Walker T. Roman: Having You Look Where He Wants You to Look


‘Departure,’ oil on panel, 36 x 36 in.


Any extended conversation with artist Walker T. Roman is bound to be broad in scope — from the mechanics of sight to art history and environmentalism. A polymath of the amateur variety, Roman is constantly expanding his education, his studio practice binding together a diverse and divergent set of disciplines.

“Bill Nye was my hero,” Roman, who was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, said in a recent conversation. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a scientist and to go to Space Camp more than anything in the world. I learned later that a pursuit of physics required mathematics I didn’t have the passion for. I joke now being an artist is my way of being all those things I imagined as a kid without their specific responsibilities.”

Roman cites some examples: “I get to be a chemist learning about acid and base interactions in paint, or how different grinds of the same pigment refract light differently. I get to be a mathematician in a certain way in examining compositions of shapes and figures. I get to be a historian. I get to do all of these things as an artist, which is a dream come true.”

However, what one sees on viewing the 28-year-old artist’s work is not the technical approach. The impact is visceral. Roman creates both purely abstract and figurative work. Examples of the latter are currently on display at the Field Gallery. His Island landscapes capture a raw beauty that is both emotional and masterfully crafted.

“I always strive for the paintings to look effortless,” says Roman. “To give the impression that the painting completed itself in some way.”

Inspection reveals passages that dissolve into abstraction, as heavy texture suggests delicate details.

For example, with a few crisscrossed broad brushstrokes in various shades of white and blue, Roman builds up a remarkably vibrant snowy marshland scene. The quick jab of a coarse hog’s hair brush creates tufts of dried grass clinging, tangled and wild, to the windswept winter landscape.

Roman alternates between rendered details and implied pictorial elements, directing the viewer’s gaze and guiding the visual experience. He expresses great admiration for the gritty, atmospheric works of 18th century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner.

“The result that I’m after relates to Turner’s method of having a small subject very specifically described while everything else around it is soft and suggested,” says Roman. “He was a master of only having you look where he wants you to look. A lot of [Turner’s] work hinges on those few very identifiable elements that are holding the whole picture together. It’s sort of how we look at things in real life. We naturally stare at areas of high contrast. Being conscious of the mechanics of vision really informs the quality of his paintings.

“I think that’s a way of referencing the way that we perceive and process images. That’s the power of painting over something like photography. A photo has the ability to literally capture every blade of grass. A painting can show you every blade of grass without it actually being there.”

Another artist of Turner’s era comes to mind when viewing Roman’s striking landscapes. Not unlike Winslow Homer, Roman manages to capture both the majesty of nature and the casualness of a glance. The immediacy of Roman’s paintings is created by striking compositions and confident gesture as practiced underpainting and draftsmanship ground them to the natural world. Nor is he any stranger to experimentation. In “A Place in Time,” exploiting the textured wood panel through a reductionist method, Roman sands through existing paint layers, delivering the realistic surface quality of damp beach sand.

Such texture and material application are paramount to the artist’s work; again a pattern of alternation appears, between concealing and intentionally revealing the painting’s construction.

“I’m always conscious of how evident my hand is in the artwork. Some areas that are really thick and textural play up the presence of my hand. Other areas are soft and layered — obscuring it. Sargent was a master of this; he has these gauzy ethereal areas, built up through tons of transparent layers; it’s impossible to tell how it’s painted. And right next to it would be a big dumb blob of white. It’s that juxtaposition that I love to navigate between.”

Although he first pursued figurative art, Roman eventually started experimenting with abstract as well, and he continues to paint in both styles. He finds that the abstract works help him define his style as a figurative artist.

“I used to have really strong feelings about how abstract art is this, and figurative art is that. That each somehow meant and accessed something the other could not. I’ve realized how that distinction is arbitrary; they are the same. Whether it’s a flower or smear of paint dropped from a ladder, our eyes see it all the same.”

Roman is committed to using the most eco-friendly materials possible. He works with oils rather than acrylic paints, and wood panels as opposed to canvas. “This idea of making every practice sustainable is really important to me,” he says. “Those ideas have tied into the way I construct all of my paintings now.”

The artist’s interest in the environment has coincided nicely with his latest project — a collaboration with Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm. Roman and his fiancée Danielle Mulcahy, an illustrator, filmmaker, and multimedia artist who also works with wool and fiber, will be running the Native Earth farm stand this summer. The store will offer farm products and fiber art, and spinning, dyeing, and knitting supplies, as well as artwork by Roman and Mulcahy. “It’s a great opportunity for us to intersect our interests in sustainability, agriculture, and using local resources with our fine art,” says Roman. “We love the mission of Native Earth. We’re very eager to jump in in any way to help further that mission.”

The couple will also continue to show at the Vineyard Artisans Festival and the Chilmark Flea Market under their artists’ cooperative name, Barnyard Saints Art. This summer Roman will be showing at the Field Gallery for the first time. His growing success has allowed him, at this point, to focus on his art full-time.

The Vineyard native studied painting at MassArt in Boston, where he met Mulcahy. After earning his B.F.A., Roman spent some time working at the Institute of Contemporary Art, conducting tours and doing gallery talks. “I’d get a lot of time focusing on a single exhibition and really soaking it in,” says Roman. “Having the language to talk about the work that I studied and seeing all of these ideas play out in actuality in a museum setting, as opposed to the academic setting, was a really informative experience. I got the chance to experience art on a different timescale: Instead of seeing a particular work for a few minutes during a museum trip, I saw it every day for months. I learned as much there as I did at MassArt.”

Roman moved to his Island home with Mulcahy full-time in 2013. He worked for a while at the Charter School, teaching first and second graders. The couple started showing at the Martha’s Vineyard Artisans Festival and the Chilmark Flea, selling original artworks and fiber crafts.

As with his work, the artist tends to look at his place in the art world from an analytic perspective. “I’ve gotten to thinking about painting in very classical terms, not in terms of some conservative classical or neoclassical style, but as an art that accepts its own conventions and uses them to transform itself and extend its own range and narrative,” says Roman. “There is a very long history of painting, and everything that I make is in dialogue with that very long history. Everything that you do as an artist is building upon a thousands-of-years-long visual narrative.”

“For me, art history is the understanding that nothing, at the time it was made, was history. Every piece was contemporary. There was a time when Vermeer was the Rothko of his day. That has been true ever since the first person put their hand against a cave wall and blew ocher at it.”

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