Artist Ed Roebuck, in town for an opening of his drawings and paintings, was standing outside the Raku Gallery on Seventh Street NW, having his picture taken when a bum sauntered up and demanded: "Take my picture, too!"
"Sure," said Roebuck with a smile, and had the man join him while the photographer clicked off pictures of the two with their arms on each other's shoulders.
Then the fellow said to the nattily dressed Roebuck, "Hey man, I ain't never had nothing in my life. How about 50 cent?"
Roebuck laughed. "How about a dollar?" he asked, digging into his pocket. The man grinned: "That'd be just fine."
But the embarrassed artist didn't have a dollar, and some of those who had come to Roebuck's opening had to come to his rescue, supplying change to satisfy the beggar.
Ed Roebuck has a showing of his work at the Raku now, and his drawings and paintings are scheduled to be shown on Capitol Hill beginning July 13. And Harvard University is flirting with including his work in a January 1983 exhibit that will feature the work of four white artists who specialize in portraying black Americans.
Yet the Virginia Beach artist isn't all that better off financially than the beggar. Unable for 20 years to earn a living through his art, Roebuck last December spray-painted big, black Xs across 64 of his drawings and paintings as they hung in a Norfolk gallery. The X was born in a fit of despair. A lien had just been placed on the paintings, which were to be auctioned off to pay $1,200 in back rent. The X, he said, represented "20 years of trying to earn a living at what I like, 20 years that ended in a scream."
The X made Roebuck, the unknown, struggling artist, a celebrity. His story was told on the network news and in The Washington Post and The New York Times. His tantrum became a statement, his art a novelty. In a single week, he sold $7,000 worth--33 paintings and drawings in all--almost as much as in his most successful year, 1971, when he sold $10,000 worth of his art. "They bought my acts of hate," he said. "But they wouldn't buy my acts of love. I thought they were good enough before I X'd them."
The soft-spoken 43-year-old artist--dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, brown pants, maroon shirt and red socks ("They give me energy") for his opening--looks more like the construction worker he has been for much of his life. He has a tired face but lively eyes, which hint at the determination that has kept him trying to support his family from his art since he graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1963.
He never has, and the X incident didn't change that. Half the $7,000 he made went to the gallery (which folded a few months later). The other $3,500 went to pay bills. And sales dried up quickly, leaving only a residue of voyeuristic curiosity. The stories about Roebuck focused on the Xs almost to the exclusion of the art over which they were sprayed. "The whole thing turned our lives upside down," said Gloria Roebuck, the artist's business manager and wife of 19 years. "I mean, we didn't know where our next loaf of bread was coming from, but the phone was ringing off the hook."
Roebuck's current financial situation is more desperate than that which provoked the Xs. "I haven't had an income since the December show," he said. "My family's been supporting me, giving me a hundred a week since then; they loaned me their car, and my mother let us move in with her. We sold all our furniture at garage sales. All we have left is clothes and hope."
The December tantrum is not Ed Roebuck's style. His style is photographically realistic pencil drawings: an old black man taking a deep pull from a Coke bottle (called "The Provider"), a young black girl ("Thirteen"), two ostrich heads that evoke Escher ("Heads Up Decade"). Of necessity he has had to work blue collar jobs during the week and to paint and draw on the weekends, trying to get together enough art for a show, enough momentum for a career.
Between shows at small galleries around the South, the ex-Marine has held 31 jobs--carpenter, Culligan man, bulldozer driver, discount drug store manager, asphalt plant operator, plasterer. "I can build a house from scratch," he said. But "my goal is to make a living off what holds my interest--art. . . . You have to follow your talent. You're going to be miserable doing anything other than what you were designed to do. . .
"I don't have any big ambitions, all I ever wanted to be was a local artist, living by the roadside, selling the things I make."
The Raku show features the 31 pieces left from the X-ing incident, and those same pieces will be displayed on Capitol Hill in the rotunda of the Cannon Office Building July 13 under the sponsorhip of D.C. Rep. Walter Fauntroy and Rep. William Whitehurst (R.-Va.). Roebuck says he hopes these pieces sell soon so he can put the X behind him and try selling his acts of love again. "I see this art as marred, as defaced," he said. "I'll be glad when the X is over."
The owner of the Raku, Rod Donahue, arranged not only the show at the Raku but the Capitol Hill exhibit as well. Donahue met Roebuck when the artist wandered into the Raku after an unsuccessful show at the Slavin Gallery half a block away in February. "I'd seen the national TV story about him," said Donahue, "and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought, 'Wow, I wish I'd thought of that.'
"He came in, we talked, we became real quick friends and, when the exhibit up the street failed, I offered to handle him as an exhibit and a long-term marketing agency. I felt like I could do Ed a little good. I admire his guts."
Jim Slavin, owner of the Slavin Gallery, thinks Roebuck should be able to earn a living off his art. "A lot of the pencil drawing that he does, a lot of the figurative work, is very good. I don't think the lack of turnout at the Slavin show had anything to do with the credibility of Ed's work as an artist." It likely had more to do with lack of publicity and a snowstorm the day of the auction, according to Slavin.
Roebuck is philosophic, cautiously optimistic about the future. He is branching out, working on abstract painting and planning some sculpture that he hopes will "call attention to the power of human thought." The X-ing incident and the attention it got, Roebuck says, "made me examine my motives. I didn't realize how powerful a picture could be. I realized you better be rightly motivated--motivated to serve. Art's function is to give hope. The greatest art gives the greatest hope."