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Historical Society Opens Beverly Collins-Roberts Retrospective

By Hoag Levins ...| ...Feb. 16, 2003

CAMDEN, N.J. -- In an event marking Black History Month and the refurbishment of its gallery and auditorium space, the Camden County Historical Society yesterday opened a
Photo: Hoag Levins
Beverly Collins-Roberts' photography is featured in a month-long show at the Camden County Historical Society.

one-month exhibit of Beverly Collins-Roberts' photography.

Ms. Collins-Roberts is a Camden artist and cultural arts advocate whose retrospective of 24 years of work remains open to the public through March 15 in the Boyer building at Park Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in Parkside.

The afternoon's wine and cheese reception also featured a performance by Jazz Eternity, a Camden jazz band that played throughout the afternoon.

"I can't imagine a better way to reopen the Boyer Auditorium than with a happening as lively as this," said Society president Richard Pillatt during a break in the music that was itself a testament to the acoustical properties of the room's soaring arched ceiling.

Antique vases
The gallery display at one end was complemented by table and window arrangements of stargazer lillies, Fuji chrysanthemums and tightly-budded sunflowers in 19th-century oriental vases from the Society Museum's Victorian collection.

"I just couldn't believe it when I saw the flowers and the vases and the way this whole thing was set up," said Ms. Collins-Roberts.

The 53-year-old has long been featured in regional art shows as well as exhibits in New York City, California and Tokyo. Last February, she was one of one of 18 artists
Collins-Roberts' photo "Waiting" won a New York City show award and now sells as a poster.

whose works made up the Society's African American Experience Art Show. As a result, she was invited back for the solo "Photography of Beverly Collins-Roberts" exhibit.

Last year's show was staged in Pomona Hall, the adjacent restored 18th-century mansion that was once the home of Marmaduke Cooper, one of the area's richest land owners.

Historic mansion
"I remember when I came back to pick up my work after the 2002 show," said Ms. Collins-Roberts. "There was a vase of flowers sitting in one of those old windows and the light was hitting it just right and I thought, 'There's a picture,' but I didn't have my camera with me. I asked the museum curator, Judy Snyder, if I could come back and take some photos around Pomona Hall. There was something about it with its old floors and architectural detail and tall windows."

While some of the moody photographic studies of the mansion's attics and basements and storage spaces are part of Ms. Collins-Roberts' current exhibit, all her images of Pomona Hall will be featured in a separate CCHS Museum exhibit later this year.

"I was getting unusually strong feelings from the place as I roamed around, and then the curator told me that African slaves lived and worked here in the 1700s when this was the central mansion of a plantation that covered what is now Parkside," she said. "She even has some of the names of the slaves who worked here. That
Collins-Roberts' photo, "Journey Ends."

hit me like, 'Oh, wow,' in a way that is hard to describe."

Pomona Hall slaves
"Like most people in the area, I had no idea there were once slaves here; and as I wandered around the building after that, it gave me this strange feeling -- but it was kind of energizing when you knew that presence was here."

The photogapher, whose great-great grandfather was Philadelphia abolitionist and underground railroad activist William Still, has more than a passing interest in the history of slavery. "I remember years ago thinking about how I should see if there were any underground railroad connections to the Quakers who lived in Pomona Hall, but now I know they were some of the very last slave-holding Quakers."

"This has all been a real experience for me because when I was growing up, the Camden County Historical Society and Pomona Hall were not places that were inviting to black people. You could ride by on your bike but the only way you could get in was if your school brought you to see, like, the Campbell Soup exhibit or something. Pomona Hall was sitting here in our community but it wasn't ever really part of that community."

"That was why last year, when I brought in a few photos for that show, I wasn't sure what to expect," she said. "But it's like a different place now. Everyone I worked with has been so warm and welcoming and even the little things -- like the way they put in all these flowers today -- say something."

Self-taught photographer
Ms. Collins-Roberts, who is the mother of four, became interested in
"Matinee" by Beverly Collins-Roberts is an example of her focus on children as subjects.

photography as a nine-year-old when her mother gave her a Kodak Brownie camera. As a young woman, she studied and became certified as a computer programmer in Basic and Cobol before switching to photography as her full-time work. "It was what I loved to do most," she said. "But it wasn't easy. It's one thing to have an artistic eye and another to be organized enough to make a business of it. But photography has paid my bills for 24 years."

In recent years, she and her professional musician husband, Gerald Roberts, have turned their home on Kolo Street in Camden into a weekend school of the arts for neighborhood children. Called "The Saturday Matinee," the program includes classes in photography, the culinary arts and a percussion class called "Ancestral Drums."

The couple, who receive no outside funding, also provides similar classes and workshops to institutional clients such as the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center and the Camden Neighborhood Renaissance Arts Festival. "We just love kids," she said.

Shoot Photos Not Children
In 2001, as a result of her increasing frustration about the number of children being killed via gun violence, Ms. Collins-Roberts launched a Web site called "Shoot Photos Not Children."

"I was trying to make a strong statement -- something that would make people think more about the number of kids getting hurt," she said. "Like, next time you pick up a camera to shoot a picture of your own child, think about how somewhere else, right now, a kid is being shot with a gun. We need to stop thinking about gun violence as normal."

"I was also hoping it would cause some people to think how important it is to put a paint brush or a camera in a child's hand," she continued. "Creativity can help save these kids. Personal involvement in the arts helps them see that they don't have to be stuck in a box; that they don't have to be on the corner selling drugs; that there are other options and those options are also fun."

Changing children with art
"One of the big problems I see around me is that no matter how obvious it is that cultural arts can change these kids' lives, that's the first place the government and the schools always cut in tight times -- the arts. But you're really not saving money when you cut school arts programs -- you're just pushing kids in some other direction that will cost us all a lot more in the end at the same time it will make the kids' lives a lot worse."

"Creativity is not a luxury," she said, walking past one of the gallery panels filled with her own photos of children. "It is what makes us all human and able to enjoy being alive together."

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2003 Black History Month Art Show
> Main Story: Meet The Artist
> The Beverly Collins-Roberts Exhibit
> The New Gallery Space
> Reception Jazz Band

> 2002 Black History Program
> 2001 Black History Program
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