Malkia Roberts, a Washington-born artist and art educator for more than 40 years, said that if sentenced to a room where she could have only one of her paintings, her choice would be "Out of the Blues," a forceful abstract of swirling hues of blue punctuated with geometric motifs.
"It's closer to me emotionally than anything I've ever done," said Roberts, who mostly paints abstracts. "The juices just seemed to come out and flow; it just seemed to come straight out. It is one of the most major pieces which confirms my identity."
The painting is among 18 works by Roberts now on display at the Bethune Museum-Archives, chronicling her artistic and personal development.
As a Washingtonian born and reared in the Shaw area, it seems fitting that Roberts' works, several of which are drawn from the city, should be exhibited just two blocks from the Victorian house at 13th and Q streets NW where the artist grew up.
"There's one, 'Spring Horizon,' which reflects the feelings that one would get in spring in Washington," said Roberts, 67, pointing to an abstract watercolor done in greens with brushes of yellow and blue to suggest a sense of growth in a pastoral scene.
She described "Winter Sun," a crisp abstract watercolor done this year, as a vignette depicting the tall buildings of Washington's rapidly changing skyline at sunset. The painting is done on cool blocks of blues with a golden sun in the center.
"Sounds of the City," a lively, lyrical watercolor in a strong horizontal movement of blues interrupted with vertical strokes in orange, abstracts the fabric of Washington life. "I enjoy the cities -- people on the street, the music blaring -- it's really very exciting," said Roberts. "I'm a child of the city and the city is D.C."
"Out of the Blues," "Spring Horizon," and "Winter Sun," were recently purchased by Spelman College in Atlanta for the school's new Living and Learning Center, a building dedicated to creative black women, according to Roberts.
Roberts, a diminutive woman with a large, unpretentious smile, owns her childhood home at 1219 Q St. NW. It is a brick, four-story corner house that has been converted into three apartments and into office space occupied by her estranged husband, Dr. Andrew Roberts.
The artist and a younger brother were brought up by their father, Dr. Jackson Davis, a dentist who had his office at the house for 20 years. Her father also taught dentistry at Howard, she said. "He worked at the Old Patent Office at Eighth and G streets NW as a guard at night while attending dental school," Roberts said. "He was a very well-known part of the Washington community and as a dentist did a lot for organized dentistry."
Her mother, a District elementary school teacher, died of a heart ailment when Roberts was 8.
As the daughter of a dentist and a Howard professor, Roberts grew up as part of Washington's black elite, but she said she was not fazed by it.
"We are a part of all that we have been and, even though I grew up as a part of this, my father was so down to earth he was always instilling in me, 'don't let it go to your head, keep your feet on the ground,' " Roberts said. "I was in it high society , but not of it," she added.
She went to Garrison Elementary School, then Dunbar High School, and completed the fine arts program at Howard University at the age of 19. She later received a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan and studied at New York University.
Her first name was then Lucille, but during a trip to Tanzania she took the new name "Malkia," which means "black and queenly" in Swahili, she said.
Roberts is a professor of painting and design at Howard, where she has taught for the past nine years. She said her long teaching career began in 1936 as a means of economic survival and included nearly 30 years in the District public school system.
"I wanted to be a painter," said Roberts, seated on a wicker hassock in the sunlit living room of her two-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring -- an address now cheaper than a home in the city. "But my father said there was no money in it -- and there still isn't."
During the 1970s Roberts taught black art history at the State University of New York and at American University. In addition, she cohosted a black life educational series for Baltimore's public broadcasting station, she said.
She now lives with two cats, surrounded by lush green plants, vivid paintings, an entire wall of African masks, life-size sculptures and a large collection of unusual artifacts from around the world.
"As I look back on my life, I guess you would have to say I was artist, slash, teacher because both of them were equally as important," Roberts said. She added, "My greatest legacy is my paintings and my students."
The paintings will be displayed at the Bethune Museum, 1318 Vermont Ave. NW until Feb. 15. The museum is open Monday-Friday, 10-4:30 and Saturday and Sunday by appointment for tours. For information call 234-4076.