Viewing and creating art has intrigued Elizabeth Roberts since her earliest days. She recalls being fascinated as a kindergartener by the paintings her artist mother took her to see at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY. A special treat was lingering in the museum’s store, where she would use her allowance to buy the polished agates that looked like miniature landscapes to her.
Later on, she says, “I doodled my way through grade school and high school.” Her specialty was secretly creating ballpoint pen caricatures of classmates and teachers that even included moving parts, such as a cardboard insert that could be shifted back and forth to suggest darting eyes.
While majoring in psychology at the State University of New York at Oswego, she also took a few studio arts classes “because they sounded interesting.” After college, she signed up for a course in painting at Syracuse University where she created a work she says she’ll never forget: The Egg Painting. The instructor assigned the students to paint a still life consisting of six eggs sitting on an old dark wooden table. Elizabeth dutifully used her palette knife to mix up what she thought were “eggy colors,” of cool and warmer grays. “I didn’t know how to blend colors yet, nor to look in a mirror to check if the perspective was skewed,” she says. Nor had she learned yet how to use a paintbrush, so she simply mushed the oil paints in with her palette knife. The result was a scene of “ugly little eggs drowning on a huge table that leaned to one side, with a solid background of cream-colored paint with no gradation whatsoever.”
She laughs, recalling how she wanted to destroy the painting. But her father, a teacher, suggested that it was so awful that she should keep it to remind herself and show others that improvement is possible.
Some 40 years later, Elizabeth has kept this, her very first painting, for just this reason. “It taught me that you can drown in oil paints if you don’t keep control of them,” she says. She went on to earn a master’s degree in painting at the State University of New York at Albany. “That’s where I really learned to paint,” she says. “All of the classes helped me to learn not only from my own mistakes and successes, but from everyone else’s.”
Over the years, between working with those with developmental disabilities and, until she recently retired, caring for the elderly, Elizabeth has continued to paint in oils, pastels, and acrylics. She’s particularly drawn to the rolling rural landscapes of Washington County and its venerable vernacular buildings. But she also likes to paint portraits and fantasy landscapes. She has exhibited her work in various locales in her native central New York State, including the Munson-Williams-Proctor sidewalk art shows, the State University of New York at Morrisville library, and in a Minneapolis gallery. One memorable exhibition was a joint effort with her late mother, Doris Pellettier Roberts, a watercolorist, at the Morrisville library. “I learned so much from Mom,” Elizabeth says. “She was my most constructive critic.”
She is grateful for all of the trips to art museums that her mother provided. “A good museum gives you an idea of the possibilities,” she says. “Mom would walk with me as I looked at all the paintings, like Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life” series, which I loved as a kid. You could get lost in the landscapes, in another world, a beautiful fantasy.” Another early favorite was William Harnett, whose 19th-century trompe-l’oeil still lifes of everyday objects looked so realistic that “you could reach out and touch them, with amazing highlights that he piled on.”
Another childhood influence was the public library, to which her mother often took her. There Elizabeth reveled in the art books, which introduced her to innumerable artists and styles. “I’m still reading books on art constantly,” she says. “If I get any more, my studio (in Saratoga Springs) will collapse from the weight.” A longtime favorite is George Inness, whom she describes as “not just a landscape artist, but a visionary.” She is drawn to “the mystery in his paintings; they hold you captive with their dreamy quality. The colors are beautiful and perhaps the places are recognizable, but transmuted into being a state of mind, or awareness of God, a spiritual feeling. Everything isn’t spelled out; you get caught up in his landscapes.”
She finds inspiration in “a play of light and color that I might see, classical music [Rachmaninoff is a favorite], my internal emotional state, words or ideas that suggest feelings or visual metaphors, and even a random set of marks that can suggest a scene or figure.” A random mark could be something as simple as a pattern in the kitchen linoleum, she notes, pointing to DaVinci’s suggestion of finding inspiration “in random things around you,” such as the patterns in peeling paint.
To jumpstart inspiration, Elizabeth finds that “a bit of extra energy kickstarts being creative, so I prescribe coffee for myself and off I go.”
For her, the most enjoyable aspect of creating art “is experiencing the state of flow where one isn’t really directing oneself so much as forgetting about oneself and letting the work take you where it will. It’s almost as if someone else made the work and I get to be surprised at the end when I wake up from the trance and see what I’ve created. It’s fun to surprise yourself and create something you didn’t think you had it in yourself to do.”
She adds, “I love doing art because it can be all things; it’s a means of communication that has the scope to encompass and distill anything in the world and hopefully be beautiful and meaningful in the process.”
This is an artist who likes to make “anything and everything, from painting portraits and landscapes to making finger puppets and tiny, illuminated cardboard houses.” As she explains, “It’s hard for me to stay in the box. I like to mix things up and try new things.” Always experimenting, she recently started making prints with gelatin plates. She also paints little scenes and affixes them to the bottom of a piece of plexiglass and then paints another layer over the top. “It’s painting on two different planes,” she explains, “and it gives a three-dimensional effect.”
Her biggest challenge is “my own perfectionism, which is not fun to experience but on the other hand, it drives me to constantly try to surprise and surpass myself in everything I do. I just want to keep getting better. And also spread the joy of creating art to viewers.”