The Cummer Museum in Jacksonville shines a light on black children

You have to look very closely at the artwork in “Deborah Roberts: I’m” to tell what’s painted and what’s pasted.

Roberts’ show runs at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens until December 4. The show features large multimedia portraits of black children, with their bodies painted on canvas and their faces reconstructed from color and black-and-white photos, all set against a plain white background.

Another series from the show uses the same technique, but places it on a black background. A third is made up of enlarged printouts of black names that Roberts typed into a word-processing program, only to have them flagged with wavy red underlines that denote a spelling or grammatical error.

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Roberts, from Austin, Texas, is an old friend of Cummer CEO Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, who called the artwork beautiful and intricate but also a bit difficult to see.

Roberts said the show is an effort to combine American history, art history, black history and pop culture. The children in the paintings often strike striking poses, trying to find their own identity. The idea, she said, is to show “what it means to be an ‘I’ and not an ‘we’.”

She said it didn’t even start as a show, just a collection of plays in her Texas studio. “I don’t work for shows,” Roberts said during a media preview of the show. “I’m just a working artist.”

Artist Deborah Roberts answers questions about her work during a tour of her exhibition "Deborah Roberts: I am".

Pieces featuring black children are meant to be thought-provoking, said Roberts, who was one of the first children bused to a desegregated school in his hometown of Austin. The children’s faces are assembled from photos of several different people and all look straight out of the canvas. Those on a white background are particularly striking. “We move around in white space all the time,” Roberts said. “Whiteness is important for the image.”

Roberts’ work is catching on – the Jacksonville show is the fourth and final show on this tour and the only one on the East Coast. Beyonce, Jay Z and Barack and Michelle Obama own original works by Deborah Roberts and she sold $187,000 worth of art in three days at a gallery show in New York.

Success brought problems, however. Other artists noticed his work and copied his style. “I’m not even dead yet and they’re copying my work,” she said.

Deborah Roberts: I am

Until Sunday, December 4 at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

$15 museum admission, free from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the first Saturday of each month

• Let’s talk! 904ward Race Cards Conversation, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 11

• Look at this! Noon Wednesday October 12

• Elevated Voices for Healing — Art as a System of Support Roundtable, 6 p.m. Tuesday, November 15

• Youth workshop Perception, Poetry & Pivot with Taryn Wharwood, 12:30 p.m. Saturday November 5

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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