Remembering Dolores Roberson
By Zoë A. Haggard and Sergio Pacheco
Photo by Sergio Pacheco
MTSU/Seigenthaler News Service
Lee Roberson was one of the—if not the—most famous artists to open a gallery and studio in Townsend. At one point, he had paintings in over 300 galleries around the world, and today, his prints still sell for hundreds of dollars, five years after his death.
However, there was another artist that local gallery owners say is equally as talented but not as recognized. Her name was Dolores Roberson, wife of 20 years to Lee Roberson. She died in 2000, but her realistic rendering of animals and nature scenes were often unappreciated compared to her late husband’s body of work, said Roy Holmes who owns the Dogwood Mall on Lamar Alexander Parkway in Townsend.
“Dolores was what Dolores was,” he said, “She was a woman who wore her feelings on her sleeve.” Holmes has been in the art business for 34 years and sold had several booths featuring both Lee’s and Dolores’s prints.
In fact, her work can be found at antique shops in town while online there are hundreds of her prints for sale.
For many years, Dolores’s body of work was known and cherished by only a few, in comparison to her husband.
“She was just as good as he was, but she didn’t get the fame,” said Debe Campbell, owner of the River Mill Antiques Mall, also located on the parkway in Townsend. Like many other shops, she sells several of Dolores’s prints in her store—scenes of raccoons, owls, and other wildlife. They are almost like portraits of the animals, drawn in a lifelike manner as if the creatures had posed for her.
The Robersons, who are both natives of Blount County, met while they worked in advertising in the 1970s where they would physically create the drawings for an advertisement. Like Lee, she enjoyed painting and drawing from a young age. And she had a talent for it.
But where Dolores had an eye for exquisite detail, Lee had a talent for marketing—one of the main reasons he became more renowned in the art world.
“Lee sold a feeling...but her paintings were spot-on and crisp,” said Anita Wilson, who owns McQuade Antiques in Townsend. She was a sister-in-law to Lee and knew him and Dolores in the 1990s.
“She was a really nice, Christian lady,” said Wilson. “She had a sternness about her (and) when she needed it, it was there.”
But her simplicity and sternness sometimes impeded her popularity as her prints can resemble textbook images rather than that of the great Impressionists, like Lee’s.
Lee was a prominent member in Townsend. He advocated with commissioners against big corporations entering Townsend, according to Wilson. Like his serene paintings, Lee wanted to keep this side of the Smokies peaceful.
Dolores also advocated for that peace. She loved long walks and hikes, observing animals and nature—the main topics of her prints—which she found to be beautiful and simple, according to Wilson.
Dolores, who died nearly 20 years ago from cancer, was survived by a son. He owned a shop by the Apple Barn and sold most of her prints and even originals there, according to Wilson. However, he no longer has the business.
For both Lee and Dolores, success in printmaking was slow and laborious as they invested everything they had to start it in 1970s before it was popular, said Holmes. Print art is based on a limited amount of copies from an original art piece and therefore takes time before a profit is made.
At times, Dolores and Lee made a collaborative team. Dolores was an expert in drawing animals, flowers, and even people (though they were a rarity in her prints). According to Holmes, Dolores would draw some of the animals in Lee’s paintings as he struggled to create their likeness. On the other hand, Dolores was terrible at drawing log cabins, one of Lee’s main specialties, Holmes added.
In one respect, Dolores’s work was recognized on a national stage in a way that secures her a footnote in history.
When the building of a dam in the Little Tennessee river channel endangered the snail darter that inhabited the river, a lithograph of a watercolor painting by Dolores detailing a male and female darter was used as evidence in the federal Hill v. TVA trial on April 23, 1976. A permanent ruling was issued against any activities endangering species, like the snail darter. Her painting clearly depicted the cool, clear, and shallow water necessary for the darters to inhabit, which the building of the dam threatened.
Therefore, Dolores’s prints deserve recognition. In the wake of Lee’s death back in 2014, Dolores’s remembrance will not be left to collect dust in the shadowy corners of antique stores but left in the hearts of the people in the town she and Lee captured in their art.
Zoe Haggard and Sergio Pacheco are journalism students at Middle Tennessee State University. They are in Blount County as part of a feature writing class call the Road Trip Class.