Art was a frequent tool for Sadie Roberts-Joseph.
The beloved civil rights activist and founder of the Baton Rouge African American Museum was a proud supporter of area artists and regularly collaborated with them in events or for pieces around the museum. Charles Barbier, a cherished local artist, painted the pillars of Interstate 10 near the museum with portraits of iconic black leaders.
"She was avidly into literature and loved artwork," says Jason Roberts, her son. "And she felt, a lot of times, that art was one of the means that people were able to express things from their culture that they couldn't actually put into words. The movement of a dancer or a painting could express far more emotion than words could ever do. I remember her teaching me that very early on.
"She worked with artists constantly because they were one of the few entities in Baton Rouge that she could really connect with on a fundamental level and help bring awareness to their pieces as well as use those pieces to convey a message of culture and history and, just, life."
Baton Rouge lost an icon on July 12, when Roberts-Joseph's body was discovered. She was 75. Four days later, police arrested one of her tenants on a count of first-degree murder in her death.
Sadie Roberts-Joseph spent decades chasing her vision for the future, one where unity and peace prevailed.
Over the past month, several artists and arts-focused events have paid tribute to Roberts-Joseph, from a large mural along Plank Road to a stirring poetry open mic tribute. We spoke with four artists about their tributes to Roberts-Joseph and how she left a mark, as a community organizer, a historian of African-American culture, a black woman and a mother.
Across three days, artist Kristen Downing painted a mural dedicated to Roberts-Joseph on the side of a blue brick building at Pawnee Street and Plank Road. The towering portrayal of Roberts-Joseph, dressed in purple — representing "royalty, power, creativity, wisdom, peace, pride and independence," Downing says — and holding flowers, was created as part of the Walls Project's ReactivateBR project along Plank Road.
Downing, a New Orleans native, owns KAWD Art Gallery on Government Street.
Roberts-Joseph "was a woman who loved her history, and I love how she not only wanted to share her knowledge with African Americans, but she knew that it was important that all know our history," Downing says. "She inspired me to speak and to let my voice be heard. Because of her, I knew that it was possible to open an art gallery."
Downing says to pay close attention to the mural's details and the hands, each holding a piece of white paper with words, like "Speak" and "Art Lives Forever."
The details show "that she will never be forgotten and her story will live on forever, and that's basically what 'Art Lives Forever' means to me," Downing says. "'Speak' is also included on the mural because Ms. Sadie will continue to speak through us, meaning her family, friends and everyday passersby. The location is perfect. Every time a car stops at that red light, people will be able to view and discuss who Ms. Sadie was as a person and what she meant to the city of Baton Rouge."
Roberts delivered this poignant remembrance, "The Kitchen Counter," earlier this month during an Eclectic Truth poetry open mic dedicated to his mother. The event also raised money for the African American Museum.
Poetry was Roberts-Joseph's favorite medium for art, her son says. She would frequently recite Langston Hughes' "Mother to Son" (frequently known as "Crystal Stair"), especially when Roberts was feeling discouraged.
"Everyone knew her as this public figure, this community activist," Roberts says. "What I wanted to express in my poem was the basic and underlying role she played as a mother.
"But I wanted to show how the family took premier position in her life and in raising us there in this house and the many things that took place at the kitchen counter — all of that was about family and about love and about her connection with her children. I wanted to share that with the world so they could see the other side of my mom."
This piece created by H-D Art, a collaboration between Stephanie Huye and Alaine DiBenedetto, is packed with details. The portrait was made using charcoal and pastels on paper, and they chose to emphasize Roberts-Joseph's confidence through her cultural dress and posture.
"Sadie Roberts-Joseph exemplifies the proud, independent, creative woman who 'did it her way' to make her dreams and visions become reality," DiBenedetto says.
"The photo I worked from appealed to me because the fabrics, jewelry and designs echo her heritage," DiBenedetto adds, "and that was very important to her and her mission of opening the Baton Rouge African American Museum."
The piece will be on display through September and October at La Divina Italian Cafe on Perkins Road.
California-based artist Nikkolas Smith's portrait of Roberts-Joseph has been one of the most frequently circulated tributes on social media. Smith posted his work — made in Adobe Photoshop, using a tablet and stylus — on July 14, and the portrait quickly made its way to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
"When I heard the tragic story of Miss Sadie, I knew I had to dedicate my Sunday Sketch that week to her legacy," Smith says. It fits in with other pieces he's created depicting cultural figures like James Baldwin, former President Barack Obama, Leah Chase and Megan Rapinoe. Smith's "artivist" illustrations have been featured by Time, CNN, The New York Times and other publications.
"I just wanted to raise awareness about what (Roberts-Joseph) stood for, and create a portrait that is a reflection of her boldness, passion and commitment to the uplifting of the black community," Smith says.
Smith says he wanted to use whites, blues and yellows that invoke doves and birds of paradise, "to give a heavenly feel, and complement the warmth in her skin tones."
"Miss Sadie was an icon whose life and legacy was an inspiration that gives me hope and motivation to touch lives the way she did."