Astoria Characters: The Renaissance Man

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman is from Kiev, Ukraine.

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?

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s written over 1,100 compositions for the lute.

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He’s completed hundreds of paintings.

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, the two children and two grandmothers – decided to come to New York, originally settling in the Bronx. New immigration laws were an incentive.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The art of paint-splattered khakis.

“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.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s collection of lutes.

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A detail of one of Roman’s oil paintings.

“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.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s a scenic artist for films and TV shows.

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Still life: A red chair, a pair of paintings and an artist’s knees.

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman say he never runs out of ideas.

“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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s works are dark and brooding.

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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s studio is next door to the apartment he lives in.

“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.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Roman’s signature says it all.

“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 Sept. 15, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling