Portrait of an Artist: Diane Roberts

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A mainstay on the region’s art scene for years, Diane Roberts is finally getting a solo exhibit of her own. 

MILLVILLE, NJ — Millville is home to a diverse group of exceptional artists who are proud to be associated with the thriving arts scene in the city.

One of those artists, Diane Roberts, executive director at the Riverfront Renaissance for the Arts (RRCA), will be displaying her magnificent artwork at Gallery 50, Inc., in Bridgeton, from Wednesday, October 3 through Friday, October 26.

Roberts, who doesn’t consider herself an “artsy” artist, will be traversing new ground as she showcases her pencil portraits in her first solo exhibit titled, “The Very Thought of You.”

“I’ve never had a gallery-type setting [because] I just did commission work,” Roberts explains. “I would draw your family member, your kids, [pets], that sort of thing. [Also], because I did graphic design as my career … it kind of didn’t feel like I was a fine artist in that sense. That’s why I’ve never done a show.”

Roberts’ life as an artist began as a child in her birthplace of Windsor, Ontario, Canada and like many youngsters, she was enthralled watching Walt Disney-animated movies and Looney Tunes cartoons. But one particular television character may have inspired her more than any other.

“[There was] this show [I] watched in Canada—Mr. Dressup. [He was] kind of a Canadian Mr. Rogers,” says Roberts. “He would draw on big sheets of paper. I loved that. [He wasn’t] painting, he was drawing with a marker or pencil.”

Roberts’ parents were helpful to the blossoming artist as they recognized she had a passion to create her own space in the world of art.

“I used to make my mom, [who] was not an artist, draw elaborate pictures for me and make them into color-by-numbers,” she recalls. Roberts would tell her mother to “draw up all the fruit and I’ll color it. [Subsequently], my parents tried to put me in art lessons here and there, but I just did my own thing.”

As with many artists, whatever Roberts was into at that moment became a subject for her to recreate on paper. “If I was into horses, I was drawing horses. If I was into dogs, I was drawing dogs,” says Roberts.

She then discovered she had a talent that would eventually become her niche. “At some point, I realized I was able to draw [people’s] faces very well. I was always drawn to faces,” says Roberts.

Since moving to Millville approximately 20 years ago, Roberts has made quite a name for herself in South Jersey for her intricate pencil pieces and has been commissioned by the New Jersey State Police, among others, to draw portraits of those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

“In 2004, Tom Walkup, a soldier from Millville, was killed in Afghanistan,” says Roberts. “We knew the family [and] I did a portrait of him for the family. A copy of it is at the Millville Army Airfield Museum.

“Not long after that, Bert Zimmerman with the New Jersey State Police was in a car accident; [he] was killed in the line of duty. Two detectives from the State Police contacted me, they had seen the drawing [of Air Force Staff Sgt. Walkup], and asked me if I’d do one of [Tpr. Zimmerman]. I did an 18x24 portrait of him with the vehicle.”

Roberts is honored to have created hundreds of tribute portraits throughout the years—several of them will be on display at her exhibit—and still has a lot more in her artistic arsenal to showcase.

“I have a quirky spectrum of things,” says Roberts. “For a while, I was obsessed with Buster Keaton. I was into old Hollywood stuff for a long time, so there’s a few pieces in my show of that.

“But then, I go full into Alice Cooper and I have a drawing of Rod Serling. I like interesting faces.”

One of Roberts’ most influential muses is the jazz singer known as Lady Day. “I have to say, when I was first doing a lot of drawing, I would always be listening to Billie Holiday. She is my favorite,” says Roberts.

“My mom used to say, ‘Why are you listening to that depressing music?’ ” And Roberts would respond by saying, “It’s not [depressing]. I love it.”

Roberts not only has a portrait of Holiday in her exhibit, the title “The Very Thought of You” is the name of a Lady Day song.

“I was considering a couple of other titles [and] I wasn’t even sure if I was going to give it a name,” Roberts reveals. “But, I have to give credit to Anne Feinstein, who’s involved with Gallery 50, Inc., [for helping me come up with the title].”

“Diane and I brainstormed,” said Feinstein. “She likes jazz standards and said she had driven her mother crazy playing Billie Holiday records when she was a teenager; she would draw with the music playing loudly in the background. I don’t recall the song she originally mentioned, but it brought a song to mind that had the lyric ‘the very thought of you.’ The image Diane proposed for the promotional postcard, ‘Flight,’ fit the lyrics perfectly with the expression of the model.

“It made sense because of my connection with loving that song and ‘The Very Thought of You’ is how I looked at who I chose to draw, specifically for this exhibit,” Roberts adds.

Roberts, a mother of three and graduate of St. Clair College in Canada, has inspired many people through her art as well as being a survivor.

In 2010, Roberts went through a tumultuous period as she was diagnosed with cancer. “I had stage 3B breast cancer [and I had] to go through 18 months of chemo, then surgery, radiation … it was not good,” Roberts admits.

Going through that terrifying experience undoubtedly affected her in more ways than one. “My kids were teens and I tried to act like I was fine all through [the process] for them,” says Roberts. She is thankful she had the support of family and friends during that emotional time. “My kids were great [and] my parents spent the holidays with us during my treatment. [Also], I met other women who went through [the same experience and] we are still friends.”

Not surprisingly, Roberts’ bout with breast cancer put a damper on her artistic endeavors. “I’m a left-handed artist [and] I lost all the lymph glands under my left arm,” Roberts explains. “I was very worried I couldn’t draw again.”

After a year-and-a-half of treatments, Roberts was pronounced cancer-free by doctors and returned to her first love, drawing. However, going through that trauma has also affected the way she approaches her passion.

“It’s not as easy to do as it once was,” Roberts explains. “It had an effect on my style. I really love doing obsessive detail, but I’ve been trying to be a little more stylized lately with my new work.”

Although she is attempting to be “more stylized,” her elaborate pieces have impressed many who have viewed her art.

“She’s the most detailed pencil artist that I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Dan Godbey, who, along with musical partner Richard Fuller, was selected by Roberts to perform at her opening show on Friday, October 5, which takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. “Give her paper and pencil and she’ll create something stunning.”

Roberts, who was inducted into the Millville Artists Walk of Fame in 2017, has considered herself an arts outsider for the majority of her career. However, people like Pat Witt, whom Roberts considers a mentor, and Sharon Kiefer, director of Gallery 50, Inc., would beg to differ.

“Diane is a wonderful artist with a substantial body of work,” says Kiefer. “She is a one-of-a-kind portrait artist [who] works continuously curating and hanging the shows of other artists at the RRCA. I felt it was time for her to exhibit her own work.”

Roberts is bringing a different vibe to the “traditional art styles and mediums” that usually take place in the art scene in Cumberland County.

“Around here you see a lot of art of the environment [because] there’s such beautiful scenery and things to capture,” says Roberts. “For this exhibit, it’s totally not that.”

Fate along with Feinstein may have stepped in to help her name this exhibit, but no one would have been surprised if Roberts used the line, ‘And now for something completely different,’ from the classic British comedy Monty Python, for the title.

With an exhibit that will display portraits created in “pencil, and a couple of colored pencils, and mostly all graphite,” something completely different is what you’ll experience at Diane Roberts’ first solo exhibit.

And those who love and respect Roberts as a human being and as a true artist are just fine with that.

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