Rosalind Roy, a 46-year-old Jackson native known as Roz, bubbles with energy. Her vigor emanates from her like an invisible vapor—it will either infect you or make you feel guilty that you aren't more exuberant. She talks a lot and will interrupt herself to tell you that, but she's also a selective conversationalist. "I can feel people's spirits," she says. "I'm always going to be nice to people, but some people you can just tell … your spirit doesn't connect with them."
Our spirits, thank goodness, clicked. Sitting inside Roy's sunny studio (she has two, one for painting and the other for sculpting), she candidly discusses her art, personal life, disability, tragedies, victories and critics. After revealing some particularly heart-wrenching details, she sits in reflection, sun beaming on her face as her artwork seems to watch in anticipation from the walls, the door and even the floor.
The folk artist's talent was untapped for many years, and her path to fulfillment has been winding. It wasn't until recently that she even acknowledged herself as an artist rather than someone who liked to paint for a hobby. But two years ago, after the unexpected death of her brother, Roy's artistic expression erupted, and she hasn't stopped creating since.
What's in a Disability?
In 1961, Ann and Weaks Roy Jr. held their baby Rosalind in their arms for the first time, and their 2-year-old son Anthony waited enthusiastically for his turn. The baby was healthy, smiled plenty and babbled a lot. Roz, as her father called her, was perfect in every way as far as her parents were concerned.
Then, in 1962, when Roy was 18 months old, her parents took her to get another round of vaccinations. By the time they got home, Ann recognized that things weren't so perfect.
"My mother says she noticed almost immediately that something wasn't right. I wasn't as happy as I usually was," Roy says. Ann's intuition was right. During the routine doctor's visit, the toddler got a bad batch of a polio vaccine. Roy now had polio, which weakened and bent her limbs, forcing her to wear a brace. She still wears the brace today, and walks with a limp, all because of that bad vaccination more than 40 years ago.
"People will ask me sometimes how come my parents didn't sue. But who were they supposed to sue? And who were they going to get to take the case? It was the 1960s—black people just didn't go around suing when they were wronged," Roy says.
At the time, there was little aid for those with disabilities. Her mother determined early on that her child's physical difference wasn't going to be the obstacle so many people presumed it would be. About six years ago, Roy's mother divulged to her that doctors and others had strongly suggested that she send her to the "crippled children's home," which was a permanent home for individuals with disabilities. Ann was having no such thing, however. She decided that she didn't want to be without her baby. Looking back, Roy and her mother suspect that the polio-stricken child might not have had to wear a brace as an adult if she had gone to the facility, but Roy says she wouldn't trade the time growing up with her family for anything.
"My mother built up my confidence from when I was a little girl," she says. During those days, most people weren't as educated about disabilities as they are now. In fact, many would have seen Roy's polio diagnosis as a reason to be ashamed and put her away, but her family was different. "My mother educated (our family about my condition) and wanted us to know what was going on. She used to explain to me that lots of people had 'difficulties,' and it just so happened that mine was on the outside. The older I got, it didn't bother me when people were staring. My mother was right, they were just curious, so I didn't get mad," she says.
Roy says that while children can be unusually cruel to those who have physical challenges, she was a tough kid and was never taunted about having to wear a brace.
"If people didn't like me—just like now—it didn't have anything to do with my disability. It was because I talked too much, or they simply didn't like me," she says.
Back to School Again
As a young child, Roy expressed little interest in arts and crafts. Actually, her only interest seemed to be talking, which got on her mother's nerves. So, when Roy was 5, Ann decided to find something to combat her toddler's constant loquaciousness. She gave her paper dolls, crayons and a plethora of other artsy tools to express herself so she wouldn't always use her mouth. The budding artist delighted in the arts, and before her mother knew it, the youngster had started creating her own paper dolls.
She kept her early artistic development to herself, however. "I didn't participate in art stuff when I was in school. I only did it at home," she says. The exception was when she drew on desks and doodled on the edges of her paper during class time. Other than that, Roy kept her growing attraction to art a secret, thinking that no one would value her work.
Roy admits that she didn't do particularly well at school, and her motor mouth got her in trouble more than once. "I loved to talk," Roy says. "I got detention for talking, and then when I was in detention, I got more days in detention for talking in there, too."
