The coronavirus crisis has humbled renowned local painter Tony Roko

In popular culture, artists are often depicted as solitary creatures who create their most important works during lonely stretches of darkness, away from the distractions of other people and the social graces they require.
And while the act of creating is mostly performed in solitude for Plymouth-based painter Tony Roko, the COVID-19 crisis has also emphasized just how much his work relies on connecting with people in person.
“Developing a career as an artist is so heavily hinged on events and gatherings,” Roko, 49, said. “People really need to experience the work so they can make those deep connections. (Coronavirus) has really stifled that.”
A former Ford assembly worker who became its plant-resident artist, Roko has risen over the last three decades to become one of southeast Michigan’s most well-known and successful painters, counting the likes of Jay Leno and Lady Gaga among the famous clients drawn to his angular, colorfully expressionistic portraits that often harken back to a bygone era.
At this stage in his career, Roko rarely puts on shows. Much of the work comes from commissions, and whatever doesn’t, typically gets bought up quickly. But Roko said he was excited for his first show in years at Two James Distillery in Corktown and prepared a flurry of new works for the exhibit, only to have the March 19 event canceled because of COVID-19.
More: Decade of freelancing prepared photographer for this moment
More: Detroit arts orgs find unity, shared mission amid pandemic
He said his collectors are still buying the work, but with his Plymouth studio closed for the time being, he’s taken what he estimates to be a 50% hit to his income so far. But Roko cautions that it’s early yet, and the long-term impact on artists like him is difficult to predict.
“For some people, this may have been the time to look at a blank wall in their house and think about a work that they’ve seen me post,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m not certain how long that can last if this continues.”
With his studio closed, Roko and his studio manager are working on ways to provide potential buyers with a more immersive online experience. They’re experimenting with higher resolution images and maybe even video.
The educational programs Roko runs for kids through his Art Foundation nonprofit have also had to be redesigned for an online learning environment.
And Roko’s plan to redevelop the old Wilcox Mill site into an arts and event space has also been thrown into limbo.
It’s been a humbling experience in other ways, too. Without his assistant, Roko is prepping boards himself and working out of his home like in the old days.
“There’s been kind of the silver lining of getting back to the basics and having the opportunity to paint from the heart more,” Roko said. “When the demand for your work isn’t there, it’s a really cool sort of experimental playground. And when the demand comes, which is a beautiful thing and something we all hope for, there’s also this unspoken expectation that comes with something that they’ve seen already. And I think that’s always been the push-pull, is to try and keep it fresh but not lose that significant thing that people have perhaps come to expect.”
Freed a bit from the typical constraints, Roko has turned to the current moment for material.
“I was really inspired to paint a nurse,” he said. “And I fought it a little bit because it seemed cliche and I always have a battle with that. But I was really compelled to paint a nurse, because let’s face it, those in uniforms, aprons and scrubs are kind of the new heroes. … So it’s got me really contextualizing the times.”
“The Nurse” isn’t quite finished yet. It still needs to be filled in with Roko’s signature fiery color palette. But getting there has been a challenge during this crisis, in part because of something the artist likens to “nonessential survivor’s guilt.”
“It’s never been more difficult for me to get to the canvas, to cross that threshold, because I’m worried and concerned and I have kids,” he said. “I’m as scared as everybody else. So it can feel self-important or it can feel selfish or it can feel like a betrayal of the times.”
At the same time, periods of worldwide turmoil like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic inspired and informed so many of Roko’s own artistic forefathers like “The Scream” painter Edvard Munch, himself a survivor of the Spanish flu.
This crisis has given Roko a fresh perspective on their works, he said, adding a deeper level of relatable meaning to pieces he had long studied.
There’s a stronger parallel to that history in his own work now.
“It feels like Rome is burning and I’m out there mixing oranges for the flames,” Roko said.
obd2 scanner