Captured by the spirit of the West, in all its glory and infamy, Jack Roberts translated the story of the region into art for more than 50 years.
Now, western Garfield County residents can see a collection of his paintings, and to hear the stories behind those paintings from the artist's son, Gary Miller, owner of Miller's Dry Goods in downtown Rifle.
The brainchild of Alice Beauchamp, director of Colorado Mountain College ArtShare, the exhibit at the college's Rifle campus includes an interactive component. Viewers are invited to bring cell phones, so they can listen to Miller's narration about the origins of each work. For visitors without cell phones, loaners will be provided.
A troubled beginning
Jack Roberts was a self-professed "flawed character" whose struggle with alcohol plagued his early years. As a young man, he married a creatively gifted woman, fathered a son (Miller), then left the family and moved to western Colorado.
Miller was 20 when he first met his biological father in 1966. According to Miller, his father's greeting of "Do you drink?" was an expression of concern and perhaps a warning to his son.
"He didn't say hello," Miller explained, "just launched into his burning question. Jack dried out in 1962 and stayed that way. But that just shows you how much alcohol affected his life."
Over the years, Miller and Roberts developed a strong bond, and Miller now represents his father's paintings and manages his legacy.
"The longer he's dead, the more interested people are in his paintings," Miller noted. "Jack just won't go away. He's here to stay."
A prolific, driven talent
In his studio south of Redstone, Roberts created as many as 40 paintings a year. Public collections of his work can be seen at the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction, the Leanin' Tree Museum in Boulder, the Colorado Press Association in Denver, the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge and Spa of the Rockies, U.S. Bank and the Redstone Castle. The Citizen Telegram also has a few of Roberts' works hanging on the walls.
According to Miller, one reason for his father's prolific output was a tendency to become consumed by an idea that drove him to the canvas.
"He was kept awake by something that haunted him, and he couldn't sleep until he'd painted it," he said.
A knack for translating history into art
A few of Roberts' most renowned paintings on exhibit in Rifle capture the historic 1904 Parachute train robbery. Miller said that when he first told his father that David and Jeanette Truog wanted to commission a painting of the robbery, he responded: "I'm not painting any blankety-blank-blank train robbery."
A few weeks later, however, he called his son and said, "This train robbery interests me. But I can't do it with one painting. I need to do three."
Other works on display at the Rifle exhibit include historic paintings commissioned for an Equitable Life Insurance calendar, a 10-foot by 2-foot mural of a World War II scene discovered in the old Odd Fellows Lodge above what is now Downtown Drug in Glenwood Springs, and a cartoon Roberts drew when he was just 8 years old.
Miller also included a series of what he calls "really rough sketches" that illustrate his father's methods.
"He'd have these sketches all over the floor," he said, "and they'd be covered with grocery lists and footprints. A lot of them ended up in the fireplace. But toward the end of his career, I convinced him to save them."
Miller is hoping art students from CMC will come to the exhibit and see how "the process worked."
The exhibit is sponsored by Judith Hayward, and a free opening reception will be held Nov. 30, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Rifle campus, 3695 Airport Road. The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 25, 2013.