The Rapidian

Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery nurtures local art and places

Reb Roberts provides artists of no formal training with a supportive environment and uses art as a placemaker to rejuvenate communities.
Underwriting support from:

Where to see Reb Roberts' work during ArtPrize

Installation piece on The Tube

WHERE: 106 1/2 South Division

WHEN: September 18 - October 6. 

Reb Roberts of Sanctuary Folk Art in front of a recent collaboration

Reb Roberts of Sanctuary Folk Art in front of a recent collaboration /Emilie Pichot

The Sanctuary Folk Art storefront

The Sanctuary Folk Art storefront /Emilie Pichot

The interior of Sanctuary Folk Art gallery on South Division

The interior of Sanctuary Folk Art gallery on South Division /Emilie Pichot

Sanctuary Folk Art has been on South Division for 14 years. It opened up at 140 South Division in 1999 when there were no retail businesses along the street. Husband and wife Reb Roberts and Carmella Loftis own the gallery and manage it.

The name was selected after a bad experience in Roberts' hometown of New Orleans. Roberts and Tom Duimstra, his mentor, were part of a show at a gallery called "Peligro," which means "danger" in Spanish. The owners didn't pay them for all the work they sold. So when Duimstra and Roberts moved to Grand Rapids and opened up a gallery, they decided to name it the opposite of danger: sanctuary.

The gallery sells folk art, or what can also be called visionary, outsider, intuitive or self-taught art. In essence, it's art made by artists from Michigan and mostly Grand Rapids who have not had any formal training.

"We have had shows with artists who have a lot of formal training but we usually don't represent them on a regular basis," says Roberts. "We kind of stay true to that commitment."

Roberts is dedicated to representing the underdogs of the art world. He is grateful for the support he's been given and has many hopes for the future. The community has the power to change the art world and support local artists, he says.

"I think that there are some people that realize that art is art and they don't distinguish between the fine art world and the other worlds that art encompasses," shares Roberts. "It can be elitist in some ways. I think there's a lot of politics involved in museums. I think there's a lot of politics in the art world, too. I'm hoping that at some point that there's dialogue about that in this community. But there's some ground to travel to get to that museum. I think if one of the art institutions could catapult some local artists to a level this could become a destination. The only way that's going to happen is if they free up some of that wall space. You can see a Warhol show 20 places in the world. Why not do the same thing and take this community and bump it up?"

He believes that there is enough money in the community. The only problem, he says, is people are not sure what to invest in.

"As long as you're able to support those artists they'll continue to do the work that helps this community be that much more alive. The only reason why there are things like ArtPrize is because those artists, when everything was boarded up even before I came down here, were down here working,” says Roberts. “Those are people who have never gotten any recognition and probably never will because most of them came off the street. But there was already some activity. I think people need to realize that they should budget a certain amount for contributing back to help support that community financially. It's not asking that much to go to an event or go to an opening."

Roberts sees art as extremely necessary in education.

"The shame is that they've taken arts and music out of a lot of school districts and it's going to backfire in the long run. They think they have a problem with the penal systems now. But if you take that away from young children, they're going to have no other alternative but to be in trouble," says Roberts.

Roberts believes that people might be born an artist but admits to the transformative powers of life experiences.

"I think also it's who you meet. That kind of taps in. People mentored you in a lot of different things and I think you could be attracted to someone who is creative and you start to develop your creativity,” he says. “I actually believe it's kind of an evolution. Some people do have that gift right away, but they might not even choose that somewhere along the line.”

Roberts himself primarily paints. His style is greatly inspired by children's artwork and collaboration with other artists. He started out doing work on the street. Some of his work can be seen on a Wealthy Street storefront and the switchboxes for the red lights on Lake Dr near Brandywine restaurant. On South Division, he did work on all the storefronts that were boarded up before the businesses moved in. He is an ardent believer in the placemaking power of urban art.

"In areas that were really depressed and nothing was going on and everything was boarded up,” Roberts says, “once you put a piece up on a storefront, people start to pay attention."

Roberts used art to reignite the street. He was not sad to see his art go once businesses started moving in because "the intent was to have things happen," he says.

Sanctuary Folk Art Gallery currently has about a dozen artists selling work.

Artists are the best at bringing other artists to his gallery, Roberts says. And the artists that do sell work with him are extremely motivated.

"Most of the artists I work with, they're going to make work whether they sell it or not. It's just the way they are,” he says. “It's great when they sell stuff but they're not going to stop and wait for me to sell two pieces. That's basically what you need to be creative is that you have to have the energy to do it. And then you have to have the discipline to do it, too. Everything's a practice. You have to practice. Otherwise it's never going to get done if you don't just do it."

Roberts knows artists who admit that they can't have a family, a car, and can't sleep because they are so dedicated to their work.

"Their life is a piece of art. They are a piece of art. I think it's that energy and that drive and all the experiences of being an artist. It accumulates and it takes up a lot of room in your life," he says.

"In my life it's everywhere,” says Roberts. “That's it. It's everywhere. It's all encompassing."

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