Local News

Nature 'spoke' to artist, friends says

- Peter Powell Roberts, a Florida Master Artist, passed away Saturday.

He was 89 and died in his sleep, hospice in attendance, from complications battling COPD, pneumonia and diabetes.

Roberts was known for his perpetually cheerful attitude and the energy with which he approached every day.

Fred Leavitt, a friend for the past few years, said: "Peter was an amazing person. If you went to visit him, you would always leave his room with a smile."

Roberts moved to the area because he was an avid lover of nature and found Highlands Hammock State Park to be a rich and diverse source of inspiration for his paintings.

"Nature spoke to him - he found an essence in nature, especially the parts that many of us overlook. He could make beauty out of the nature that most of us take for granted, whether it was underbrush or tangled branches, Peter saw all of it as a source of life," Leavitt said.

Roberts began his professional life as an advertising manager for Elwell Parker Electric Company and later as the vice president and art director for Green and Roberts Inc., both located in Cleveland, Ohio.

He moved to Sarasota in 1977, accepting a position on the faculty at the Ringling College of Art. In 1987, Roberts served as the department head of computer design until he retired in 1992.

Allen Novak, visual resources librarian at the Ringling College of Art And Design, said one of Roberts' more significant contributions to the college occurred around 1983. He was "seeking permission to create an elective under the auspices of the graphic design department. He was given a space but there was no money for equipment."

Novack recalled that "he [Roberts] was so intent on developing the program that he purchased some Apple II computers and peripheral equipment using his own money." Roberts then "encouraged students from all departments, painting, sculpture, photography, illustration, graphic design and interior design to take his course."

Novack considered Roberts to be a progressive and passionate teacher who truly enjoyed working with students. By 1992, it was clear that computer-aided graphics and design was a critical field, and Ringling added several new classes and a declared major in computer animation to the curriculum.

Roberts could not have known it at the time, but a quote from him in the 1989 Ringling College school catalog illustrates how prophetic his vision was. "The computer is the tool that provides illustrators and designers with unlimited potential for discovery. In broadcast design and print media, the potential for the computer literate artist is in a dynamic growth period."

Within a few years of moving to the Highlands County area, Roberts went to the community college in Avon Park.

Cathy Futral, an art instructor at South Florida State College, smiled broadly as she recalled the first time she met Roberts.

"He walked into the studio about 1999 or so and was asking what programs we had here in computer graphics."

He started volunteering to help with setting up a program and working with students. She opened the door to a little storage room with a computer sitting on the desk, describing how Roberts would work with several students crammed into the room and how much they enjoyed working with him.

"He really cared about the students and focused a great deal of energy on them. He didn't concern himself with how 'good' an artist he thought the student was, and he was also very modest about his own abilities."

On a tour of the campus, many of Roberts' works are on display.

"His legacy lives on here at the college. His paintings are enjoyed every day by students, faculty and campus visitors," Futral said. The paintings are open for viewing to the general public in the library, the museum and the Student Services building.

Mollie Doctrow, curator of the SFSC Museum of Florida Art and Culture, also had many fond recollections of Roberts and his time on campus.

Speaking of his work, Doctrow said that Roberts had a "deep reverence and love for nature that is reflected in his art." She elaborated that Roberts' paintings "bridge the gap between representational art and contemporary art, making a profound contribution to Florida's art history."

Doctrow has seen few artists that have such broad-based appeal as Roberts.

"Rarely do we see an artist that is able to cross so many boundaries: age, artistic composition preferences and more. His works are really powerful."

Jim Fitch, a local entrepreneur and supporter of the arts, knew Roberts well.

"Peter was a great artist because he'd mastered the medium - everything he did was intuitive. His subject matter was dear to him; he was dedicated to the minutiae of nature.the small things that go unnoticed," Fitch said.

In addition to the works on display at the college, there are approximately 130 works and 8 sculptures that Roberts willed to the Heartland Cultural Alliance.

These had previously been locked in a storage vault at some point after Roberts entered assisted medical care and required some restoration.

The group is seeking donations to fund the opening of a museum to display these works, many of which have never been displayed in public.

A public reception celebrating his life will be held at 6 p.m. April 23 at the Lucid Heart Gallery, 131 N. Ridgewood, Sebring.

Food and drink will be available. There will also be a memorial service at 6 p.m. April 25, at 6 p.m. at Highlands Community Church, 3005 New Life Way, Sebring. It is also open to the public.