All artist Walker T. Roman hopes for is 12 and a half seconds: the average amount of time a person spends looking at a painting. It was the musing of a college professor, who once told Mr. Roman, “if you get 12 and a half seconds, you’ve done a good job. Anything more than that and it’s a huge success.”
It all depends how you measure an artist’s success, though. Is it receiving an art scholarship? Hanging your art in a gallery straight out of high school? Collectors owning your pieces in Washington, D.C., Texas, London? Showing your paintings in the mecca of it all, New York City? And he’s only 23 years old.
Mr. Roman, who was raised in West Tisbury, says the ambition to become an artist hit him while in class at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). He was sitting in drawing class with two friends, when, Mr. Roman said, “We began to ask each other, can this be more than just a hobby? Can this be what we do? And I remember having this overwhelming feeling at that moment that this is exactly what I should do.”
Not long after, Mr. Roman received the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association Scholarship via MVRHS. Part of the scholarship involved a two-week show of his work at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown. The couple in London who owns Mr. Roman’s work first saw it there. “As an 18-year-old coming out of high school, I got the most encouraging response I could have had,” Mr. Roman said.
After graduation, Mr. Roman set out for Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where he earned his bachelor of fine arts degree. He painted often, showing his work at the college’s shows, as wells as the Yes.Oui.Si. Art Space and the Piano Factory Guild in Boston, the Ivy Hall in Lowell, and various galleries on the Island.
While working as a visitor assistant and gallery operator at the Museum of Contemporary Art this past winter, a man overheard Mr. Roman explaining a piece of art — a solid three-foot cube composed entirely of pins. The man was Tim Donovan, an artist and curator, and he was impressed with Mr. Roman’s approach. “We met in the context of how do you explain contemporary art to someone who might not have a background there, and how do you communicate with that person,” Mr. Roman recalled. “We hit it off immediately.”
When Mr. Donovan began curating a show at Launch F18 Gallery in NYC, he asked Mr. Roman to be a part of it. “It was a really big deal,” Mr. Roman said. “The first thing I did was call my mom like ‘Guess what? Art school mattered!’
“Boston is a great city to learn to be an artist in, but it’s a very difficult city to actually be an artist in,” Mr. Roman said. “So the sooner I could branch out from there, the better.” Besides, after spending five years in Boston, Mr. Roman says the city is not where he wants to be right now, “which can be a problem for an artist, especially one who’s trying to build a career.”
But Mr. Roman also suspects he doesn’t need to follow the traditional artist’s path of going to a prestigious grad school. “We can blame the Internet like everything, but now it’s like that path has been disrupted, and you don’t need to do it the same way you had to 20 years ago,” he said. “Trying to figure out what I do next is going to be difficult.”
For now, he plans to spend some time on Martha’s Vineyard, and “just crank out as much work as I can.” He hopes he can build a strong enough portfolio to earn him free tuition in a graduate program. “That’s saying a lot, but the possibility does exist and that’s something I’d like to do,” he said.
Mr. Roman’s artwork draws from a number of sources. His paintings are often mixed media abstractions, using acrylics and oils. Some incorporate edgier tools like silk screening and spraypaint. Lately, Mr. Roman says he has been inspired by an English landscape painter named J.W. Turner, and Philip Guston, an artist who Mr. Roman says “made giant ugly paintings.” Mr. Roman says he uses a lot of traditional structures and techniques, but they are often disguised: “I’m trying to ride this line between something that looks clumsy but perhaps gains a lot of its presence through that,” he said.
The style lent itself particularly well to an Island art project called Whatever the Outcome (WTO), curated by Craig Miner of West Tisbury, in which a magnetic painting is cut up into pieces, dispersed into the community, and reassembled. When Mr. Miner asked Mr. Roman to do the second WTO painting (the first was done by Traeger di Pietro in June), Mr. Roman said, “I totally freaked out, because for any artist to hear ‘all you have to do is paint’ is the greatest gift you could be given.”
Mr. Roman says his painting draws on J.W. Turner’s color structures, and the “Spaceman Spiff” series in the Calvin and Hobbes comics. “There’s something kind of bratty and obnoxious about it, bright colors and overstated drama, but underlying that is something very witty and wise,” he said.
Mr. Roman is enthusiastic about his painting and the project as a whole. “Something I think all artists struggle with at some point in time is wondering if what they’re making is inaccessible or exclusionary or pretentious,” he said. ‘WTO opens all those doors. You don’t need to know anything, you can know everything, and you can still enjoy it with everyone else. That’s what’s powerful about it.”
Whatever the Outcome reception, Thursday, August 22, 3–7 pm, The Field Gallery, West Tisbury. For more details, contact Craig Miner at 774-563-0128. For more information on Walker T. Roman, visit his website at walkertroman.com.