Photo by Sarah Davis

May 7, 2014

Finding a third eye and a mouthpiece

LaNia Roberts’ art journey

When LaNia Roberts started high school, her confidence was at an all-time low. Whenever she looked in the mirror, the words “ugly” and “fat” were the first that came to mind, with “beautiful” the last. Yet it was looking in the mirror to create self-portraits that led Roberts, 17, toward self-acceptance and profoundly changed her life.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, my nose is too big. My lips are extra big. My eyes are extra small,’” she says. But then she turned them into something beautiful with her art. “That big nose? It looked really cool when I painted it. Those big lips? When I added some highlights, they looked gorgeous.”

One of Roberts’ art teachers with the Louisville Visual Art Association, Rudy Salgado, feels they have some things in common. “We have shared a lot of similarities through our own insecurities,” Salgado says, “but things that took me 10 years out of college to work through, she’s already done.”

In two years, Roberts developed an impressive portfolio of artwork. “Big, bold swatches of color that still allow for the fine details to emerge,” says Jackie Pallesen, director of education and outreach at the Louisville Visual Art Association. Roberts “has such an eye for color, and she doesn’t want to do anything drab.”

The payoff for all that artwork is impressive: more than $450,000 in scholarship offers from six universities; acceptance to the prestigious and highly competitive Governor’s School for the Arts summer program; a special Mayor’s Citation Award; and participation in five local art shows, one of which was a two-person exhibition at the Shawnee Community Center (with fellow young artist and photographer Jonnie Storm). Thanks in part to Roberts, who got on the phone and invited everyone she’d ever known, the show’s opening reception drew over 200 visitors.

Roberts’ love of art also has helped her connect with a wide range of people, including internationally acclaimed jazz musician Harry Pickens and his mother, Harryette Pickens, whom she calls two of her closest friends. Harryette taught Roberts how to crochet, and Roberts says she taught her how to draw. “But these days we mostly just get together and talk. She says I’m an old soul, and I think she has such a young soul, so we meet somewhere in the middle.” She also calls renowned sculptor Ed Hamilton her friend.

“LaNia’s our future leader of the arts community in Louisville,” says Pallesen, who hopes that after college and beyond, the artist will return home and work to advocate for the arts. “She already has so much to say that’s so enriching and engaging.”

All Over The Place
LaNia’s parents, Shawn and Larry Roberts, raised her in the West End until 12, and then in the Newburg/Buechel area. “My parents set the foundation for me,” she says. “They gave me a home filled with love, showed me discipline and hard work.” Roberts also has two younger siblings: a sister, Jurnee, 15, and a brother, Larry II, 12 — and a large, supportive extended family.

On her last day in fifth grade at King Elementary School, Roberts’ art teacher gave her some lasting advice: “Whatever you do,” instructor Stuart Sollman told her, “don’t stop creating art — you’re too good.” Middle school was a difficult transition. Despite attending the highly regarded Visual Arts Magnet program at Noe Middle School, she had a difficult time. “I was always running around doing things I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” she admits.

Roberts liked her art teacher, Cyndi Young, but struggled with her low self-esteem. Young says, “LaNia had all the best intentions, but she was just kind of all over the place. At that point, she didn’t realize the talent she had, that she was going to become such a force to reckon with. It was such an awkward time. Middle school is for so many kids.”

Bullying was a big part of the problem. “It wasn’t like my head was put in the toilet or anything like that,” she says, but a group of popular girls teased her often. “They had boyfriends, wore cool clothes. I was the girl who wore the same things all the time and didn’t know how to do my own hair.”

It was worse in seventh grade. Trying to fit in and prove she was tough, she got into a fight. “But it didn’t work.” She learned to cope by shutting down and going silent. During that time, Roberts’ relationship with her parents suffered. “I stopped being that happy girl they had raised me to be. I pushed everyone to the side.”

Art was pushed to the side, too. Roberts enrolled in Central High School’s Law and Government Magnet program, where she became “the quiet, smart girl you would go to if you needed help with your homework.” Or the one standing in the corner hoping and praying for someone to come up and say hello.

Train Your Brain
As part of her 2012 New Year’s resolution, Roberts began drawing again as a hobby. “Just Disney characters, celebrities from magazines, things like that, with no real meaning,” she says. She spent the entire summer teaching herself to draw through online tutorials and copying drawings. The following year, she took Introductory Art 1 with Patrick Robertson at Central.

“Students don’t usually come to Central High for art,” Robertson says. “They come for the wonderful magnet programs. I am the only art teacher at Central, and I knew LaNia needed to be influenced by other artists and teachers.” He began steering her in the direction of Children’s Fine Art Classes (CFAC), one of several programs offered by LVAA.

