If I’m being completely honest, I was a little nervous to interview him. I’ve spent all of this past semester dreading when I have to share my work in class, mostly because it’s laughable that we are allowed to take the same level course. He sits with legs tucked up under him or with arms draped lazily over the backs of chairs, clearly intent on what’s going on, but also with the comfort of someone who has spent many, many hours on the fourth floor of Devlin.
He’s crazy talented—one of those special talents that you feel privileged to touch once or twice over your academic career, a talent you know will go on to do really amazing things. On top of his bananas amount of talent, he’s also reserved and initially comes off as difficult to grasp—distant, but with an easy smirk, and ideas about art that are big and smart. You can’t tell if he’s self-important or just operating in a dimension far beyond you.
On the surface, Roca does not subscribe to the mainstream Boston College culture. He is the antithesis of the BC bro—small, with unruly, dull copper hair he’s constantly taming with his hands, parting to the left. He models outfits like white high tops with a Keith Haring t-shirt covered by a corduroy jacket with a dream catcher zipper pull. He seems like he’s filling European stereotypes. He’s sensitive and well dressed. His yellow cigarette box and multi-colored swirled lighter are a distracting presence on the table behind him as he talks.
But there’s something beyond the whole Euro-aesthetic. It’s the reason I’m here—his art. Roca prefers drawing. The pieces he chooses to show me are sketchy, but precise, layered with meaning. His main fascinations are with the human form and lines. Sure, this sounds abstract—so many piece of art deal with the human form and/or lines—but in Roca’s busy black and white drawings, these are really the forefront.
“When I got here—I mean, everyone experiments with acrylic in high school, but the first time I painted for real was here.”
This style is what he prefers, but in some ways the work he doesn’t specialize in is more impressive. He’s showed me a mixed media painting and a painting, taller than both he and I, covered in a stencil work of Chance the Rapper overlaid with a mimic of Sargent. The way he talks about himself as painter, you think it would look inexperienced and crude. “Oil painting?” he said. “When I got here—I mean, everyone experiments with acrylic in high school, but the first time I painted for real was here.” But really, his piece is one of the most eye-catching ones in the all of the cubbies on the fourth floor of Devlin.
“Go to the MFA when your teachers tell you too, don’t just look at images online. Go to First Friday. There’s free wine. Really, there’s just free alcohol.”
He meant this symbolically, esoterically, a lens to look at life that becomes art. But it is also how he navigates BC. Many people think of the arts community as a fringe group, but Roca is very engaged with different people and different groups, body by body. He was the senator for arts and performance groups in UGBC and is the co-president of the art club. “I’ve been really involved, I think, trying to get arts to be more important on this campus,” he said. Not just for the art students, either. “I think there are some things arts can teach about us and there’s a joy, in even poetry and movies, even if you’re not making it you should be engaged in it. Because it does make you a more sensitive person.”
I asked him to tell me more about this. How does he think that the average BC student can be involved with arts? The tone with which he responded aged him. He sounded much older than 20.
“Go to the MFA when your teachers tell you too, don’t just look at images online. Go to First Friday. There’s free wine. Really, there’s just free alcohol.” Same goes for exploring the Coolidge Corner theater and other arts venues in Boston. “There’s no shame in being engaged in arts,” he said “I think it just gets put to the wayside, when it becomes about pre-professional and art just seems inessential when all you’re worried about is a career. It seems almost like a distraction, when the exact opposite is true.”
Hearing him talk about careers raised a whole set of questions for me. “Do you want to … like … continue to pursue art after college?” I asked tentatively, because I thought it was better than asking ‘if he wanted to be an artist.’ Because that thought, to the average, career-driven BC student like myself, sounds absurd. Or at the least, a very hard life.
But if anyone is on the right track, it’s Roca. He wants to get his MFA, but he’ll probably take a year off and be a studio assistant or get a job to make some money, “as unfulfilling as it seems.” He’s realistic, he knows there are loans to pay. For now, Roca works at the Museum of Fine Arts in Guest Relations. “I just like being there, around the art. I just walk around the museum for a lot of hours.” He also has a fellowship in the Fine Arts department, working for Professor Sheila Gallagher.
“She swears I’m not her assistant, but sometimes I can be her assistant. It’s fine. I enjoy it,” he said, laughing a bit with that smirk. Because being a professor’s research fellow means 20 minutes in the car together, chatting, and travelling to Wesley to help install an exhibit, like Roca got to do last week. He helped arrange smaller ink drawings into a larger piece. There was a lot of hemming and hawing from Professor Gallagher, making sure everything was just so as she and Roca worked. But even the mundane work of moving pieces of art around has value to Roca. “The best moments are when I get to put something down and she’s like, ‘perfect.’ It’s my own little piece,” he said.
After running through his credentials and the things he has managed to achieve here, I began to think Roca might actually be the model BC student. More than any resume point he can accrue, is his view of a liberal arts education, and the interaction of art in that equation. He has this way of half joking by saying a statement in a wry voice about things that are important or grandiose. I assume it’s a defense from sounding too lofty or obnoxious, but it doesn’t stop what he’s saying from being wise or any less serious. He is earnest about art, and he wants you to care.
“It’s invaluable to the liberal arts education,” he said. “It helps you see things better. I don’t know, there’s this quote from Winston Churchill, it’s from World War II.”
He grasped for an easy summary, a way to tell me what it all means, before getting frustrated and setting the scene for me.
“They’re running low on the military budget and so the Senate, or whatever they’re called, the Parliament, was all right like, ‘I think we should cut the endowment of the arts budget so we can pay for more tanks,’ and he was like, ‘Then what the hell are we shooting people for, if we cut the the arts budget?”
The consequences are not that dire here. But that is the question that Roca and I grappled with as we walked out of Devlin into the deep, inky November sky that felt too expansive and full of depth for just around six o’clock. We were talking about why, as students, we choose to push ourselves in extracurriculars that ultimately are pretty inconsequential. We were talking about our privileged, top 40 University generation’s “what the hell are we shooting people for?” I offered a reflection my professor used to think about Infinite Jest that felt important and not obnoxious because we were beyond the point of seeming obnoxious to one another. “How do we deal with something that is so vitally important and inconsequential at the same time?”
I left him silhouetted against the back door of Devlin, the spark of his lighter going up in the darkness, a scene that seemed deeply poetic and out of the ordinary at BC. I felt pensive and a little sad as I walked away, knowing that this connection was over, thinking to myself that meeting people who awe and intimidate me but who I choose to connect with on a level that I don’t get on a daily basis, this is what my education can—and should—be about. This is what we are shooting for.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics
Photos by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor