Anticipation building for opening of Deborah Roberts exhibition at Cummer Museum

In my previous life as a sports reporter covering college football, only winning a big game could top the anticipation of your team playing a big game. Anticipation is delicious. College football was the anticipation sport.

With just 12 regular season games and three or four of those pushovers for the power teams, each year was determined by seven or eight Saturdays. The entire year distilled into a handful of three-and-a-half hour chunks. One loss and your team’s hopes – your hopes – for a national title could be dashed.

Anticipation for these games would begin slowly building following the Sunday morning release of the polls ranking the Top 25 teams. By Sunday night following the conclusion of the NFL games, next Saturday started coming into focus.

Monday served as the final time to review the previous Saturday’s game and Tuesday began the look-ahead, the anticipation truly began.

Ironic I write this on 9/11/22. My memories of the day the world changed prior to planes hitting the twin towers centered on college football. I was living in Birmingham, AL. No place in the world cares more about college football than Birmingham, AL. That was a big part of what drew me there. I was working as a talk show producer at a news radio station, using it as an entry to the sister sports radio station.

As everyone else recalls, 9-11 was a gorgeous fall day. Brilliant blue sky, not a cloud in it, bright sun, but without the oppressive Southern summer heat. This day actually felt like fall. A tinge of freshness in the air.

The day was spectacularly optimistic. I remember that distinctly. Saturday would be a huge day for college football. My anticipation was simmering. I remember these feelings vividly. It was such a beautiful, hopeful, quietly wonderful morning.

By noon, of course, that was all gone.

A comparatively minor loss, there would be no anticipation that college football season. I can’t remember if only one weekend of games were cancelled or two. Doesn’t matter now. The attack on America put the significance of sports into perspective and the percolating anticipation which built through Thursday – the unofficial start to the weekend – into Friday, where it reached a fever pitch as small college towns across the country burst at the seems with incoming fans, and then achieved hysteria at noon ET on Saturday for the day’s first kickoffs never materialized.

I digress.

Deborah Roberts, Let Them Be Children, 2018. Acrylic, pastel, ink, and gouache on canvas. 46 1/2 x 141 3/4 x 2 3/8 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment. Courtesy of the Artist.
Deborah Roberts, Let Them Be Children, 2018. Acrylic, pastel, ink, and gouache on canvas. 46 1/2 x 141 3/4 x 2 3/8 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment. Courtesy of the Artist.

I was 26-years-old on 9/11/01. I had another 10 years of relishing the anticipation of college football Saturdays before something entirely unexpected happened. Anxiety overtook anticipation. Wins failed to bring joy, only relief. My dominate college football emotion was misery following loses.

By the time I hit 40, I was pretty much emotionally through with the sport. I had to hang on another couple years for career purposes, but all of the delicious anticipation was gone. What I looked forward to most was the end of the season.

I haven’t been able to replace that wonderful feeling of anticipation since, that kid on Christmas Eve sensation.

And then I got a hint of it this weekend. A whiff. A tingle.

Faint, but recognizable. Barely there, but there.

I began thinking about the opening of Deborah Robert’s exhibition on September 16 at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, my hometown art museum. Jacksonville is also one of the great capitals of college football. A reason I also chose to move here 10 years ago.

I am legitimately excited – akin to college football game week excited – to see Roberts’ show. I don’t remember exactly first finding her work; recognizing her paintings was more an accumulation of seeing her name on art websites and podcasts and glowing exhibition reviews. Deborah Roberts, Deborah Roberts, Deborah Roberts.

This was probably 2019. I was still in the early stages of my art appreciation and art writing life. I began looking at her paintings more carefully and understanding their significance. Understanding her unique combination of collage and paint. Educating myself to the significance of her subject matter: Black girls. Learning about how Black girls are routinely over-sexualized and considered older than their age in American society. How whiteness in America steals years of childhood from Black girls in this way.

This “adultification” commonly results in Black girls facing double standards when being disciplined in school or engaging with police.

In 2021, 16-year-old Black girl Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by police in Columbus, OH who responded to a disturbance call from her house. She was shot 11-seconds after officers arrived on the scene with little understanding to what was taking place there. Shoot first, ask questions later. She was a Black girl.

Similar police violence against a white girl is unimaginable.

Deborah Roberts’ artwork speaks to these realities. Black girlhood in America.

On September 16, when “Deborah Roberts: I’m” opens at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens – the only East Coast presentation of the exhibition highlighting one of the most important artists working today – Roberts will be on hand for a book signing. There’ll be a picnic out back on the gardens. I’ll be there. Hopefully it’s a beautiful, sunny, late summer day with a tinge of freshness in the air.

It’s Sunday morning as I write this. The anticipation is delicious.

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