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Meet Rhonel Roberts, Painting The City From Hayes Valley

If you've stopped in at La Boulange in Hayes Valley recently, you may have noticed a selection of colorful paintings of local scenes. They're the work of nearby resident and artist Rhonel Roberts. We caught up with him to talk about his work and his view of the neighborhood.

One of the La Boulange paintings. 

Roberts is approachable and unassuming, an easy guy to talk to even with his growing popularity. Lately, he's been selling cards of his neighborhood series at boutiques. “You won’t believe what happened!”, he said. “I got approached by a guy who saw my neighborhood cards and wants to carry them in his shop.”

As it turns out, this wasn’t just any shop: it was Papyrus, the greeting card company. “And on Good Friday!”

Finding His Calling

Roberts is a native Californian. In the 1980s he moved to the Bay Area from French Camp, outside of Stockton. “It was started as a French fur-trading camp,” he explains. From a young age, Roberts was into art. “My 7th grade art teacher started me out on india ink. He encouraged me to use washes and textures. I liked it, but I loved color. But, it taught me how to shade and layer.”

From Roberts' city series. 

After attending the University of the Pacific in Stockton to pursue art, he landed a design job at Lockheed Martin. Eight years later, he was laid off, so he moved to San Francisco. But it wasn’t until 2001 that he decided to seriously commit to art, and finally found himself a studio. “I was like ‘Rhonel, you have a studio, you no longer have a hobby. This is my space, and this is where I create and sell.’”

There is a distinct Parisian influence in both the neighborhood series and his latest series on display at La Boulange, which is a modern take of Henri de Toulouse­-Lautrec’s work. In 2003, Roberts had the opportunity to travel to Paris, when his son was singing for the San Francisco Boys Chorus. It gave him the opportunity to see the work he’d long admired. “I’m heavily influenced by impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Lautrec,” he said.

From the La Boulange series. 

He returned to France in 2011. “I hung out a Versailles and saw how opulent it was. I thought, ‘Where can I find this in San Francisco?’” So when he came upon La Boulange, with its Parisian vibe, he made little paintings of the Eiffel Tower and asked to sell his paintings there, and the partnership began.

2011 was also the year he was picked to create the Fillmore Jazz Festival Poster. Graphic artist Michael Schwab of Golden Gate National Parks poster fame saw Roberts' work and recommended him for the work. “I haven’t actually met him," Roberts says of Schwab. "We’re email buddies. He’s very nice, but very busy ... He thought my style would work for the festival.”

Roberts' Jazz Festival poster.

He hopes to meet Michael so he can pick his brain. “I want to know how he built his business yet kept close to his personal style.”

Community Involvement

Roberts was working as a home decor specialist for Neiman Marcus when he moved to Hayes Valley seven years ago. “It taught me that I could create environments spatially.” So he started thinking about art in that manner. He’d go into wine shops and La Boulange and show them how to use art and color to warm up the space. He also started hosting workshops for companies to encourage team building through art, where people disconnect from their devices and connect to each other. He helps them create pieces in his distinct style which uses tape to introduce negative space and bold lines to the paintings.

Since then Roberts has been very involved in the neighborhood, especially with the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association's Arts committee. “It’s been great. Hayes Valley is an artistically creative neighborhood. We can depend on each other and support each other, that’s how it should be.”

But he’d like to see more in the area. “I’d love to work with the African American Arts and Culture Complex. To do a show there or make a poster for them. We don’t have enough African American images out there, especially of men. If you look around the neighborhood you don’t see that many men of color."

A painting of Ella Fitzgerald, for his upcoming series. 

One way he’s working on that is with his upcoming show, Colors of Africa, at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard Spring Open Studios. "It’s about us as African Americans embracing and taking pride in the mantle that was given to us as Africans. We were stripped of that, trying to figure out our identity.” The show will feature modern versions of African masks from different countries, exploring their meanings. “The continent is huge ... you have Egyptian masks, Botswanan, Congolese.” He’s still working out the juxtaposition of black American life versus modern African life.

Spring Open Studios run April 25-­26th from 11am-6pm at Chez Rhonel Gallerie, 2nd Floor Studio 222­3A. For more information on open studios or to book a workshop, or for general inquiries, contact Roberts at rhonelart {at} gmail {dot} com.

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