Close-up Roosevelt painting

Roosevelt Washington: Portrait of a Portrait Artist

Roosevelt creating art at Peets

To bear witness. To depict and document. To acknowledge and celebrate all that is true and possible on heaven and earth. These are a few reflections that come to mind upon experiencing the artwork of Roosevelt Washington. Roosevelt is a portrait artist who lives in Oakland’s Adams Point neighborhood. He is a connoisseur of reading faces and a compassionate observer of the human condition. Motivated by a desire to “capture the true emotions of life,” as he describes on his website, Roosevelt overcame personal challenges through creative expression. In his paintings, he holds up the stories of heartbreak and hope for all to see and feel.

Having no formal training, Roosevelt taught himself  to use chalk pastels, oil paints, and other media. He is the resident artist at Peet’s Coffee on Lakeshore Avenue. You will see him there most days stationed in his usual spot, with his large canvas propped up on the table, easel, and pastel pencils poised in hand. He works off of photographs of his subjects, who he brings to life on canvas. Café regulars often approach him to admire his work and sometimes even commission him for an original.   What is his usual spot, why not say?

Hand drawing hands

In describing his early beginnings and relationship to painting, Roosevelt says that as an adolescent, “drawing was a vehicle to escape violence.” He was inspired by and emulated a student in art class until he discovered his own signature style. He practiced and honed his craft daily after school. “I didn’t want to fit in with everyone else so I liked to be by myself drawing,” he tells us. He speaks in detail of his technique in using color variation to create depth and texture, demonstrating how one tiny, hairbreadth stroke along the skin fold of a thumb can change flatness to life-like dimension.

His natural ability is striking to witness. We asked him the age-old question: Are artists born or are they made? He reluctantly answered that his creativity comes from a divine source. “I asked God to give me the gift,” he says. And, “we all have the ability if we give ourselves the chance and apply discipline.”

One of Roosevelt’s paintings was recently exhibited in the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and he has received other accolades, including being invited to display his work in the National American Art Collector magazine and database. However, he hasn’t been able to raise the admittance fee. We hope this article may help him raise the necessary funds. If you’d like to donate, you can do so through his website.

Roosevelt is no stranger to hard times. He has been very vocal about his four-year-long homelessness and how that experience shaped his work. He was among the invisible, the unseen. During that space and time, he came to understand our common humanity. He needed to capture the stories on the streets. “Art needs to record history; it’s not just about making pretty pictures,” he explains. Several of his portraits depict the desperate and the destitute, oftentimes contrasting poverty with opulence.

Roosevelt’s work will be featured in the Grand Avenue Art Walk at Alyce’s on Grand starting on July 11. Here is a small sample of what you might expect to see at the event:

Peace Within

Peace Within

This is a homeless person sleeping on a bench near Oakland. It is one of Roosevelt’s paintings depicting the suffering of people living on the streets. Even in his state of despair, the subject is experiencing the bliss of a peaceful slumber.

Star Child

Star Child

This is an example of Roosevelt’s style of combining dream imagery with real-life elements. This work was inspired by his days selling incense sticks on the Berkeley sidewalks. A lady passed by with a stroller, a child seated inside. She is holding an incense stick, which symbolizes being handed a gift; the clouds suggest that the young mother receives enlightenment.

Young Man Overcoming Obstacles

Young Man Overcoming Obstacles

According to Roosevelt, the story behind this one is of a boy escaping his environment. He is poor and struggling, but he finds respite in his book. One might consider this autobiographical.

Eye of Reflection

Eye of Reflection

This is one of the Roosevelt’s spiritual paintings. The eye is all-seeing, and reflects all that we refuse to see and also that what we see is a mirror of our soul.

By Madhavi Athanikar & Susi Vogler

Headshot: Susi Vogler

Susi Vogler, photographer and co-interviewer, moved to the Grand Lake neighborhood in 2003, having spent most of her life in the East Bay. She recently earned the trail name “Snapchat” since she enjoys snapping photos of things that catch her eye, and her curiosity encourages chatting.

Madhavi Athanikar, writer and co-interviewer, has lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood for 3 years and recently left her job in fashion and retail management to look for her next adventure.



3 responses to “Roosevelt Washington: Portrait of a Portrait Artist”

  1. Thank you Ken, for introducing us to Roosevelt Washington! He is amazing! And, Madhavi applied her magic to his write-up!

  2. Kenneth Katz Avatar
    Kenneth Katz

    Susi and Madhavi. Love Roosevelt’s artwork and same goes for your reporting. Well done!!!

    1. Madhavi Avatar

      Thank you Ken. Roosevelt is an inspiring subject with a compelling life-story. We really enjoyed sitting down with him.

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