Omaha’s Own Da Vinci
Sep 22, 2018 11:31AM
By Kamrin Baker
A draft of a painting, “The Narcissist’s Sister,” aims to depict a culture of self obsession, even before the invention of the selfie. And, leaning against the narrow hallway, it makes it impossible for everyone to fit.
Upon entering the home, a small crowd has formed: There’s Omaha’s Leonardo da Vinci (or Stephen Cornelius Roberts, as he is more commonly known), his wife, Anne—and the naked woman on the wall.
Moving into the living room, stacks of books detailing the lives of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and other masters act as vertebrae to the home veiled in classic art. Beside the fireplace is a landscape painting by Roberts himself, and a pristine bust of the Greek god Mercury. Roberts’ artwork also covers the walls of adjoining hallways and rooms. His estate is half-home, half-studio, and it smells just like the Joslyn Museum.
Roberts says he needs to paint his large-scale portraits horizontally so everything fits in and out of his home. But in his ornate wooden chair, he remains vertical, his lean physique acting to balance the lines of the books towering behind him.
“Every individual is worthy of portraiture,” Roberts says. “The Greeks had a focus on idealism, but no human is a Greek sculpture.”
He’s not interested in that.
“What I paint is a likeness of someone,” he says. “If they have a mark on their cheek in a photo, they will have a mark on their cheek in the painting. The most valuable thing is that they’re real and alive, they have spirit.”
Roberts is best known in Nebraska for his murals in the State Capitol Building. The eight massive paintings reside in the Memorial Chamber and depict the heroism of Nebraska’s public servants. The murals feature more than 100 individual portraits of real Nebraskan people—none figments of Roberts’ imagination—installed at the capitol in 1996.
“The Nebraska Capitol was my most rewarding project because it is a show that goes up and never comes down,” Roberts says. “It will be there when I am long gone.”
Other notable paintings signed and sealed with Roberts’ name can be found all across the state. Some include portraits of important donors and chancellors whose headshots adorn buildings at the UNO, UNMC, and UNL campuses. Two landscapes hang in Methodist Health West, and other commissioned pieces reside in Norfolk Veterans Home, Lakeside Hospital, The Buffett Cancer Center, and even a local YMCA.
While the figures in Roberts’ capitol murals are dressed in appropriate attire—firemen, townspeople, doctors, and more—he also endeavors to celebrate human beings through nude figure painting. Many of his non-commissioned works are executed in a way that, in his words, displays the “purest form of the human being,” although he will admit that the concept requires a deep maturity.
“We need to get people out of the secular view and into the idea that this is simple humanity,” Roberts says. “It is the beauty of a form, the beauty of imperfection. People who can’t appreciate that have an eighth-grade attitude. It’s not lewd or crude, just nude.”
Roberts also goes on to say that those who pose for nude figure paintings are conscious of what they’re doing. “It’s not a keyhole nude,” he says. “They know you are looking at them, and they are well aware that you are in front of them. It’s about what people reveal.”
The Roberts kids, Adam (27) and Meredith (24), are also well aware of their surroundings, raised in a home filled with nude oil paintings created by their dad. To many kids, that might have been embarrassing. But for Adam and Meredith, the exposure was inspirational.
“Growing up with my dad as an artist has put me in a place where I am always looking at art,” Adam says. “I don’t really think of the nudes as anything because it’s just classic art. I got a partial art history degree because of my dad, and I know that I’m able to do what I want to do because he did what he wanted to do.”
Continuing to be driven by a familial zeal for creativity, Adam and Meredith produce artwork and music, the latter a close second on Roberts’ list of passions. In fact, he pursued a music career before venturing into art, but now finds himself playing drums or guitar with friends only two or three times a week.
Still, Anne says he could pick up drumsticks to back Paul McCartney tomorrow.
“Music is a very important part of my craft,” Roberts says. “I was as much interested in being a musician as I was an artist. I still write and record music for myself.”
His fondness and savvy for appealing to the senses has taken Roberts across the country with his art. A partnership with the Allan Stone Gallery in New York gave him an East Coast presence and allowed for extended shows in cities like Miami and San Francisco. With his name on the tongues of big city elites and other esteemed artists, it leaves one to wonder: Why Omaha? Why Nebraska, of all places?
Roberts says: “I like the lifestyle here. People are more important to me than anything else, so my family and friends were really in front of career. If you want to get the biggest thing and have the most connections, you live in New York.”
He wasn’t willing to do that.
“And I like it in this house,” he says. “I tell people I’d like to be carried out feet first.”
Roberts’ current project is a reflection of his local affection, as he has been a visiting artist for the past few years at UNO.
The project—a portrait of a woman sitting on the floor, directly staring into the eyes of the viewer—is his first foray into lithography.
While Roberts works on creating the lithograph by freehand, students often drop in to watch his process. He says it has become a forum for them to observe a professional and discuss the art industry in general.
A culminating gallery exhibition of the printed work is scheduled for this fall at UNO, and Roberts says student participation and attendance will be a component of the show.
A former Benson Bunny and UNO Maverick, Roberts is proud of his roots—and proud of the family tree he’s grown. Anne takes half the credit, though, as she has worked as his public relations agent and life partner for 38 years.
“I love being along for the ride,” Anne says. “I love him. He’s everything in my life. I just want to support him in what he does best, and I think we make a pretty good team.”
“Yes,” Roberts says. “And if we don’t sell [the artwork], I’d have to get a desk job. And I don’t want to get another job. I like to sleep until noon.”
They smile at each other, a small laugh rippling through the room. The couple is aglow in the life they’ve built together, and it seems, in that moment, in some corner of the world, all the people behind the paintings are smiling, too.
Visit stephencorneliusroberts.com for more information.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.