When Roberts got into CFAC, she worked with instructors Alice Stone and Dennis Whitehouse, who both made profound impacts on her art journey. “(Whitehouse) made it very obvious that we would not be drawing from pictures. He did not respect that at all. He said, ‘It’s not art unless it’s drawn from life!’”

Whitehouse, well known to generations of Ballard High School and University of Louisville art students as a tough but inspiring figure, has also taught CFAC classes for 14 years. What’s his approach to teaching art? “If you work from photos, it’s a left-brain function, it’s not really visual,” he says. “An artist needs to be able to look at something as a whole, which is a right-brain function. You have to train your brain to be able to see.”

Whitehouse says that as opposed to striving for photorealism, some things should be “just a little off — that’s what makes it more personal and gives it character.” It was in Whitehouse’s CFAC class that Roberts truly fell in love with art making. She remembers working on her first painting, a self-portrait. “I was so scared,” she says. Mr. Whitehouse was like, “Just paint. Good God!’”

But when she was finished, she remembers her teacher loving it. “I was like, ‘Really?’ ’Cause I knew he was the type of guy who only gave compliments when they were really due. He told me, ‘You are going to be so good.’”

Girl on Fire
Whitehouse says Roberts takes direction well and has “a good eye that can really look carefully at the value within a color.” He says she loves color, and so when she sees one, “she exaggerates it and brings it to life. If you think about her personality, it’s the same as how she paints — very lively and colorful.”

Another teacher who influenced her was Claudia Hammer, who worked with her in a life drawing class Hammer has been teaching for 15 years through LVAA.

“She taught me how to see when drawing (the human figure),” Roberts says. “That is what art is all about. It’s about seeing things the normal eye doesn’t. She taught me how to understand that ‘this angle goes this way, that angle goes that way.’”

In Hammer’s class, students work from a model during each session, starting with quick sketches and progressing into longer poses. “Each class has a mix of beginners to those who have more experience,” Hammer says. “LaNia seemed young when she started, but I could immediately tell she had talent and she knew what she was doing.” The teacher feels Roberts is “a natural” whose work has gotten “more sophisticated. She sees more of the nuances, and she experiments with her compositions and technique.”

As Roberts continued to grow and improve her drawing and painting skills through the LVAA and CFAC classes, she posted images of her artwork on her Instagram account. At one point, she had more than 37,000 followers. With her reputation cemented as Central High’s resident art star, her confidence soared.

With Whitehouse’s help, she put together a portfolio and applied for the 2013 Governor’s School for the Arts summer program held at Transylvania University in Lexington. The program, established in 1987, is free for all students who are selected, and slightly over 50% of the $3,800 in tuition and residential costs for each student is paid through the General Assembly (the rest comes from corporations, foundations and individuals). In addition to visual arts, instruction is also offered in the disciplines of architecture, creative writing, dance, drama, instrumental music, new media and vocal music.

Roberts was thrilled when accepted, but as the program approached, her old insecurities returned. “I thought, ‘What if everyone looks at me as the big girl? What if I’m the only big girl there? What if I don’t make any friends?’ I said to myself, ‘LaNia, come on, girl, you gotta get yourself up, honey. You’re going to GSA!’ So I decided I would be the girl who would say hello and talk to everyone.”

That summer, Roberts truly blossomed. Working diligently, she created a bold and skillful series of paintings under the guidance of her instructors. Even though students at GSA “live, breathe, eat and sleep art” during the program, Roberts found plenty of time to cultivate relationships with everyone who crossed her path.

During a meal on the last day of the program, she asked permission to make a special announcement to the group. “I shouted as loud as I could: ‘You all have given me the most beautiful experience of my life. So now it’s time to give back.’” Then, while thanking every student, teacher and staff member, she ran around the cafeteria “fanning” everyone in attendance with a paper “beauty fan” she had made.

The most important lesson she learned at GSA? “If you give out love, you will receive it a thousand times back in return.”

Building Bridges and Confidence
That fall, Roberts began her college search and developed her portfolio for applications. She knew she wanted to leave Kentucky but wasn’t sure what kind of school would be the best fit. She was invited for a special campus visit by the Kansas City Art Institute, but soon realized she wanted something different.

“I always dreamed of going to college and having that experience I saw in movies — having this totally new life, starting new and fresh. Maybe joining a sorority or going to football and basketball games — meeting all sorts of people.”

Ultimately, Syracuse University was her No. 1 choice. On a visit, she met many interesting, diverse people, intellectuals from all over the country. Roberts thought that if she went to art school, she’d make amazing connections in the art world. But she also wanted a lawyer to call her friend. She wanted to meet future leaders in the business, medical and art worlds.