It wasn't until 1979, when she was a senior at Provine High School, that she began to show her artistic promise at school. She reluctantly joined an art class because it was one of the only classes still open. During that year, Roy's mother, teacher and a few other students noticed that she had real potential.
Then, Roy's parents gave her a push with the classic ultimatum: Go to college, or go get a job. Despite the fact that she had struggled in school, Roy chose college and enrolled at Jackson State.
Since art was the one thing that caught her interest in high school, Roy decided to make it her major in college—commercial advertising, to be specific.
"My teachers recognized my talent," she says, "but (the art department) didn't have what it took to nurture my talent there. They offered an art degree, but they didn't really have an art program."
After three years at JSU, Roy decided college was a waste of her time, so she left. Roy says that the art department at JSU has much more to offer now than it did in the early '80s. Even though the department offers a much fuller education now, Roy still says she wouldn't go back.
"I wasn't what you'd call a star student," she says bluntly.
Dance With My Father Again
By the time Roy left JSU, she had decided that she wanted to be a graphic designer. While she was in college, she learned about freelancing and figured that would be her best bet for entering the design world. So while she held down a job at Southern Farm Insurance, she sought design work on the side. Her neighbor, Mr. Jones, gave her her first gig. "Mr. Jones had a barber shop, and I did all the posters," she says.
She did a few other odd jobs, but one that pleased her the most was the work she did for Mission Mississippi, the racial and religious reconciliation group headed by Dolphus Weary.
"That was my first billboard. I remember driving by and seeing one for the first time. It was on Northside Drive, right there by JD Auto Parts," Roy says, her delight fresh on her face. "The lettering wasn't all that great, you know? But it was good for me at the time."
In 1994, Roy's father had to stop working and stay at home because of his deteriorating health, and Roy put her life on hold to tend to her father. Roy's father was an independent business owner who loved to be on the move, so it was out of the question that he would stay in a nursing home. He had too much living left to do, as far as he was concerned. Besides, Roy says, her father might have argued the other residents to death.
"He had a sharp mouth, and I had one to match. I probably wasn't a very good daughter, either—I'm sure when people saw us out they thought I was being disrespectful. We would go back and forth at each other, but that's just the way we were. We enjoyed being with each other," she says.
Roy says that the nine years she cared for her father were full of adventure.
"People always think that because I was at home with my dad for nine years that I was just sitting at home going crazy or something, but I wasn't. Me and my daddy went everywhere," Roy says. "I loved the whole time I spent with my dad. We went out to eat everyday, went to concerts. … My love for music comes from my dad."
After nine years of tending to her father, Weaks Roy passed away in April 2003, and Roy was unsure of what was next for her. She hadn't worked or even done much art in all that time, and she felt adrift. Her life made a course of its own.
Not a month after her father died, Roy ran into Leslie Scott, whom she had met two years prior at the Jackson Medical Mall. At the time, Scott was the executive director of the Very Special Arts program in Mississippi. After the two reacquainted themselves through a discussion of graphic design, Scott sent Roy an invitation to a Very Special Arts event at the Mississippi Museum of Arts. (For more information about VSA, see the sidebar on page 18.) At the event, Roy met Tom Harmon, the man she considers her teacher, mentor and surrogate father.
"Tom," who is disabled himself, "has such a great compassion for people and teaching. He took an interest in me, and we connected right away," Roy says.
Immediately after their meeting, Roy started attending Harmon's Tuesday classes at the museum. While Harmon liked Roy's digital prints, he encouraged her to transfer them to another medium—watercolors.
As Roy was honing her watercolor talents, Scott was making plans for VSA to have more than a weekly class at the museum. She wanted a gallery. The VSA staff and students moved from the Mississippi Museum of Art to the Mississippi Rehab Center. Then they moved again, to their current location in Fondren. With this ambition, Scott made Jackson's VSA crew into trendsetters. They became the first VSA group in the country to have a studio and gallery.
While VSA was setting trends, Roy was still learning. By the time the VSA studio opened, Harmon introduced Roy to polymer clay. It seemed that every artistic medium Roy tried, she mastered. "You can't put me in a box," she says. "What I do is God-given, and it's going to flame like fire. You just have to let me be so I can flourish."
