Edie Roberson was at work until the end. When she died on August 14th, 2014, at the age of 85, a large canvas with multiple figures sat on her easel. It was her latest work-in-progress, coming just a few months after a March exhibit at David Ericson Fine Art calledPaintings: Old & New.
But since Roberson so enjoyed what she did, work might not be the correct term. Maybe we should say she was at play until the end. With her toys and friends, the historical icons, geisha girls, comic book classics and all manner of furry things that populated her paintings, as well as the tricycles, motorbikes and more than one old rusty bus.
Born in Wilmington, Del., in 1929, Roberson grew up wanting to be an illustrator. Her home was near that of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, himself a student of the equally famous Howard Pyle, and Roberson said she dreamed of studying with Wyeth. Before she could muster the courage to approach the artist, however, he was killed in a train accident and she ended up studying with another Pyle student, Charles McClelland, before moving on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia when she was 18. Painting there every day, she soon forgot about illustration and focused on fine art. Though she was at the academy for four and a half years, she never took a degree (documents weren’t required to paint in those days, she would remark). When she married, and had three children, her career was left to simmer, though she continued to exhibit, first along the East Coast, and later in the West.
In 1960 the family moved to Salt Lake City, where the sagebrush and redrock were a shock to someone raised amid rolling green hills; but Roberson quickly became addicted to the West, and enjoyed painting the formations of Canyonlands and Arches beneath her iconic floating vehicles.
As her family matured, Roberson became an increasingly visible member of the local art community. For years she showed with Dolores Chase Fine Art, and since Chase’s retirement in the early aughts has shown with David Ericson. For four decades she has been a staple of the local scene, garnering awards at numerous major exhibitions. Her retrospective at the City Library during the 2010 Utah Arts Festival secured her place as one of the state’s most respected and admired artists. The following year she received official recognition for her work with a Governor’s Mansion Artist Award from the state of Utah.
She could paint almost anything, from impressionistic landscapes to hyper-realistic still-lifes (and was amazingly adept in three dimensions as well). She is frequently called a trompe l’oeil artist, and she certainly had the skill to fool the eye, but there is more fantasy than realism in her works. The antique toys she painted were precisely rendered, but were usually seen flying across a whimsical cloudscape. She could reproduce Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington or Botticelli’s Flora with great accuracy, but the delight from her paintings was when she crammed these together with Betty Boop or Little Orphan Annie.
As Geoff Wichert has written in these pages, “Edie Roberson is the sort of painter who would rather not settle for one accomplishment when she can manage three, or six, or so many that viewers may never spot them all, let alone count them, even as she makes an audience feel that far from showing off, she just wants to share the fun she gets from looking closely at things and seeing how they fit together.”
All Roberson’s works are filled with a joie de vivre. She liked having fun, and saw no reason why there shouldn’t be humor in art. She bristled, though, at the idea that her works might be considered “cutesy.” Perceptive critics noted the difference. Frank McEntire, writing for The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995, said Roberson “gives the object in her paintings — mostly well-worn clothes and old toys — a different dimensionality than what is found in today’s popular Magic Eye 3-D teasers. She dismisses visual-foolery painting techniques and her proficient skills target the observer’s inner eye as she moves deeper into surreal territory.”
The older Roberson got, the younger she seemed. Her last years were filled with vigor, and a glint illuminated her eye as she talked about traveling the country with her boyfriend, or took on one art project after another. In 2007 she was the oldest artist in the 337 Project, but you wouldn’t have known it by her youthful embrace of the project. She painted two figures for the SLC Pepper Mural in Salt Lake City, and was one of the founders of the Call Box Project, a British telephone booth turned art venue that is on display in The Leonardo.
Her last years were filled with a spirit of adventure that animates many of her paintings. In “Tip Top Tours,” a vintage bus spurts smoke out of its exhaust as it climbs a hill outside what looks like Capitol Reef. Inside, a host of characters including Mona Lisa and Felix the Cat stretch their heads out the windows, wave flags and snap photographs. It’s a party van, the kind Edie Roberson always traveled in, and the kind we were lucky enough to catch a ride on for the past half century.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.