But he's also an artist, poet, and, in his own way, a community activist. "In the last five years we've had more than a half-dozen schools close in this neighborhood," Roberts says. "Without schools, no one wants to live here. Without residents, there's no tax base. It's a vicious cycle." One he's trying to change.
It starts with the studio's name, which comes from the neighborhood, Homewood, where Roberts has lived, worked and raised his family since 1970. Despite the bad reputation, he says he wouldn't live anywhere else, and believes his studio, which functions as an informal community arts organization, can help convince others to do the same.
The building's long history dates back to the 1920s, when it was a 'mom-and-pop' grocery store in what was then bustling, predominantly Jewish neighborhood. By the late 1980s, it was dilapidated, abandoned, and a haven for delinquency. Roberts purchased the property in 1998 and renovated it, adding a gallery, several artist's studios, and a letterpress studio for his own printmaking.
From the beginning, when he enlisted neighborhood kids to help with the demolition, Roberts has tried to make Homewood Studios a neighborhood nexus point where artists, neighbors, students, teachers and children can fulfill themselves and their community. It now hosts around a dozen gallery shows a year (focusing on local artists), and provides a space for community classes and workshops (everything from paper-making to Tai Chi). 2007 marked the opening of Gallery 1x1xOne, a space dedicated to showing the work of young artists to the community.
For Roberts, the concept of stewardship starts in his own studio, which is full of giant letterpress machines and hulking cabinets filled with type. "You can't buy this equipment new anymore," he says. "Everything you see here was passed on by another artist. And I'll pass it on too, when I'm done with it." He believes it's his responsibility to treat these materials with care. He is both practitioner and preservationist of his art form.
Roberts' work space is organized and calm, with soft jazz music playing in the background. He arranged his presses and tables to accommodate a 'figure-8' workflow, and he says he's never more than a step away from the tool he needs. The printing process can be very work-intensive, especially when doing large runs, but he says he finds the space meditative, and that's evident in the details – a small table where he takes lunch with his wife, a big window giving out on a snow-covered garden.
Another window offers a view of Plymouth avenue, where boarded-up windows indicate the community's incomplete revitalization. Roberts hopes that by fostering art in his community, he can preserve not just the art forms he finds so inspiring, but the neighborhood that has inspired him.