Art is Nathan Roper’s outlet to channel his energy. “It gives me a perspective,” says Nathan. At times tumultuous, Nathan’s life has taken him through addiction, prison and now, recovery. “That’s what art is supposed to do — pull an emotion out of you. It may not be good, it might be disgust. It might be revulsion, but at least it’s pulling something out of you.”
“I always had an artist’s soul,” says Roper. “I never had the medium through which to express it. Because you’re more sensitive and you’ve got to have an outlet to channel that sensitivity, that hurt, that anguish, that rejection that you feel more than most people. Because you see the world differently.”
Nathan was addicted to street heroin for thirty years and spent two years in prison. It was behind bars that Nathan discovered the power of art as a tool for self-expression. A fellow inmate offered Nathan his locker so long as Nathan drew him a different envelope every day for eighteen months. In conjunction with the other inmate’s envelopes, Roper began to illustrate his own. “I started sending them home,” reflects Roper. “My brother hung them on a wall. I figured next time I’d do one to where you’d get the whole collage and it would be one big picture. But, fortunately, I never went back to that place.”
Drawing and illustration with pencils and gel pens are Nathan’s preferred media because he appreciates the freedom and control it allows through hand-eye coordination. “They say you should find something you enjoy and this is probably the only thing I really do enjoy that I let hours fly by while I’m drawing. I can get lost in it, especially if I’m in a warm surrounding — a whole day can go by. Looking out a window I can always look at a landscape and think, ‘I can draw that.’ My mind is always leaning toward that.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, Roper spent much of his youth in Redding, Calif., a place, he says, unwelcoming to homeless individuals and drug users; “They wouldn’t even allow methadone there because they said it added to the drug problem.”
Upon his release from prison, Nathan had few places to go, and returned to Street Roots where he had been a vendor several years previous.
“That’s one thing I like about Street Roots,” he says. “You guys gave me a chance when nobody else would.” In terms of selling, he says, “I don’t want any favors. All I want is to just see what I can do. And I sell papers. That’s why I love this job.”
Selling drugs gave Roper the perspective to quit. “I actually quit dope selling heroin. Watching people in that constant state of desperation, coming up to me, needing something, willing to do anything,” he says. “That’s sad to be so reduced to that. That’s what I hated about being strung out; you’re so dependent on this thing that has what you need and you’re tore up from the floor up and you don’t see it. And when I was selling, I saw it. Finally, that stuff in my pocket had no pull to me. It was just junk. I finally understood why they use the word junk. It’s garbage!”
Of the places he has lived, Roper thinks that Portland and San Francisco are the most welcoming. “Being homeless, you don’t get a good dose of humanity every day. You’ve got to reach and look hard to find the humanity in things.” He finds that humanity by selling Street Roots; as a vendor, individuals acknowledge and accept him as human. “It pulls you into the community,” he says. “They get used to you, and you become part of their lives.”
Roper shows no signs of slowing down. He is in fact, only looking to create more. “I’m not done yet. I’ve got something to contribute to this community. The final epitaph hasn’t been written on me yet. I’m still growing, I’m still learning and I’m going to do something for Portland because it’s done something for me.”
Nathan Roper sells Street Roots outside the Starbucks on NW 21st and Lovejoy.