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Times of the Islands Magazine

Meet Myra Roberts - Outrage shapes social outlook, speaking to injustices, her Florida deco is fun

May 19, 2017 06:26AM ● By Kevin

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

Vibrant color and messaging from her time in Florida have been at the heart of Myra Roberts' work. Photo courtesy of Myra Roberts.

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, a Jew, had fled Poland from the Nazis, which explains 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 states. “Art is a lesson [for people],” Roberts adds, “an important one that lasts.”

Photo courtesy of Myra Roberts.

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.

Photo courtesy of Myra Roberts.

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.”

Written by Craig Garrett, Group Editor-in-Chief for TOTI Media