Years ago I majored in art history. I still enjoy taking a look at museums and galleries today to find out what artists are working on. Recently, I interviewed artist Roland Ruocco to learn more about the influences on his work, themes in his art, and his exciting mural projects for Fort Myers, Florida. Ruocco is also very involved with community outreach in art and education through the New Light Foundation with his wife, artist and screenwriter Wendy White. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
If you could time travel, which artist would you most like to meet and why?
I would say that I’m really influenced as an artist by the Romantic period, 1700s into the 1800s. There are several artists that I think are just amazing: Paul Delaroche, John Constable, [Jean-Auguste-Dominique] Ingres who are all from around that time.
I’m from New York originally. When I was in college and afterwards, I used to enjoy going to the Frick Collection by Central Park. They had several paintings of that period. I used to buy the postcards and see if I could copy the paintings for their techniques. There’s another great painter, [Jean-Honoré] Fragonard, who painted idyllic scenes and beautiful foliage.
When I was much younger, I was influenced by comic books. I was an avid comic book reader and I learned how to draw from all the great comic book illustrators.
Which elements specifically grabbed you about the comic book imagery?
First of all, 90 percent of the illustrators were amazing draftsmen. Their drawing skills were and still are off the charts. Also, the anatomical studies – drawing people and characters in all different positions. Setting up scenes in terms of perspective with buildings, cars, and people all working together was something I got into at a young age. I used to draw my own little comics.
What’s a lesson you learned in art school that you still carry with you today?[There’s] the freedom of being in the studio. Oh, and the life drawing! We worked a lot with models when I went to Pratt in Brooklyn. We also had models in painting classes. Working on the human figure is always a challenge. That was probably the thing I got the most out of in college.
Do you primarily work in studio, or for say a landscape, would you paint outside?
If I’m working on a landscape, I’ll start it outside. But what I never do is go to a place and copy it. I use the elements that are in nature. If I want to see what a sky or trees look like, I’ll look at sky, trees, ground, and what’s around me to make my own compositions out of it. I also utilize the light and color. Then when I get a pretty good sketch down, I’ll often go into the studio and really put in the final points.
Do you find there’s more of demand for a certain type of product?
If you go into a gallery in Southwest Florida, for example, you’ll see a lot of fish and birds, or things like that. I don’t necessarily do that type of work. I respect people that do it well. [In] contemporary studies, I do textile and surface design. I have prints like florals. I recently painted a group of roses close up in acrylic, which I don’t usually use. It’s contemporary, but it’s not disturbing and it’s pretty. I find that people usually gravitate towards things that make them feel good: sunsets and flowers. If I was going to paint something like “Oh, I really want to sell this piece” – and the last thing I want to do is pander – but if I was in that mindset or in a commission, I would stay within areas that people feel comfortable with.
Tell me about your other contemporary art.
I have videos with machines and words like “Consume, Conform, Obey.” We were just talking about the type of art people would like to be around. That’s an example of the type of art that disturbs people. I try to identify problems and then I would express that mostly in my Modern Times series on social and political issues. I also try to come up with solutions, which I express in the New Earth series. It’s a hopeful and positive future for people based on universal love and brotherhood. It’s important as an artist to convey things, but it’s also important to have solutions.
Which medium is or was the most challenging for you to work with?
I work in a lot of media [including] 3D sculptural work, LEDS, polyester resins… Resins are very challenging to work to work with. I do sculptures in clay and then make casts and molds. Using any of the media well and to gain some level of mastery, whether it’s oil paint or pastel, is all a challenge.
I saw your kitchen pieces. I liked the one saying “Rise and Shine.”
Those are all digital illustrations on the computer with the rooster and rise and shine. [Laughs] Everybody loves that, coffee –
They’re great conversation starters.
I tell you something, that’s why I put them together. Everyone should have at least one.
In school, I knew a composition was done pretty much when the teacher said what the deadline was. How do you know when a landscape painting is finished?
Tongue in cheek, when you’re sick of it. But generally, the way I work is I will start a piece and get pretty well into it. I’ll get bored with it , and I’ll work on something else I have. Many artists work this way. I’m still looking at that [first] piece, like what do I want to do, how do I want to proceed, and what things I want to add. Then it hits you and you feel motivated to go back and finish. What I think is important, and other artists may feel the same way, is that you don’t want to over-paint and be fussy. It’s okay to leave things and not go in with a magnifying glass to finish every brush hair. That’s when I know it’s done.
What gives you the most joy as an artist?
In art, it’s the excitement of being inspired to start a new piece or even finishing something. An artist has to be patient and sometimes delay gratification for a long time before a piece is done to satisfaction. In fact, I’m finishing up a piece that I started in 2014 from my New Earth series. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it for many years. It’s about people working on their energies, living close to animals, and living in harmony with nature. A few weeks ago, it was like, “I know what to do with this now!” I pulled it out and I’ve got it 97 percent done.
I saw you’re very involved with your New Light Foundation. What have been your favorite community outreach projects?
I probably enjoy working with kids the most. I spent years teaching since we moved down to Florida in 2001. We started to do voluntary workshops with kids in distress, community centers, and so forth. Then we wound up getting grants to do them. In Broward Country alone, I did that for 10 years in communities where a lot of the kids don’t get exposure to art. We’d do it up to three times a week and cycle through media. It’s been great to have fun with kids and expose them to being creative with drawing, paint, and clay. I find that very rewarding. I’ve worked with literally thousands of kids.
How did you get into mural projects recently?
We lived on the east coast for years. We had our working studios and galleries around Fort Lauderdale and Miami. When we moved to Southwest Florida, it’s a different vibe here in terms of the art scene. It’s a much quieter place. I joined the Fort Myers Mural Society and I wound up doing over the year several mural project in downtown Fort Myers. At a restaurant that was opening up, I did a big gesturing hand that’s 35 feet up on the building.[Now] there’s one in downtown Fort Myers for McCollum Hall, a historical project to commemorate the restoration of a building that was a cultural center in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. It was a dance hall. A lot of really big name acts used to come through called the Chitlin’ Circuit: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. These were the giants of music in those days!
Are these McCollum Hall panels also 30 feet high?
No, that was for the restaurant mural. These panels are lower and at ground level. Thank God no scaffolding is needed. The panels are about 8 feet high by 18 feet wide. We’ll have about 15 to 17 panels by the end of June. The first phase is finished and we’re working on the second phase.
Since it’s a historical project, are you researching and looking at a lot of pictures from that era?
Absolutely. In fact I’m designing a panel right now for Ella Mae Piper, who was a local resident and an amazing entrepreneur and inventor. She had a beauty salon and she developed skin creams. She had a little restaurant and soda pop. The panel celebrates some of her achievements.