It’s appropriate that artist Sean Roach’s first Island exhibit of his work is happening at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. Not only is Roach a former actor (as well as writer and producer of his own kids’ TV show), his latest series of paintings all feature a narrative with dramatic potential.
For example, the large-scale painting “Boys” depicts a group of little kids gathered in the woods in what appears to be a typical scene of children exploring in nature. However, closer inspection reveals the object of their focused interest — a pornographic magazine. Furthermore, a couple of the boys are carrying toy guns. Done in a highly realistic style, “Boys” is a Norman Rockwell–like scene with a contemporary message.
“The paintings are meditations on what I’m seeing my own kids experience, and also thinking back on what I experienced,” says Roach. “We found porn in the woods. It’s such a boy thing. A lot of guys I talk to say that they found porn in the woods when they were kids too.”
The artist refers to the series as social commentary, referencing things like gun control, violence, and the prevalence of controversial content in the media. “Everything is on the Internet now,” he says. “The onus is on the parents to protect their children, but it’s no longer a luxury. It’s a utility. The Internet is just ubiquitous. Myself and other parents are left with the problem of what we are going to do in this new world.”
Another image included in the Playhouse show depicts a father holding the hand of a small boy in front of the Capitol building. The figures are shown from the back so that the expressions on their faces are hidden from view. The painting, titled “Capitol Hill,” is open to interpretation, according to the artist. “I don’t expect people to extract all the same metaphors that I do,” he says. “I prefer for people to spark their own conversations.”
For Roach, the image represents his views on the current state of government and the media. “I made that painting when Trump was being sworn in,” he says. “My 7-year-old was asking me every day, ‘Why does everybody talk about this Trump guy?’ My son was hearing this hateful language — the Twitter trashing. How do you explain that to your children? It’s less about conservative or liberal. It’s about hate. There’s so much hate speech on the Internet. It’s a new world. When I was a kid, it wasn’t that pervasive.”
Roach notes that his experience with kids’ TV has given him a unique perspective on the world of childhood. He created and produced his own show, “Noodle and Doodle,” and served as host for “The Sunny Side Up Show.” The popular shows aired on Sprout and NBC, as well as networks all over the world. “I’ve done a lot of research on how children consume media,” he says.
The Playhouse exhibit is titled “Painting Meditation,” the word meditation referring to more than just a viewpoint on society, but also a quiet look at nature. A series of plein air paintings show scenes from the Vineyard as well as from around the Philadelphia suburbs. Roach and his wife Heather Dyas-Fried relocated to the Vineyard from the Philadelphia area in 2017. “I like peaceful places where you can see the water,” says the artist. “Water plays a big role in my work. I love painting water — the flow of water.”
The show also includes a few still lifes, which Roach refers to “meditations on vibrancy and color.” He also paints portraits. He says that the majority of his sales have come from private commissions.
Previously, the artist did scenic design and construction work for theaters, including for some Broadway shows. From that experience, he says, “I learned a lot about how to be a large-scale painter and also being a sculptor. I learned how to work with all of those materials from being in the scenic world.”
That background helped Roach secure a couple of interesting commissions. Among other things, he created a life-size Mr. Peanut sculpture for the Atlantic City boardwalk, and a 7-foot-tall Boston terrier in top hat and tails for the Madison Square Garden Co.’s Boston Calling festival.
Roach and Dyas-Fried moved to the Vineyard with their two young children a year and a half ago to care for Dyas-Fried’s ailing father. So far the couple has adapted well to the transition. Dyas-Fried has a theater background as well. Previously she ran a theater company called Equalogy that tours colleges with material focused on sexual assault.
The couple is excited about getting involved in the theater world here on the Island, and they are finding the community to be a welcoming one. Roach is looking forward to exploring more opportunities in the community, perhaps starting an adult improv group.
Sean Roach’s exhibit will hang at the M.V. Playhouse’s Art Space through April 4.