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“Tribute to Romare Bearden,” a 2007 mixed media painting by Rhonel Roberts

“Tribute to Romare Bearden,” a 2007 mixed media painting by Rhonel Roberts


Rhonel Roberts’ first love was music. But painting is his passion.

The two came together for the Fillmore resident in a series of artworks he created celebrating great jazz musicians — Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. His career took off when his painting of Masekela was chosen in 2011 for the Fillmore Jazz Festival poster. It was one of Roberts’ particular favorites because he remembered the trumpeter’s rendition of “Grazing in the Grass” playing at his 13th birthday party.

Roberts’ work has two clear characteristics: mood and an exuberance of color. “Musicians embody mood probably more directly than any other artists,” he says. “That is especially true of black singers and instrumental virtuosos.”

And color has emerged as the motivating force in his art. “I made a choice that I wanted to celebrate life and color early on in my artistic journey,” Roberts says. That is why his new book, published this fall by Norfolk Press, is called Love Your Color.

Growing up in Stockton, Roberts had little exposure to the visual arts. Although his mother and a teacher encouraged him to paint, he saw no evidence that painting was relevant to African Americans.

“The few black artists I knew about were musicians, athletes and some actors,” he says. His peers were musicians, and if he wanted to be recognized for his creative talent, he knew it would be through music. So that’s where he directed his energy. Even after he won a scholarship to study art at the University of the Pacific, he was still focusing on music, and soon abandoned college to promote his band.

But the muse never left.

Roberts kept sketching and painting and eventually began selling greeting cards online through Blue Mountain Cards, and hawking them to florists and stationery stores. His first art exhibition, “Living Colors,” was presented at San Francisco’s Main Library. While he wasn’t allowed to sell his work there, it was seen by some of the doyens of the art world, who encouraged him.

In 2003, when his son was invited to go to Paris with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, Roberts jumped at the opportunity to visit. There, visiting galleries and museums, he discovered that Parisians held black performers in high regard. And even though he didn’t speak the language, he felt more at home than he had ever felt as an adult in his native country.

Rhonel Roberts' painting of Hugh Masekela on the poster for the 2011 Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Rhonel Roberts’ painting of Hugh Masekela on the 2011 poster.

“I came back from Europe with a clearer understanding of my value to society,” he says.

He also came back just as an artist’s studio in Hunter’s Point Shipyard became available. His exhibition, “Destination Paris,” packed the house and led to his becoming an artist in residence the following year.

With new confidence, Roberts became even more serious about his art and also began to teach. He joined ArtSeeds, a nonprofit focused on teaching self-expression and creativity to children. That led to an invitation to teach art to grade school kids in an after-school program, first as a volunteer and then as a teacher’s aide. He found he delighted in teaching children and was soon in demand by public and private schools in San Francisco and Marin County.

As Roberts listened to children of privilege talk about their spring breaks in Europe and Asia, he realized that what had held him back in his own artistic development was the lack of any exposure to African American artists. He had never visited a gallery or museum until he was in his late 20s. He had grown up without a role model, and he didn’t want that to happen to the next generation. “I want them to feel part of it all,” he says.

Soon after his work was selected for the Fillmore poster in 2011, Roberts visited Paris a second time and felt totally at home.

“When I returned to San Francisco, I saw my posters all over Fillmore Street,” he says. “Wow! My color was all over the Fillmore!” He was ensconced in a booth at the festival in the thick of it all. “I met wonderful, enthusiastic people,” he says. “Seeing people buying T-shirts with my image and signing posters — that was really amazing and gratifying.”  He sold small paintings of jazz musicians, sold out the T-shirts with his image and signed hundreds of posters.

In his day job, he now works as a creative pro at the showplace Apple store on Union Square. “I now have an iPad Pro on which I create art with an Apple Pencil. I love the process — and the results,” he says. “But it will never replace my paintbrushes.”

And he’s still celebrating life and color. “Art enables me to fulfill my passion to connect people rather than separate them,” he says. “Although conscious of my race, I am more interested in finding connections between people and in celebrating diversity than in sounding a bullhorn.”

He adds: “Color matters, yes. But for me, it is something to enjoy rather than something to defend.”

Photograph of Rhonel Roberts by Jordan Edwards

Photograph of Rhonel Roberts by Jordan Edwards

On November 9, Rhonel Roberts will be signing copies of his book at a book release party at S.F. Mercantile Gift Shop, 1698 Haight Street, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Love Your Color is available from Norfolk Press. Visit his website to see more of his work.