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Michael Roman wore his art on his sleeve
Michael Roman at Lismar Lounge, 1986. Courtesy: Anne D’Agnillo/Facebook
Carlos Barón

The note written on Facebook was brief and dramatic: “Michael Roman died in my arms this morning at 10:15 a.m.”

The author of the note, artist Kate Rosenberg, had been taking care of Michael for the last weeks of his life. Once the prolific and generous Roman was told that there was no chance to be operated for his various ills, he asked to be sent home …and Kate was the favored home for his heart of hearts.

Thus, I know that he died in his preferred way: close to Kate. For that, I believe that we should all be happy and thankful. When a love story generously unfolds in such a public manner, we all benefit. Why should we only be constantly assaulted by terrible news invading the media, both social and otherwise? Thank you, Kate. Thank you, Michael.

Michael’s death shakes us up, because his life and his art did likewise. He was a very public figure, a compelling and complicated soul, a person whom we both admired and feared. Let me clarify where the admiration and fear come from.

First, we admired his constant creativity and his generosity. Many people have expressed that Michael had given them a print, a drawing, a shirt… or that he sold it at a very reasonable price.

We also admired the wondrous way he exploded his creations in our collective imagination, filling our eyes and minds with with various imagery  of angels, devils, serpents, drumming “calacas” (skulls), Fridas, male and female Mexican revolutionaries, amulets called “manos mágicas and Milagros,” jaguars, hearts… or his pre-Columbian images mixed with images of Muni transfers, Nina Simone and John Coltrane, plus his references to gentrification and homelessness. All issues that were indeed dear to him, and to us.

He did all of that with an amazing awareness of color schemes and with what Linda Wilson—a longtime friend of his and a well-known photographer and activist in our community—called “a great sense of placement.” He knew how to create good balance in his work, a compelling relationship between the multiplicity of subjects and colors that co-habited in his creations, be they stencil or silkscreen.

As per the fear reference, more than fearing any damage that he might cause us, we feared for him. When he suffered, we suffered. The fact that he voiced his own fears out loud, publicly exhibiting his own very human frailties, scared us. When he voiced his fears, he voiced ours. His vulnerability reminded us of our own, and allowed us to compare ourselves to him and check our own relative mental stability.

“Michael was a starving artist all his life,” Rosenberg said in a recent interview. “He did not give a rat’s ass about money!”

Nevertheless, it must not have been easy to live like that. He had to hustle to survive. That is why he could be seen regularly spending long hours on the streets of the Mission, offering his colorful wares. It was not a hobby for him; it was absolute necessity.

Sometimes, he would call me (and a few others as well) at some crazy hour of the night, to complain about life, or to announce: “I’ll be in my studio on Tuesday, from 10 on. Come by!”

It got so that I eventually simply turned off my phone at night, because those calls were never simple or short. Love was usually a principal subject—long monologues on the ups and downs of his love life. If I dared to interrupt, he seemed not to hear me and simply insisted with his solo.  A couple of times I hung up on him, or he hung up on me.

Recently, he left me an extraordinarily sweet message, thanking me for having heard his sorrows and for having bought a piece from him. I kept that message for a long while, because the love expressed in it was so genuine. It made me feel good to hear him expressing those thoughts and I loved the fact that he sounded happy. Today, at this late hour, I confess that I would not mind at all to get a call from him. My line is open.

Wilson recently told me that Michael said, more than once: “I’d wish that I was a normal person.” I thought about that, but I remember a phrase on a postcard that seems closer to his truth: “I tried to be normal once… Worst two minutes of my life!”

Some call Michael “a real artist,” meaning that his conflicts were an inherent part of his life as an artist, as if he was some kind of modern Van Gogh, who was diagnosed with “acute mania and generalized delirium” after he cut off an ear.

Michael never cut off an ear like Van Gogh, but he indeed wore his heart on his sleeve. Thus, he expressed his emotions freely and openly, for all to see.

I happen to believe that great art can be created by happy and well-balanced human beings, but I greatly respect the relative madness that creative minds sometimes exhibit.

The last word belongs to the artist. “You kind of go nuts doing this,” Michael said of his work, pausing briefly and adding, “I love it.”

Story by: Carlos Barón