’s license.
But in her junior year at Arizona State University, her path shifted into sharper focus. She took a part-time job doing fashion illustrations for a local boutique. At the same time, her mother began to talk to her about what a wonderful career art was for a woman, “because you could have a family and be an artist at the same time.” And one of her mother’s instructors at a local painting group urged Peggi to enroll at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, a respected training ground for top illustrators.
So she left Arizona State during the last semester of her senior year and entered the Art Center. “That was a wonderful experience,” she recalls. “It really kept me busy”—a sure way to refine and expand her innate talent and burgeoning skills.
During spring break of her fifth term in Pasadena, Kroll-Robergs headed home to the Phoenix area to visit her brother. “And just for fun,” she says, “I took along some of my drawings to show to a couple of places and get their reactions.” One of the places she showed her portfolio was the well-known Goldwater’s Department Store. “They sent me home with work that very first night and then offered me a staff job. And I thought: I’m sick of being poor, I want to work.” So, in 1977, she left the Art Center for full-time employment as a fashion illustrator. “Five and a half years of college and no degree!” she chuckles.
She stayed at Goldwater’s for a year and a half but grew tired of the focus on fashion. Her family, meanwhile, had moved to Marinette, WI, and she decided to join them, finding work at the local newspaper laying out ads for bars and grocery stores and the like. “You know, heads of lettuce, 59 cents a pound,” she says offhandedly. “But I was still working with design and values and relationships. It was really invaluable experience in terms of composition, design, and simply working in the real world.” A year or so later, she went back to Arizona and freelanced there, while working weekends fueling planes at a small local airport.
Around 1980, she moved to Los Angeles and, in 1981, landed a job at the local office of the famed international ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach as their in-house comp artist, playing the crucial role of producing renderings of proposed ads for clients. During her four years there, she says, “they treated me like a queen, and I got to draw everything from corpses on gurneys to Orson Welles drinking wine to the Queen eating Dreyer’s ice cream. That just escalated my drawing skills like mad.”
The L.A. move also made another crucial difference in her life. Early in 1984, at a going-away party for a fellow Art Center alum, she reconnected with an old school acquaintance, illustrator and artist Ray Roberts. They eventually got together to play golf on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and continued their day into the evening to hear a band at a local club. The next day, she invited him to go flying with her. “I could tell he was really nervous,” she says, “but I got him down safely.” They married three weeks later, had three children together, and celebrated their 30th anniversary last month. “Ray is just a very easy guy to be around, so calm and steady,” she says.
Together, she and Ray first worked successfully as freelance illustrators, moving their growing family to the Phoenix area. That’s where they discovered the Scottsdale Artists’ School, a respected local institution where they began to take regular life-drawing classes. “We’d get a sitter and go draw a model at their Thursday-night open sessions,” she says. Then, doing tag-team parenting duties, they began taking turns attending more intensive painting workshops there.
Thus inspired and informed, the couple transitioned to lives as full-time fine artists. They began exhibiting in weekend outdoor art festivals, winning awards, and gradually drew attention from art dealers. “By around 1995,” says Kroll-Roberts, “we had galleries representing us and were beginning to teach our own workshops at the school.”
Today, with their children grown and moved out but still in close touch, they live on a 20-acre farm in Angels Camp, the California Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada that is immortalized in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Working in a comfy, shared studio space in an old barn, Kroll-Roberts says she enjoys “a view out my window of the rolling foothills and two giant oaks over 300 years old.” It’s an ideal setting in which to create the idyllic canvases and works on paper that have solidified her fine-art reputation.
Kroll-Roberts seems perpetually in a creative mode. She’ll always have her watercolors or an oil-painting pochade box and a digital camera with her, ready to capture moments of inspiration wherever they might come: a roadside glimpse of a forest en route to Yosemite, a bustling farmers-market scene in the neighboring town of Sonora, or maybe just a vase of flowers on the kitchen table in the evening, which she portrays in gouache while Ray watches an NBA game on TV nearby. Some of these fleeting inspirations may become finished works in their own right, while others go on to inform larger, more considered studio paintings in oil, which she describes as “flexible, rich, and so textural, my favorite medium,” or in gouache, “which I love because it’s an opaque watercolor, from which you can get a very poster-y, graphic quality.”
All the while, Kroll-Roberts keeps striving to distill the lovely essence of her favored subjects. “I’ll give myself a minute to look at a subject,” she says of her painting process. “And then I’ll turn away and paint what comes up in my memory, in my imagination.” She pauses to consider that explanation, and then adds, “But I certainly won’t make up a lot of stuff.” Nor does she have to, with a worldview so filled with a simple love for, and serious desire to celebrate, beauty.
Featured in the July 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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