Medina Roberts’ “DC—24 Hours” exhibit, now hanging at Brush Strokes Gallery, came about from the serendipity that brought her to the nation’s capital.
Her path to the United States took her from Yugoslavia, where she grew up with her grandmother; to Germany; to Brisbane and Sydney in Australia; to Vancouver, British Columbia; to San Francisco; and then to Washington, D.C.
At 20, Roberts escaped Yugoslavia when the Bosnian War was imminent and moved to Germany to live with relatives.
While she was safe in Germany, Roberts had to apply for a temporary visa every six months, and she never felt at home.
In 1996, on her way from San Francisco where she lived for a time on a visitor’s visa, she had a seven-hour layover in D.C., before she could catch a connecting flight to Germany where she was headed to apply for a permanent visa.
The layover changed her life.
Since she had some time, Roberts decided to take a cab ride to see the White House.
“He dropped me off on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I just walked for hours—Pennsylvania Avenue, 14th Street, F Street, Chinatown and back, and I fell in love with the city,” the 49-year-old artist said of her impromptu adventure. “I remember looking at F Street and thinking, ‘This is home.’”
Roberts said that even though she saw plenty of homeless people on her walk around town, she knew she still wanted to live in D.C.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I felt it was right for me,” said Roberts, the daughter of a Bosnian father and German mother.
That first visit to D.C. left an indelible mark that lasted years, and Roberts returned to the idea of a walk around town as the inspiration for her show at Brush Strokes Gallery.
She spent 24 hours on the streets of the nation’s capital in September to see what she could see.
“I stayed up from midnight to midnight walking the streets of D.C. and taking photographs each hour. If I was eating, I took that picture. If I was drinking coffee, I took that picture. So, my exhibit is 24 hours in Washington, D.C., to show the city’s energy in the morning, the night, at hours when there was nobody on the street and when there were lots of people on the street,” Roberts said.
On her most recent visit, Roberts said she still saw a disparity in the way people live in the city and hopes that feeling comes through in the impressionistic paintings she made from the photos she took for the project.
“It shows the power and poverty living on the street together,” Roberts said of one of the exhibit’s four paintings, which shows a woman, with the accoutrements of wealth, walking past a homeless man.
She also hopes her work shows the opportunity the United States offers the “go-getter.”
“I find that this really is a land of opportunity. You have to be smart and strong and educated. You have to find a way to survive, and if you have that in you, this is the country for you,” she said. “It’s a land of opportunity, and that’s what I wanted to show in my exhibit.”
Roberts’ path to Fredericksburg was as unforeseen as was her journey to D.C.
She was on a road trip with her husband when they accidentally found Fredericksburg, she said.
“Somehow we got lost and drove through downtown Fredericksburg and I said, ‘This is it.’ I love Fredericksburg,” said Roberts, a body-building judge and show promoter, who now splits her residency between Fredericksburg and D.C. “I was right. I’m very happy here.”
Roberts said her experience of fleeing war and coming to the United States still informs her work.
“I survived something to become a free and happy person. I’m a very positive person because of that. It helped me see everything in the light,” she said.
“I’m American now, and I’m proud to be American. It means the world to me,” said Roberts, who was naturalized in 2001. “It was one of the happiest days of my life. I belonged somewhere. I was a refugee for 11 years before that. It was long time to be a nobody.”