Will Roberts: Artist, Teacher, Tree-hugger

Will Roberts shows off completed works, as well as works in progress, at his Sturgeon Bay studio. Photo by Len Villano.

Artist Will Roberts professionally tried his hand at many media throughout his lifetime – from pottery to photography to silk-screening to pastel to acrylic painting. He also taught many more media to hundreds of students for the 35 years he taught art at Sturgeon Bay High School.

“I taught everything – drawing, pottery, print-making, photography, painting, sculpture, everything,” he says. “I was the art teacher.”

Roberts’ goal was to introduce students to the media, not teach them ‘how to’ use them. “I was not a ‘how-to’ teacher,” he explains. “I don’t believe in ‘how-to.’ I’m more interested in people learning to take their creative ideas and execute them. Somebody once said, ‘You don’t have to learn how to write if you have nothing to say.’ That’s pretty much my view in teaching, show me what your creative thinking is.”

Roberts also encouraged his students to participate in a wide range of experiences and receive a well-rounded education, which influences artwork. “I encourage kids – you gotta take history and math and go out and experience a lot of different things other than art.”

Roberts’ experiences and education are clearly highlighted in his work – which often feature natural landscapes in bold, bright colors. “I’m a certifiable tree-hugger,” admits Roberts, who even has a bonsai tree in his studio. “I recently took some classes at The Clearing. It tests my patience,” he laughs, adding, “People have to listen to trees – not just look at them. They squeak, they rattle.”

When not painting, Roberts takes to the outdoors – canoeing and hiking. On these excursions he often draws and takes those drawings back to the studio – a white shack-like structure behind his home, a retirement present to himself.

“Ice Age Trail” by Will Roberts.

“Some [paintings] are more a conglomeration of memories, others are almost directly from drawings I’ve done on site,” Roberts explains. Many of his paintings represent Door County landscapes – The Ridges, Potawatomi State Park, and the bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment.

Often Roberts’ paintings begin with a “real solid idea about the composition,” he says, adding that he often scales a drawing he has done using a grid. “Somebody said to me once, ‘Isn’t that cheating?’ I said, ‘If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me,’” he laughs.

No matter the composition, all his paintings begin with a bright orange canvas.

“There was another Door County artist who told me they use kind of an orange, tan tint on paintings before they start and that warmed them up. I kind of copied that idea. Tinting a canvas is not all that unusual,” he says. “Some artists will start with all black.”

Why orange?

“It’s gotta be in my blood or something,” he laughs. “When I was 14 my mom let me design my own bedroom – I had an orange bedspread, orange curtains.”

The orange, viewers will note, becomes a part of the paintings, which often feature boxy shapes and severe lines. He achieves the look by using a trick he credits to Sarah Bradley, co-owner of the Artists Guild in Sturgeon Bay.

“Canyon Glen” by Will Roberts.

“What’s the best way to spread glue?” Roberts asked her one day at the Artists Guild.

“With a credit card,” she answered.

“I took that to heart,” smiles Roberts. “If you can spread glue like that, you can spread paint like that.”

Roberts’ path to acrylics, his medium of choice these days, was a windy one. While he was teaching art he worked primarily with clay, but the Waukesha native received an associate degree in commercial art from what is now the Milwaukee Technical College. “It’s today’s equivalent of graphic arts in a pre-digital world.” While teaching he also focused on photography and printmaking, primarily silk-screening.

When Roberts retired in 2002, he “quit everything,” he says. “I quit making pottery, I quit making photographs, I quit print-making.” He intended to take up oil painting.

“I bought some canvases and brushes and starting getting set up,” he reflects. But he didn’t take up oil painting as intended, he was distracted by a set of pastels he happened to have on hand. “I had never used pastels in my life, except at the chalkboard,” he laughs. “I did pastels for the next five years at least.”

While learning to work with pastel, Roberts says he “intentionally avoided going somewhere to learn ‘how to’ use them. I just started using them. I thought, ‘If these make a mark on the page, then I’m going to learn what my marks are.’”

“It took awhile,” he admits with a smile. “I have a whole stack of stuff I’ll never show. I should really have a fire.”

Roberts calls himself “a certifiable tree-hugger.” Among other plants, he has a bonsai tree in his studio. Photo by Len Villano.

But he did learn how to use the pastels, and very well. He exhibited at the Second Street Co-op Gallery in Algoma for a while, then Clay on Steele, also in Algoma, where Peg and John Lowry of The Blue Dolphin in Ephraim noticed his work.

“They knew I had done pottery, but they had never seen any of pastels,” explains Roberts. “They called me and said, ‘How’d you like to be in The Blue Dolphin?’ I’ve been there ever since.”

Though Roberts sells his work, he does not see himself as “a producer of a product,” he says. “It’s my creative outlet. Since I retired and started doing this it’s incredibly freeing. I don’t care if people like them or not – I can’t tell you how freeing that is.”

The Blue Dolphin, open daily from 10 am – 5 pm, is located at 10320 N Water Street in Ephraim. For more information call 920.854.4113 or visit

To contact Roberts directly call 920.746.1696 or email [email protected].