Tucked away in Hunters Point along the San Francisco Bay sits the Chez Rhonel art gallery, a space bursting with color on canvas from the hands of artist and entrepreneur Rhonel Roberts. Roberts is a Stockon, California native who relocated to San Francisco in 2003 and has been operating Chez Rhonel at a former U.S. Navy shipyard since 2013.
Roberts’ art breathes life into stories that stretch from African American history to French culture with pieces that depict Basquiat and Rosa Parks while exploring themes of oppression, justice, and healing. “In my meditations, I say, ‘Lord what were you thinking when you created me? What were your intentions for me? I know it was good. I know it was out of your love, so let me fully please you by walking in that and living my life in what you intended for me then you’ll know that I am living my life on purpose. The response I got was ‘In the beginning, I created and I am a creator.' We are not limited with what we can do because we’re co-creators with God.”
Roberts is an entrepreneur who has worked as an Apple Store Creative since 2016. “I would draw on iPads and teach sessions on how Apple products can be used creatively. My artistic instincts kept pulling me to create my own art through my own voice,” he says. Chez Rhonel is where he gets to express his God-given ability boundlessly. He has the freedom to go as far as he wants to go and create joy. He worked with his manager to go from full-time at Apple to part-time in 2016 to further develop his art business.
French culture and language bring much joy to Roberts as he visits Paris as frequently as possible to stay at a friend’s flat where he leaves a bit of oil or a treat to say thank you. Images of Paris and French motifs appear in his work such as a magazine caption piece that places colorful depictions of cotton over an image of an enslaved African that caught his eye in a French magazine. The presence of cotton in Roberts’ work has come about through a special collection called Le Coton.
“We all know about the horrific, horrendous challenge of slavery and how that demeaned the lives of African Americans in this country. At the end of Black History Month, I went and purchased from a florist a cotton twig. I brought it to my studio and sat with it privately and reflected on it. When I walked in the room and closed the door, I took the cellophane off of it. As soon as I unwrapped it and grabbed it, the thorns stuck in my hand. It startled me. I thought ‘This is what little Black girls and boys felt, Black men and women felt all the time. Picking cotton in the hot sun in the South and the burden of that, understanding that they were not valued as humans, that it was all about the cotton.’ I sat in this room and I just began to weep that our country and its infrastructure was built on the backs of Black slaves.”
Roberts put a roll of water color paper on the wall in the studio and began to sketch. He didn’t have any particular form or structure in the drawing. He was just sketching and it ended up being the cotton plant. He then began to add different colors to this cotton plant. “This design could be a motif for healing, celebration, and the future. I came up with Le Coton Collection. The inspiration of the name was from this image from a French magazine. It was called Le Coton and I thought that’s what I’ll call it. I’ll call my collection Le Coton.”
Le Coton includes a painting of Rosa Park’s mugshot. Roberts added his pattern design of cotton onto her attire in the image. The bight color choices evoke the the artist’s intention of transforming the object of cotton from a damaging tool into a one for healing and wholeness.
Roberts’ bright colors appear across much of his artwork, such as the travel posters featuring San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Filmore District, the Marina, and the Pink Ladies—an iconic image made world-famous in the television show Full House. His posters have been sold and placed in the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Hospitals, Kaizer Permanente campuses, and Chestnut Street.
“I contend that San Francisco is the bookend to Paris. After reading about how much money is made on tourism here, I thought to myself why hasn’t any artist just made art about San Francisco? I wanted to do a travel poster. I had to use masking tape, a ruler, items that make things simple in their composition.”
A couple from London saw Roberts’ travel poster of the Marina hanging at Chestnut Street and wanted to find the original, so they reached out to him. “They said we’re moving back to London but we want to take San Fransisco with us.” His poster of Bayview Hunters Point has been commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Filmore poster has a special place in his heart. “Filmore is the neighborhood that’s known for Jazz, Black music, and culture.” He shared that the instruments which appear on the poster are stamps.
Roberts feels blessed to make a living pursuing what he loves. “My artwork has thankfully funded my life here in San Francisco so that I can work part-time and have different collaborations with companies. I think it has everything to do with being consistent with your art and your passion.”
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