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 more than 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 East 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 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’ 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 River Mill Antiques Mall, also located on the parkway in Townsend. Like many other shops, she sells several of Dolores’ 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 both were Blount County natives, met while they worked in advertising in the 1970s, when they would physically create the drawings for an advertisement. Like Lee, Dolores 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 and was a sister-in-law to Lee and knew him and Dolores in the 1990s.
“She was a really nice, Christian lady,” Wilson said. “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 of the Townsend community. He advocated with commissioners against big corporations entering Townsend, Wilson said. 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, Wilson said.
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, Wilson said. 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 the 1970s before it was popular, Holmes said. Print art is based on a limited amount of copies from an original art piece and therefore takes time to generate a profit.
At times, Dolores and Lee collaborated. Dolores was an expert in drawing animals, flowers and even people (though they were a rarity in her prints). Holmes said 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’ 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, her fans say. In the wake of Lee’s death in 2014, Dolores’ 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.