The Renaissance Man of Art and Music
The sunlight, streaming into the studio like a spotlight, focuses its beam upon a bright red chair. Empty, it’s sitting next to a couple of lutes and an electric guitar.
Into this eclectic still life walks Roman Turovsky, carrying one painting. Then another. And another and another.
The works are as dark and brooding as storm clouds. Melancholy, that’s what Roman calls them as he takes his seat to sit for his portrait.
Where should we start? Perhaps with a tune?
Roman picks up a lute and begins playing some of his own Medieval-Renaissance-Baroque-classical Ukraine-infused compositions, which number over 1,100 and have been recorded and performed by myriad musicians, including Christopher Wilke and Robert Barto.
Roman left Kiev, Ukraine, a lifetime ago; yet 40 years later, it still won’t let him go.
Roman, the son of artist Mikhail Turovsky and the brother of poet Genya Turovskaya, is a solid man with steely grey eyes, a shaved head and a grizzly goatee who works hard to affect a perpetual stern look.
When Roman came to America in 1979, the Soviet-Afghan war had just begun. He was 18 – draft age.
“The shadow of World War II had cast itself across generations of my family,” Roman says. “One of my grandfathers was killed in battle, and my great-grandmother was killed in Kiev in the wartime massacre of Babi Yar.”
The family – the parents, two children and two grandmothers – decided to come to New York, originally settling in the Bronx. New immigration laws were an incentive.
“Still, we had to give up our citizenship and each of us was only allowed to bring $100 in cash with us,” Roman says, adding that his father could not even take any of his own artworks. “We chose New York because my father is an artist, and it’s the center of the art world.”
Influenced and encouraged by his father’s work, Roman had begun drawing at a young age.
“I was born to it,” he says. “I liked to make pictures.”
He became interested in music at the same time.
Roman, who had learned English from a family friend in Kiev, attended high school for a year in the Bronx before enrolling at Parsons, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
It was in college that he became serious about the lute; the guitar, he adds, is a recent obsession.
“I like to wear as many hats as possible,” he says, adding that he also is a photographer and video installation artist. “My ego is quite big. It’s commensurate with all my interests.”
After graduation, he got a job as an art director for an advertising agency. When he was let go in the industry’s massive layoffs of 1988, he became a social worker at a refugee resettlement agency, a position that perfectly suited him given that he speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English and Italian.
From there, he transitioned to the TV and film industry, where he is a freelance scenic artist. He’s worked on a number of projects, including Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog,” Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” and the Netflix TV series “Narcos.”
Right now, he’s working on “Emergence,” an ABC TV series that debuts in September, and the soon-to-be released film “After the Wedding.”
In between jobs, Roman works on his art and composition. His 400-square-foot studio is in the apartment next door to the one where he lives with his wife and twin 19-year-old sons.
“I’ve never had a shortage of ideas,” he says, sorting through the hundreds of paintings stacked in his studio.
Typically, he sketches ideas for his paintings, which are figural works with elements of expressionism and abstraction. He works in strict silence.
“I’ve always believed that real art is based on a sense of loss,” Roman says. “And that can be the loss of youth, of health, of life, of innocence.”
Roman strives to impart a “poetic quality” to his works. One of his long-term projects, “Captive Audience,” is comprised of some 800 photographic portraits of colorful characters he has encountered around the world.
“I’ve been working on it for more than 20 years,” he says.
In black-and-white, the photos are blurred and softened to look like 19th-century daguerreotypes.
He’s also writing his memoir, which will include a lot of Astoria stories.
Despite the dark themes of his works – or perhaps because of them – Roman is a cheerful man.
“I really am very happy,” he says, with feeling.
So happy in fact that he’s content to keep doing everything he’s doing, which is quite a lot.
“I function best in a structured environment,” he says. “And I love working in film because I get to see a lot of parts of New York that others don’t see. I want to keep doing more of the same as long as I can.”
He stacks the paintings back in their shelves, closes the studio door and opens the door to his apartment.
“Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary” is September 15. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free public event.Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.