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Street preacher brings message to life in Day-Glo

Robert Roberg

“I have painted with the pure motives of sharing my visions of God with anyone who’ll stop and look and listen” – Robert Roberg

It was a highly unusual way to break into the art market – unplanned and merely a consequence of his higher calling.

Robert Roberg had been sent to Nashville in 1985 by Mennonites to plant a new church there. Preaching on street corners, he endured much abuse and jeering until he picked up some chalk to better illustrate his spiritual message.

Then the surging crowds parted like the Red Sea, and Roberg’s future path was brilliantly illuminated – well, not exactly. But his rough, untutored drawings did gain the momentary attention of pedestrians who finally stopped, looked and listened to the gospel.

“Anti-Christ with Computer-Chip Necklace” by Robert Roberg 1995

From sermons and paintings they learned about the vials and bowls of God’s wrath to come and many other terrifying things from the Revelation of St. John. In Roberg’s “Anti-Christ with Computer-Chip Necklace” (and a massive stogie – Roberg is adamant over the evils of tobacco), Satan in the flesh leers triumphantly. Beaded fish die as “the sea became blood” and he continues through them all, unsparing.

“Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea for the devil is coming down to you with great wrath” (Rev. 12:12).

A clear illustration of that apocalyptic wrath from an earlier painting, sports hell flaming along the bottom with arrows clearly indicating where “fornicators, unbelieving, homosexuals, cowardly, murderers” and so forth will end.

The “Whore of Babylon” is always a popular subject with the public, and his version has a sexy, blonde she-devil astride a hot pink, spotted leopard.

This “whore” ended up being quite a blessing. She was the first painting Roberg ever sold, his first in a New York exhibit, and she showed up in the New York Times.

“Babylon, the Great, Is Fallen” by Robert Roberg 1992

Roberg often paints on found materials and debris – which makes sense if he began by working on whatever blew past him on a street corner. At times he also embeds cardboard, glitter, mirrors, beads and so on into his work.

Skill and technique weren’t much concern in the beginning, since art was only an adjunct to the gospel. Eventually Roberg dropped his full-time ministry but continued with scriptural art, which gained in compositional strength and complexity as well as skill as the decades have gone by. Roberg justly bestowed his untutored art as a new, personal genre: “Apocalyptic Street-Corner Shouting Art.”

Like many preacher/painters before him, Roberg’s art shouts indeed, in the form of handwritten chapter and verse scrolled across his paintings. He feels that Judgment Day is near and has ever since he began seriously painting in the 1980s.

Both the preaching and art came via a California experience in the early 1980s. In a 1996 interview Roberg describes a type of vision where “Jesus asked me to work for him, and this is the way I’m doing it.”

Some paintings have this little notation at the bottom: “Talent thanks to the Holy Spirit.”

Roberg’s theology is as unorthodox as his flying castles or demonic monkeys. He is strongly opposed to all use of alcohol and doesn’t believe in the Trinity. Further he charges that the “true gospel has been usurped by Greek philosophy and Roman militant paganism.” His theology is impossible to ignore in most cases, because it is literally written across his art or posted with it.

A devout and unyielding Pacifist, Roberg does not support the troops (unless they won’t shoot) and attacks a idea of a “Christian war ethic” as being unchristian.

He quotes Dwight Eisenhower on militarism and the waste of war: “It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

Yet Eisenhower, a general and Christian, fought indeed, although perhaps reluctantly and by necessity.

One of Roberg’s more unusual ideas is his theory of “Angelification,” which is rather complex and not quite like anything I’ve ever heard.

He claims, “Early Christians did not believe you were an adopted child of God until you received the angel baptism.”

And his translation of John 20:22 reads; Jesus “baptized them [disciples] by breathing on them” and said, “Receive the pure angel.”

At any rate, some of his more complex and truly wonderful paintings emerged with this theme, whatever it means.

“Angelification” painting by Robert Roberg

Roberg’s rough, untutored paintings have gone far before him, landing in places he would never have dreamed all those years back – high places, such as the front page of the New York Times in 2005.

Quite a feat for one who is known to often say, “My greatest fear is that I will start believing I’m an artist.”

He also has two pieces in the Smithsonian collection: “Babylon, the Great, Is Fallen” and “Death and Resurrection at Elliston Place.” It is highly unusual for an outsider or folk artist to attain this type of acceptance in his lifetime, and his exhibitions are quite extensive.

Not exactly the stereotypic, uneducated Southern street preacher, Roberg worked as a University of Florida English professor as well as several other jobs. His latest interest has taken him into a lightly trafficked corner, though, as a museum curator.

On a trip to Amsterdam a few years ago, Roberg came across a “fluorescent” museum – the only one in the world at that time (as far as he knows.) Having used the glowing pigments for years (to get attention in the dark), this hotwired his imagination. One of his ideas is now manifested as a Florescent Museum in Newberry, Florida, where he and his wife live. Definitely in little danger of competition. But Roberg one-upped the Danes; his museum is entirely 3-D and in black light. (Take that, uppity Europeans!) Visitors are issued Chromadepth, 3-D glasses to properly view the works of his fledgling museum.

Work is donated and open to new artists, so if you are interested, contact Mr Roberg. Paintings range from amateur and awkward to relatively elegant. Roberg has a huge “angelification” painting where the angels appear to emanate a slightly lime-green aura, but I admit to liking what I could see of it in a video.

Related at least in palette to back-velvet paintings, both use Day-Glo hues, but the contrast even pops more if the background is black. Effects can run from startling and masterful to luridly nauseous. It’s an acquired taste and may take more talent to do well than painting with more natural colors. The 3-D Museum will also offer classes in film making, black and white photography, writing the short story and the novel, songwriting and various classes for children – quite ambitious.

Roberg is still preaching via his art and writings, which often appear on his website. They include Bible studies, such as the harmony of the Gospels and warnings about sin and the end times. Roberg is fervent and unyielding in his interest and theology. He feels he is “a dutiful messenger of the Lord,” whether using words or fluorescent paint in his particular spiritual battle.

SOURCES: lisastonearts.com/robert-roberg.html / Sarasota Herald Tribune 1996/ www.wcjb.com