In a funky, faceless, 185.8 sq m art studio at the edge of downtown Plymouth, Michigan, Tony Roko stands, paint brush in hand, staring intensely at a looming 6ft-tall canvas.
The 48-year-old Roko has sketched on it an image of a bygone era’s train conductor.
The painting, though far from finished, is worth tens of thousands of dollars: Not for what it is, but for what it will be and where it is expected to be displayed. There is also the value of Roko’s rising clout in the art community.
“The frame will make it 8 feet tall,” said Roko.
To create it, Roko becomes a casting director for a silent film. “I’m shaping the story. So I consider, ‘Who is this guy? What were his convictions? What is he proud of.’”
This guy matters a lot. Roko said Ford Motor Co’s commercial real estate arm, Ford Land, wants him to do the painting for the permanent art collection in Detroit’s historical Michigan Central Train Station. Ford bought the station in June.
For Roko, who has painted works for stars such as Jay Leno and Lady Gaga, as well as for various Detroit businesses, few clients matter more than Ford. It was Ford leaders who discovered Roko’s talent when he worked on the assembly line nearly 30 years ago installing panels on Escort sub-compact cars.
“That’s the great irony of it all,” Roko said. “Ford believed in my skills before I did.”
Ford bought the dilapidated train station for an estimated US$90mil (RM375mil) in June to turn it into the hub of a tech campus in the Corktown area, bringing some 5,000 workers to the neighbourhood.
“He has done really great work for us before,” said Christina Twelftree. She said Roko is currently a “safety painter” at Ford’s factories, meaning he designs the visual health and safety signs in plants.
Ford plans to have restaurants and stores as well as offices in the train station, so, “We’ll work with multiple artists to bring the spaces to life,” Twelftree said.
Roko said he was “overflowing with inspiration” when Ford approached him, and he got to work immediately to create a painting.
For the subject, he contemplated the station’s history, the grit of Detroit and the nostalgia of train travel, and knew the character of that guy in his painting: “He’s sincee, loyal, complicated and dedicated, but he looks like he could be in a Charlie Chaplin film.”
The painting’s frame will embody the past. Roko constructs his frames using wood and materials from abandoned barns, old houses and other era-specific relics he finds from collectors. In this case, expect a 1920s-30s authentic conductor’s clicker counter, a lantern, a whistle and a pocket watch to be embedded into the frame of the painting he calls The Conductor.
Roko’s success blossomed from humble origins. His parents were refugees from Montenegro, a piece of the former Yugoslavia along the Adriatic coastline. They came to Detroit via Rome in 1968.
His father worked as a barber and his mother cleaned houses. They settled into subsidised housing in Canton. Michigan, in the early 1970s, when Roko was born. The family did not speak English, so Roko and his parents watched the only movies they could understand: silent films.
“In retrospect, when my parents watched those, as a kid, I remember they were engaged and enjoyed it,” said Roko. “It was that expression of non-verbals.”
Even once Roko was in school and started to learn English, he relied on the visual cues of his classmates and teacher to navigate the social scene and curriculum. It’s why Roko wants to tell a story in each painting he does and uses whimsical characters and nostalgic auras to do so.
“When people say my work is so expressive, it’s because I am communicating through expression – because that’s what my formative years were,” Roko said.
Shy and awkward, Roko said he drew “obsessively” in school and that habit spilled into adulthood.
Painting the plant
In 1989, at age 18, Ford hired Roko to work on its assembly line at Ford’s Wayne Stamping and Assembly plant, Twelftree said. On his breaks, Roko said he passed time sketching. Soon word spread there was “an artist on line 1”.
“I started being asked by people on the line to do sketches of their family members or, if someone was retiring, they’d ask if I could do a card,” Roko said.
Ford management one day asked him if he was the artist.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Roko said, laughing. He quickly assured bosses that he only drew during his breaks. “But they asked me if I’d like to spearhead a plant beautification programme”, which entailed painting large-scale murals on the factory walls. The initiative was intended to boost plant morale.
To ensure employee involvement, plant leaders set up a suggestion box for workers to choose the inspirational images they wanted Roko to paint. The workers chose Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Joe Louis. It took him three months to complete them.
“I didn’t know the impact of that until I started painting the murals,” said Roko. “People would take their lunch breaks to watch me paint and they’d start talking to each other about their memories of Muhammad Ali or Eastwood. It encouraged dialogue.”
Over the years, Roko has refined his style, inspired by the masters such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Shiele and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
He’s also learned to make a living off his art, marketing it to Detroit businesses and beyond. Two years ago, he moved his art studio from his home basement to a space on Adams Street in Plymouth, nestled between the small downtown and the historic Old Village area.
The centre of his studio features a lounge with 1960s retro chairs and two sofas. A copy of the Vanity Fair magazine that featured Roko’s art lies on a narrow coffee table. In the studio’s far corner is a small stage where a guitar rests. In the opposing corner is a compact bar with bottles of Detroit’s Atwater beer on it (his art is on the labels of Atwater beer). All along the walls hang his paintings for sale.
The entire rear area is a large work space strewn with dozens of cans, tubes and jars of paint; canvases with paintings-in-progress are propped on easels, and there are the scattershot of paint-splattered palettes and brushes.
A Roko print can cost US$50 (RM208.50) to US$1,200 (RM5,000). For those with deeper pockets, a Roko original painting can run US$3,000 (RM12,500) to more than US$20,000 (RM83,380). Not bad for a former factory worker.
Roko’s heart lies in using art to help others. About three years ago, he started Art Foundation. It’s a single, four-hour class that uses the power of painting to help people express emotion. He has worked with teenage boys from juvenile detention to women who escaped prostitution to cancer survivors.
“Each experience is so different,” Roko said. “When we worked with the boys from detention, a lot of them were drug runners, wards of the state who were in abusive situations. When I start the class, they won’t even make eye contact with me. But there’s that moment in the class when they’re suddenly aware of what they’re capable of and it’s a surge that you can’t articulate.” – Tribune News Service/Detroit Free Press/Jamie L. Lareau