As a young man, self-taught folk artist Chris Roberts (b.1959) had a mentor called George Haslam. His best friend’s great uncle and an outgoing conversationalist and journalist, Roberts affectionately called him Uncle George. Haslam, who died in 2001, had been an instructor in Journalism during Flannery O’Connor’s career at Georgia state College for Women (as it was then called), advisor to the school newspaper, and occasional dinner guest with the O’Connor family. Over Haslam’s career he met Andy Warhol in NYC, Babe Ruth at the old DeSoto Hilton, Hank Williams, Sr., and others, and he became the inspiration for Robert’s highly successful 2006 show at Cutters Point Coffee in Sandfly.
A painting of pop-artist Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans is currently on display at Reynold Square Fine Art Gallery and is filled with the following handwritten true story: “In 1962, while working for King Features in New York City, Uncle George met Andy Warhol. Uncle George attended Andy’s first art show. Andy was exhibiting his 32 Campbell’s soup can paintings. They were priced at $100 each. Uncle George told Andy that he admired his work and was considering purchasing one. Andy replied, “Gee, don’t buy one of my paintings, just go down to your corner grocery store and buy the real thing. The real thing is better than my painting, plus you get a meal too.” Unaware of Andy’s contrary ways, Uncle George did not buy a panting….that group of 32 paintings later sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for 19.5 million dollars.”
“Uncle George was the ultimate storyteller,” Roberts tells me, “An old-school newspaper man who never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” For many years, these stories were portrayed in Robert’s works; Uncle George is always depicted as a stick figure, and indeed, no one could claim that Roberts portrays the human form very realistically. His primitive style is humorous and appealing; his paintings covered with little people, almost always identified, many of them saying something or other via a speech bubble. Roberts usually makes his own supports – a piece of wood with a wooden frame that he paints in one color before adding the images and wording.
Roberts’ paintings are reminiscent of the work of the Rev. Howard Finster (1916-2001), the prolific folk artist, bicycle repairman, inventor, and Baptist minister who felt called from God to create a folk-art sculpture garden called Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. [If you don’t have the opportunity to visit Paradise Garden, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art has an entire section given over to his “sacred art.”] Roberts took Uncle George to Paradise Garden and recounts that “Uncle George Meets Howard Finster” was the very first painting he ever sold.
Like Finster, but to a much lesser degree, Roberts includes references to his Christian faith in his paintings. He shows me his huge “Peaceable Kingdom” painted panel which is based on the book of Isaiah’s prophecy that in the coming messianic kingdom, not only humans, but all God’s creatures, will live together in peace and harmony. The artist says, “I’m doing a commission of Oglethorpe Square right now for a high school friend who specifically said, ‘no religion’!” Active for many years in prison ministry, Roberts simply says, “I try to spread the gospel subtly.”
I met the artist in his messily creative and funky home – shelves and counters filled to overflowing with art books, walls and floors covered in artwork – much created by him, some by artist friends such as Jen and Bernard Nolan, and some collected over the years from thrift stores and yard sales. A longtime lover of Isle of Hope situated on the Intercoastal Waterway; he has a penchant for collecting paintings of boats.
Roberts’ dad was a mechanical engineer who moved his family from Milwaukee to Savannah to work on the steam turbines at Union Camp (now International Paper) in 1965. Roberts entered the first grade at St. James and then went on to Benedictine Military School and to Armstrong College (now Georgia State University – Armstrong Campus) where he graduated with a degree in Political Science. Never career-oriented, he then moved to Atlanta and worked as a carpenter; It was during those years that he began creating artworks. “In 1989 southwestern furniture was huge,” he tells me. “I looked at some of the stuff and thought, ‘I could do that.’ So, I got scrap wood from my jobsites and built a six-foot tall cabinet. But my woodworking skills were so poor, I had to cover it up with paint. I got the idea to cover it in fish, and about three or four months and 20 cases of Old Milwaukee beer later, I had 4,094 fish on it!”
Roberts still paints furniture such as chairs, curiosities, and cabinets, in addition to decorating items of clothing, mailboxes, little library boxes, suitcases, and so on. On Isle of Hope, there are two little libraries dedicated to the memory of his friend Sammy Moore, a wonderful photographer and beloved community member. In his kitchen is a refrigerator painted cornflower blue and covered with sharks, and in one of his bedrooms, now converted into a painting studio, is a jacket he’s planning to wear to the fall BC football games. The scores of all the games are painted on the back.
Besides the Uncle George paintings, Roberts created unique depictions of the 24 downtown Savannah squares – first displayed in his 2016 “Peaceable Kingdon: Savannah Squares” show at the downtown Knights of Columbus. Almost all sold. Today, he is more focused on waterfront and beach scenes, many of them featuring the game of half-rubber, supposedly created at Savannah Beach, now Tybee. [Half-rubber is like baseball but played without bases and with only half of a rubber ball. The game is nearly a century old, and Charleston, Florence, Myrtle Beach, and Savannah all claim to be its birthplace.]
The Tybee paintings are all in a similar color palette - turquoise blue waters and yellow sands – and are covered in his usual humorous stick-figure people, many of them identified. A recent one, entitled “Tybee Triathlon” features 45 people swimming in the ocean, figures on bicycles, and runners approaching a finish line situated close to a game of half-rubber played by some of his Savannah friends. Iconic local businesses such as Doc’s Bar, T.S. Chu’s, and the Sugar Shack dot the horizon.
Roberts may have run out of Uncle George’s stories but has plenty of his own to tell…”I could document Savannah for the rest of my life,” he says of his paintings. “They’re just fun to do.”
Chris Roberts will be showing his work at the wonderful Isle of Hope Art and Music Festival on October 21, and will have a show at Tapley’s Mercantile and Antiques in January. Follow him on Instagram @artisttourguide and see some of his work at the Reynolds Square Fine Art Gallery. Roberts accepts commissions and plans to be in the 2024 Kentuck Art Center’s folk art Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama, surely the perfect spot for him to gain more attention for his magically naïve creations.