Syracuse seemed to have everything she wanted in a college; most importantly, she was impressed by its art faculty and the work produced in their department. Now Roberts had a mission: Earn an art scholarship to Syracuse.

LVAA offers a special college prep course to its high school CFAC students, giving them time, space, materials and guidance to help prepare their work for submission for college scholarships. Roberts enrolled in the class and worked with instructor Rudy Salgado, a recent transplant to Louisville by way of the University of Iowa’s stellar printmaking program.

Salgado was impressed with Roberts’ work ethic. “In each session, LaNia came in knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and she put her head down and worked diligently the entire time. She’s so confident in herself, and she’s very self-motivated.”

Salgado is not the only one of LaNia’s teachers (all of whom she has remained in touch with) who feels her motivation is of unusual intensity. “You don’t see a lot of kids with that kind of drive,” CFAC’s Whitehouse says.

“She will call me every once in a while,” Salgado says, “and update me on her college search and her progress with her artwork.”

In a dramatic reversal from her middle school days, Roberts now believes she can make friends with almost anyone, and LVAA’s Pallesen agrees. “She’s warm, inviting and genuinely interested in what you have to say. I don’t think I’ve met a more positive and optimistic teenager in my life.”

Shannon Westerman, executive director of LVAA, adds, “When she walks into (LVAA’s office) with her big, beautiful, ever-present smile, LaNia’s sprit is infectious. Within seconds, the frustrations and anxiety of grant writing and managing a nonprofit art agency, for me, melt away — all due to a wonderful 17-year-old young artist who so easily and confidently is willing to share her gratitude and her joy.”

Up, up, up
Many parents are wary of encouraging their children to study art or pursue a career in the arts. They worry their child will become a “starving artist” stereotype and have difficulty building a stable and fulfilling life. Luckily for Roberts, her parents believe in her ability and encourage her.

“They are very supportive,” she says. “Are they able to be financially supportive? No. I know they wish they could be.” Roberts is learning to find creative ways to cover the cost of her education. In addition to seeking out scholarship opportunities, she’s put her art up for sale online and offered to create work for commission.

The title of one of Roberts’ paintings featured in the upcoming CFAC exhibition is “A Third Eye and a Mouthpiece.” She found the inspiration in advice from her father. “My dad told me a story once about how to be successful in life. He said I needed two things: a third eye and a mouthpiece. The third eye is a way to be able to see outside of the box. And the mouthpiece means that I need to be good at communicating, whether it’s talking one on one or speaking in front of a big group. I kept that advice with me for a very long time and turned it into a piece of art.”

Another important support for Roberts has been her uncle Byron Roberts, whom she calls “Uncle Dukie.” “I mailed him letters. We wrote back and forth. It was a strong friendship that started in a way most teenagers can’t say they’ve experienced. It wasn’t like texts that just say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ We sent actual handwritten letters. I saved them all. When I started drawing again, he was the first person I told.”

“LaNia is willing to start a conversation with just about anybody on the subject of art,” says Central’s Robertson. “She loves to share her skills with other students. I wouldn’t be surprised if she pursues art education someday.”

When the subject of bullying comes up, Roberts speaks passionately. “When I was in middle school, I thought life would never get better. Kids sometimes commit suicide when they get into that way of thinking. I would tell them to not be afraid and to stick up for themselves. Saying something back is better than saying nothing. You will know that at least you did something for yourself that day.”

Roberts has learned there are going to be ups and downs in life. “When you’re in a down, you have to remember that it’s OK, because you’re either going to have a really good story to tell later, or you can look forward to having that next up that will come.”

One big “up” for Roberts will be CFAC’s high school exhibition and reception, where LVAA will honor all of CFAC’s senior art students. The reception will feature a slideshow of each student’s portfolio, and awards will be presented. The exhibition will run May 14-21 at McGrath Gallery at Bellarmine University, and the opening reception on May 14 will be from 5-7 p.m.

But perhaps the biggest “up” of all for Roberts came when she learned she’d received a very generous scholarship from Syracuse, her dream school. (Although she will still have some expenses to cover.) “I can’t wait to learn and just take everything in. I want to just get there and create more art,” she says.

Now when she looks in the mirror to create a self-portrait, LaNia Roberts exudes self-confidence. And it’s all thanks to
art.

LaNia Roberts’ artwork will be available for purchase at LVAA’s CFAC high school exhibition. Additionally, she has created a book of her artwork, “Pieces of a Dream,” that can be purchased through Indyplanet.com or directly. She encourages anyone interested in purchasing original artwork to get in touch with her via email: itsslania@gmail.com.

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