Jeff Roberts: Finding His Voice
By Nora Katz
“People sometimes stare at me. Sometimes I explain to them about the Parkinson’s. Sometimes I ignore it, and just keep on dancing. It is a way of coming to grips with a personal reality, moving through the difficulties, and moving forward.”
Jeff Roberts worked as a boat builder, wrote for a newspaper, and served in the Navy. He takes classes and volunteers at the Michener Museum, and has three children and three grandchildren. He’s inspired by his native Bucks County and his meandering career path through education, business, government, and criminal justice. He’s a retired learning disability teacher. He has Parkinson’s disease. And he’s an artist.
“A lot of people hide when they have Parkinson’s,” Jeff says. But, in some ways, he feels fortunate to have the disease. Some people might find this attitude hard to understand. But Jeff insists that being a fighter has always been a part of his personality; living with Parkinson’s is a part of who he is.
“I never really cared what people thought about me; I was never driven by what people thought about me, and I am not now.”
The dyskinesia – rapid, involuntary muscle movement – that’s a side effect of his Parkinson’s medication is visible in Jeff’s work. He finds that his paintings come alive in front of him because he moves quickly, and he asserts that “Parkinson’s makes my artwork fresh and expressive.” The disease, of course, is only a part of what impacts Jeff’s work. His words of wisdom are all about overcoming setbacks: “will I be defined by this disability, or will I define myself?”
The path that Jeff has chosen is clear: inspired by the Bucks County masters and the artists of the New Hope impressionist school featured at the Michener Art Museum, his works are deeply expressionistic and seek to inspire thought about American cultural values. His bold use of color may have emerged from his first sources of inspiration: museums in the Mediterranean and the United Kingdom that he visited during his two-year stint in the Navy. The natural beauty of Bucks County, too, plays a role in his work. He loves “the fields, the forests, the water, the barns, the bridges, the people, the history.”
“Art gives me a focus, a purpose. It fulfills my need to express myself. It is gratifying to share my work with other people. The feedback is positive and inspiring.”
Jeff has been active in the Bucks County gallery circuit for the past four years, and his success is all the more impressive because he’s almost entirely self-taught – except, of course, for classes at the Michener Art Museum and Bucks County Community College. He values the Michener Museum’s dedication to creating an environment for artists of all abilities to explore Bucks County art and to develop their skills in a community atmosphere. This appreciation for community has also led Jeff to volunteer at the Michener Museum, the Mercer Museum & Library, the food pantry in Doylestown, and the NOVA thrift shop in Perkasie.
“People get energized when they are with me; they pick up on my pace and energy, and it inspires them.”
Why did Jeff pick up a paintbrush after retirement? He “needed to express [himself] in a visible, tangible way.” As an artist, he can work independently, find purpose, and come to understand himself more fully as a person. For Jeff, visual art is a way to express his authentic self. His advice for fellow artists is simple: always see the glass as half full, be open to experimentation, be persistent, do not get discouraged.
Sometimes, you just have to keep on dancing.