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Art puts disability in perspective, shaping a life


If all art is just a matter of drawing the line somewhere, then Tommy Roberts knows where he drew his: inside his head a long time ago, when the rest of the world began writing him off.

It's what the world does sometimes, strictly by reflex. Nothing personal, friend; it's just that you've got muscular dystrophy. Roberts contracted it when he was 9 years old, and within a year was confined to a wheelchair. The doctors figured he'd never see 30. His parents figured, he's going to live his life to the fullest. Nobody figured on art.

But there it is, newly displayed at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital: Roberts' pencil collage, "Negro League, The Men Who Made the Game," with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Monte Irvin, and so many of the great black baseball players America finally discovered in the late innings of their lives.

And there it was again, a few weeks ago at the city's Artscape Festival: Roberts' pencil sketches, and his pastels, and his oils, his visions of the jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae.

And there was Roberts, 34, flitting around on his wheelchair, signing autographs, selling his work, declaring his whole life open for business when a lot of people never imagined it could happen this way.

"The art has helped me deal with life," he says simply. "God blessed me with the talent, so I use it. It's my high."

Some would say, it's his miracle. Adopted when he was a year old by Willie and Flora Thomas, Roberts remembers feeling bitter and withdrawn as his body began to fail him. The other kids were ad-libbing their way across playgrounds. Roberts was sitting in his wheelchair, with his muscles in open rebellion. But he remembers his stepparents' "love and support growing stronger. was wondering why all this was happening to me. They did everything they could for me."

He started sketching television cartoons, and things he'd see outside his window -- trees and birds, the things most people take for granted. At William S. Baer High School, he learned about art, and about perspective.

"I'd look at some of the other kids," he remembers, "and realize my situation wasn't so bad. A lot of the kids had it a lot worse than I did. Autistic kids, kids with no control of their bodies and no way to communicate. A classmate who was paralyzed from the neck down. He wasn't giving up, so why should I?"

Also, there was an art teacher who told him, "You have a gift. Try to develop it." He wanted him to choose between art and drafting, which was no choice at all to Roberts.

"Art's more fun," he says. "Drafting, too mechanical. This is enjoyment from the heart. If I live to be 90, I can keep changing and improving."

It's heartening to hear such talk from someone the doctors once wrote off. Roberts says his muscle strength seems to have stabilized over the last 20 years. His hand muscles are fine, but his arms have limited range. When working large-scale, he uses his left hand to stabilize his right forearm.

"Nobody taught me that technique. It's just something I figured out along the way," Roberts says. "We all make different allowances with our lives. I can't walk, but I can hold onto something and stand a little bit. Not straight up, but I can stand. I take care of myself. I live independently. And I have this talent I can enjoy."

Plus, some pretty good city resources for research. He went to the Pratt Central Library to find photographs of the old Negro League stars, plus magazine pictures of the jazz musicians. Librarians helped him with computer searches and microfilm. Once they found the right collection of shots, Roberts says, "I didn't want just posing, I wanted emotions. I wanted to find their inner spirit."

It's a theme to which he wants to return. For his next project, he says he'll focus on "children. Togetherness. Kids of different races playing and working together, and forget all this hatred and jealousy. I want somebody to look at my art and say, 'That's the way it should be.' "

Why not? A lot of people are looking at Tommy Roberts and saying, That's the way life should be, when the world tries to write off a single person, and that person draws his own lines.

(Roberts' work is on sale at several area art and bookstores, or can be purchased by calling Roberts at 383-7056.)

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