And she has flourished, thanks to the people at VSA, Roy says. "I can't believe all I've received from (them). No matter where I end up in life, I'll always be connected to VSA—Tom, Leslie and V.A. (Patterson, the current executive director)."
Because of the fire that now burns within her for all things artistic, Roy has followed her mentor's example. She now teaches art to other individuals with physical and/or mental challenges.
"I've never had a teacher with so much passion before," she says of Harmon. "Not only does he love art, he loves teaching it. That means a lot to me, and that's how I ended up doing the VSA artists' program."
Aside from the two students she meets with regularly on Tuesdays, Roy also meets with groups of disabled individuals for special occasions. One such group from Greenville was in Jackson recently, and I asked them what they thought of their teacher. "We love Roz," the group of 15 or so repeated excitedly.
Living Out Loud
As Roy's talent blossomed, more people began to take notice. "I had so many prints. It was like I couldn't keep prints," she says, "but people kept encouraging me to sell originals. I didn't really see the big deal."
A tragic event changed her mind. In July 2005, her only brother, Anthony, died of a heart attack. This served as a wake-up call. "At the time, I was just selling prints, but after my brother's death, that's when I started releasing my artwork. It's a situation I can't really explain, but it rocked my world."
Roy says her style of art changed when her brother died. She started using acrylic paint, and the colors she used were bolder, more stately—not always fun. Her strokes had more passion. It was folk art, in the style of Clementine Hunter, people told her. The artist says she'd never heard of Hunter before. So when she wasn't painting, she was doing research about folk art, Hunter and others. The more she learned and the more art she did, she says, the more therapeutic it became, and the more she realized that she wasn't just doing it for herself. It was her connection to God, she says.
"If I couldn't create the art I do today, I'd probably be in a nut house by now. … It's my connection," she says.
As Roy threw herself into her art, more people started to recognize it. "I had people coming up to me and calling me, telling me that so-and-so told them about me. They wanted to come and see what I had."
Roy began to get group recognition, as well. "Right after my brother died, I got accepted into the Mississippi Craftsman Guild, the Vicksburg Artists Association and got on the Mississippi Artist Roster (and studied under Bruce O'Hara at Tougaloo College's annual Art Colony). It was like everything I prayed for and wished for, I got it," she says.
Not everyone is rejoicing with Roy, however. She says that as her work becomes more popular, the more criticism she receives about it.
"People want to know why, on my sculptures, the eyes are so big, the lips are so big. Some black people say I'm selling out, doing what I can to make money—doing buffoonery. But they don't know what they're talking about. If they'd get to know me, they'd know that I'm not making fun of my race. I love being black. The eyes are big on my sculptures because I make those same expressions with my eyes. The lips are big because my lips are big. It's not black face or minstrelsy. It's me. It's what I see, and that seems to upset a lot of people," Roy explains.
The artist says she's also been questioned about her more recent paintings not having any facial features at all. She says: "If I don't see eyes—if God doesn't give me eyes—I'm not going to paint eyes. If I see a nose or a mouth when I'm creating, I'll paint one. Otherwise, you're not going to get one."
Despite the criticism, Roy says conflict, misunderstanding and tragedy fuel her artwork rather than discourage her from doing it. "If you're mean to me, I'm going to paint. I'm not going to curse you out, I'm going to paint," she says." When I'm full of joy, I release it by painting."
Roy is always thinking about her craft, now that she's discovered her purpose in life. She says she's always thinking about art. "Right now I want to do some art. I can just see those paint brushes over there. The more I think about it, my toes and fingers tingle," she says, eagerly eyeing a cup of paint brushes.
Very Special Artists
Join Rosalind Roy and Matthew Yarrell, also a disabled artist, at their opening reception at Brown's Fine Art and Framing (630 Fondren Place) Thursday, May 17, 7-9 p.m. Roy has also donated art to the Chick Ball the same night. She will attend after the Brown's Fine Art opening.
I had the chance to meet and spend some time with Roz during some work with the Collective and she was definitely one of the most genuinely talented, and exuberant artists I met through that experience. It's great to see her succeeding and growing.
What a wonderful story - so well done and a definite testimony of what it means to be HANDICAPABLE!
Such an inspirational story. Makes me want to paint something right now!
Great profile! I hope to see some of Ms. Roy's work next time I visit Jackson.