Go back to the 1960s, because this is a story of how things were done before the digital age. Now imagine you’re 50, 75, 100 feet up in the air on a platform hanging by ropes slung over an interstate billboard. You’re juggling multiple buckets of paint, brushes and other equipment, and you’re fighting the wind and heat or cold, all while trying to create a 48-foot wide picture of some young people zooming down a road in the latest-model Chevrolet.
Just getting to the billboard was no picnic. You likely had to have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, then you had to drag your equipment through trees and thick brush to the base of the huge poles supporting the giant sign in the sky. You climbed a billboard ladder with your ropes in tow and secured them at the top, then started the arduous task of hoisting your stage, a few feet up on the right, then the left, right, left, until it was in position.
Your paints — gallons and quarts — are waiting safely on the ground below, with ropes tied to them. You haul them up next.
If you’re adept at this process, it’s probably taken you 45 minutes, from arrival at your billboard to starting to paint.
Once everything is in the air with you, you map out your huge canvas with a charcoal drawing of your ad. You use a chalk line to create grids to keep your lettering straight. And the painting begins.
Carl Roberson, a former Graysville resident who restored the historic Dr. Blackford house and now lives in St. Elmo, became a billboard artist for his father’s business when he was in only the sixth grade.
“I wasn’t an especially good artist,” says Roberson, “but I wasn’t afraid to keep trying.”
“Keep trying” is a mantra with Roberson and it has paid off again and again in his life. When a piece broke off a billboard in Tunnel Hill and sent Roberson 30 feet to the ground, he brushed himself off and got back to work. When a rope broke on his rigging on an Atlanta billboard and he fell 20 feet and injured an ankle, he tightened the laces on his boot and got back to work.
When bees swarmed in the fall, Roberson’s dad sent a can of gasoline along, hoping the odor would discourage them, but mostly, says Roberson, “you just tried not to move much and hoped you wouldn’t get stung too many times and you kept on working.”
Then there was the little problem of trees growing too tall and blocking the billboards. “We’d get out there with chainsaws just as the sun was coming up,” Roberson says. “Sometimes they were trees that had been planted by the state with the intent to block the billboards. You had to get in and out before anyone noticed.”
But those were easy challenges compared with some others Roberson has faced and overcome. “I always had very poor eyesight,” he says. “By high school, I was considered legally blind. I wore glasses that looked like the bottom of Coke bottles.”
Poor vision did not stop Roberson from becoming an excellent painter of not only billboards but other artwork. But it did hinder his efforts to learn to read.
“That didn’t matter much when it came to painting,” says Roberson. “But it became a real hurdle when I started selling and installing signs and had to deal with permits, sign ordinances and zoning commissions.”
Roberson’s sign business took him to cities around the country, where he found himself knee-deep in the jargon of government rules, needing to understand them and figure out ways to convince committees and local officials to interpret them generously or approve variances.
“I had such poor reading skills,” says Roberson, “that I couldn’t grasp the meaning of the ordinances easily. But I was able to compensate for that with my deep knowledge of the sign business.”
There was another skill that helped Roberson compensate — his artist’s talent for “hitting the middle ground in a painting, developing a format people could travel in and place in their own minds.”
“Sometimes you had six people on one committee and you needed to help each one see the value of your proposal. You had to paint a verbal picture that all six could relate to in their own way.”
In one city in California, Roberson had to convince four different groups to agree to a proposal. Once in Chattanooga, he was told a proposed sign was too tall. He studied the lay of the land and was able to explain that dips in the interstate affected the line of sight and made the extra height of the sign necessary.
“The challenges and struggles I’ve faced in life,” says Roberson, “are what have made me who I am. I learned that even if you’re not very good at something you shouldn’t be afraid to keep trying. That’s how you find out what you’re made of — you keep trying.”
The changing approach to creating billboards, along with a serious auto accident in 2001, turned Roberson’s focus toward the canvas paintings he’d been doing on the side. He started with oil paintings — nature scenes, old Ringgold, Savannah, the lighthouse on Tybee Island — and moved on to acrylics and abstract work, over 200 paintings to date. Roberson has sold his paintings at a gallery in Chattanooga and has done commissioned paintings and murals.
“I like painting nature. It’s such a rush to hurry to capture a scene before the light changes and you’re looking at something completely different. It can happen within half an hour. Light is everything in painting.
“Of all things, how productive you feel affects how you feel about your life,” says Roberson. “No matter how much or how little money you make, if you feel productive, you’re living. The grade that counts most in life is the one you give yourself.”