Bringing her vision to our eyes

Teen: She may be only 18, but Nicole Roberts brings a lot of artisitic sensibilities to her paintings and her films. The NAACP thinks so too and honored her in both categories.

July 11, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

There wasn't even any film in the camcorder, remembers Nicole Roberts' mother, Brenda. But that minor technicality didn't stop 11-year-old Nicole and her neighborhood buddies from taping - or pretending to tape - "Monsters in the Woods," which they had written, cast and rehearsed.

By then, Nicole had already distinguished herself as a visual artist. When she was little, she drew people proportionately with heads, necks, arms and shoulders, while her friends drew stick figures. At Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, a teacher told Brenda E. Roberts that her daughter "really had it."

Later, as a 10th grader at Carver Center for Art and Technology, Nicole rediscovered her passion for video even as she continued to draw and paint.

Last weekend, 18-year-old Nicole and her tandem gifts were affirmed on a national scale when she received two gold medals - in the video and painting categories - during the Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) at the NAACP Convention. Roberts and four other Baltimore-area medalists were among 800 teen-agers from across the country competing in 25 categories that ranged from art and dance to chemistry and entrepreneurship. Roberts, who lives in Randallstown, received $1,000 with each medal, a matching donation from the Ronald McDonald House Charities and a laptop computer from State Farm Insurance Companies.

The oil painting Roberts submitted as her winning entry is a self portrait, with her face partly in shadow, and a glimpse of her mother, who is turned away from her. For Roberts, who has three older half-brothers and will enter Northwestern University as a film major this fall, the painting speaks of the bittersweet experience of leaving home. But she hesitates to name the piece, lest the title rob viewers of their own interpretation.

"The Dare," Roberts' winning video, explores "the subject of guilt; if you're really guilty for things out of your control," and the "battle between your conscience and perspective of the way things really are."

The plot, in brief: "A boy can't fall asleep, so he goes to the kitchen and makes a little meal for himself. During the cooking process, he's thinking about the time he dared his friend to climb a tree," Roberts relates. As he recalls how the friend tumbled from the tree, an egg rolls metaphorically off the counter.

In the video, Roberts brought to bear her artistic sensibilities. "Especially in this medium, it is all about the visuals," she says. "You really have to convey what you mean through the shots that you choose."

Her decision to use black and white tape heightened the emotional distress of sleeplessness and brooding, which occurs under a harsh kitchen light in the middle of the night.

"The Dare" is "so obviously not the piece of an artist who is still struggling to understand the technical aspects of the medium or who still doesn't understand enough film theory to put together a story," says Lee Boot, a video artist and founder of Carver's Telemedia department, where he taught Nicole. "It is so much more the piece of a filmmaker; it's sensitive and it's complex and it uses the language in a way that's poetic and it's technically transparent."

Although she paints in her home studio, Roberts' love of the easel has been eclipsed to a certain extent by film's potential for touching "the masses." At some point during her high school years, she also realized she wanted to do more than create static images; she wanted to tell stories.

"I don't know when I began to realize the element of the story was a crucial part of my artwork," she says. "I know it happened, and once I realized it, I pushed it to the limit and tried to examine it."

She says film and video "pack more of a wallop than a book or a novel can," or for that matter, a work of visual art. "It takes a really intuitive and deep person to be moved by a painting," Roberts says.

Roberts' developing narrative skills profited from her observations of others, "seeing how people interact, asking questions, examining the human soul and psyche and what compels people and how their actions work in the big scope of things."

As a filmmaker, she's not aiming for small art houses. She wants her work to have a big audience and a mainstream - but not salacious - appeal. "The going idea in mainstream film is that sex and violence sell. I don't believe it has to necessarily," she says.

Roberts, who was also a finalist last January in a competition sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts, hopes to affect what the general public seeks from its entertainment. Employing her perspective as a young black woman with a message, she hopes to undercut the superficial, shoot-'em-up mentality of so much television and film.

For too long, she says, the media has been controled by people "who have their own fears" that honest, intuitive art can't succeed. "They do what they do because they want to survive."

She seeks nothing less than readjusting our expectations for popular culture. "I like challenges," Roberts explains. "I believe big things could happen. It's a very spiritual thing for me to achieve something like that."

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