For many years, Diane Roka has been drawing everyday Philadelphians and luminaries visiting the city. She can be seen quietly in the audience—sketchbook in hand—at concerts, fashion shows and lectures around town, often sharing her work through Instagram.
“I’m really capturing Philadelphia all of the time,” Roka said. “Philadelphia is the perfect-sized city, from being able to walk to things, to like-minded people knowing each other.”
Her line drawings have an “unfinished” quality—because they are deliberately unfinished, waiting for the viewer’s eye to complete them. “It gives the drawing more energy,” she said. “But sometimes I have no choice, because a lot of the people I draw are constantly moving.”
One of Roka’s drawings can take 30 seconds or 30 minutes to complete, depending on the assignment. Live concerts take the longest—it may take more than one song for Roka to find her groove. She likes to wait until the performer returns to his or her original stance. “It’s really the only way for me to get a true likeness of a musician performing, especially a lead singer who is jumping around. You have to be patient. And, I’m waiting for the essential line to show itself. I’m trying to challenge myself to get the performer’s energy and likeness in as few lines as possible.”
CAPTURING THE ESSENCE
“Fashion shows are the most difficult because the models are moving so quickly,” she said. “It’s hard to get all the details unless the models stop to pose at the end of runway. You just get the essence of it, and some of it has to come from memory. That’s why I also love to draw the audience and behind the scenes.”
Roka has captured many Moore events in the past, from the Visionary Woman Award’s Zeidman lectures, to the annual Spring Fashion Show, to interior design panels featuring Karen Daroff, Marguerite Rodgers, Floss Barber and Barbara Eberlein. She prefers drawing in “real time” rather than after an event, unless she is drawing from a photo, such as a commission from a bridal client who had a destination wedding. She has also drawn from movies and videos, which she actually enjoys.
“I like to make drawing as challenging as possible, because it’s an adrenaline rush—especially drawing musicians live in concert,” she said. “It’s dark and they’re moving. It’s kind of Zen. You’re in the moment. The music definitely affects the line. If it’s a strong, driving beat, the line is heavier, more forceful. If the music is softer, the line is softer, too.”
“I feel like I’ve succeeded if I grab someone’s essence with the least amount of lines possible,” Roka said. “Sometimes I go the other way, depending on the assignment and capture every little detail, like every word on a restaurant chalkboard menu.”
DREAM COME TRUE
These days, Roka draws events that interest her. She may pitch an assignment directly to a potential client if she thinks it’s the right fit, or they may reach out to her. “I post all of my work on Instagram, tagging people and reporting on the event. It’s a good way to promote what’s going on in town. It’s like my own little newspaper.”
Over July Fourth weekend, Roka worked with local musician Ginger Coyle, who opened for singer Michael McDonald at the Waterfront Freedom Festival at Wiggins Park on the Camden waterfront. Coyle reached out to Roka via Instagram earlier this year and asked her to draw her album cover. Roka drew her in the studio recording, got to ride on her tour bus, and drew her from the wings onstage.
“It was really a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to spend enough time with my subject, especially a musician, who would trust me enough to invite me backstage, to sound check, to the recording studio. I’ve always been a journalist at heart, so that’s the real stuff, the long-form, Cameron Crowe-style Rolling Stone journalism from the 70s, where you really get in there and get something real.”
In 2014, Roka exhibited her drawings at a pop-up men’s store called Blue Claw near Boyds Philadelphia on Chestnut Street. The exhibition, called Proper & Correct, featured men she’d drawn over the years who were dressed in “proper attire,” whether they were a businessman, skater or surfer.
The exhibition caught the attention of Michael DeLuca, the visual design manager at Boyds, who commissioned her to do a portrait of him and his partner, and their dog, Teddy. Then he featured her work in an installation in all of the store’s window displays for six months.
“That was the first time I saw my work scanned and blown up so big,” she said. DeLuca used some drawings from Roka’s Proper & Correct series, but also commissioned her to take up residence and draw the salespeople, one of the tailors, and a few of her friends who modeled the luxury fashion that Boyds is known for. But then DeLuca had even more ideas. “I had always been more comfortable drawing people, but Michael asked me to draw mannequins, shoe displays and the decor elements that Boyds is known for, like the columns and railings, and the huge Tiffany chandelier lamp. Sometimes a client pushes you to do something that you didn’t think you could do, and it comes out well.”
Roka graduated from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and Rutgers College, where life drawing was a big part of her curriculum. “I had a fantastic professor, Lloyd McNeil, who was also a jazz flutist. He used to play for us while we were drawing the model. I think that’s where I first started thinking about drawing to music. Most people think that (figure drawing) is just a foundation course, but I loved it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Her professors were skeptical, encouraging Roka to go into painting. She graduated in 1989 and pursued other work while continuing to take figure drawing classes at Fleisher Art Memorial. In 2000, she became a pre-school art teacher at Moonstone, where she taught the daughter of artist and gallery owner Shelley Spector. “Shelley was having a ‘red dot’ show at her gallery where everything went for under $100 and she said that I could show my work. That’s when I started exhibiting.”
Around this time, Roka began freelancing in music journalism as a contributor to the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever. One of her assignments in 2004 was to interview John Doe, the lead singer of the band X. She had press tickets to his show at the World Café Live, and decided to draw during the show, not for the written piece, but for herself. “That became an addiction,” she said. “I thought, I can do this without dealing with publicists and transcribing. Some of the drawings started showing up in my articles, but not until Instagram did people really start seeing it.”
When asked about Instagram, Roka lights up. “I love having a place to share my portfolio of work, where it’s so simple to update it all the time. I feel like with my feed I’m the editor of my own private magazine, with all of my favorite contributors, and no ads!”
Though she never attended Moore, Roka said she always wanted to. As one of four kids growing up in Marlton, NJ, her parents encouraged her to apply to a state school. She was a BFA candidate at Mason Gross, but decided to switch to a double major of communications and visual arts at Rutgers College during her junior year. “I always loved fashion illustration, but in the 80s everyone said that it was dead. It was a dying art but it eventually came back.”
Still, Moore was always in the back of Roka’s mind. When she was living in Bella Vista and working at the pre-school, she used to pass alumna Heather Bryson’s gallery, B Square, and the two became close friends. “She gave me advice. She was an artist making work as well as running a gallery, so I listened.” Today, Bryson represents Roka, and she has been showing her drawings and collages at B Square since 2004.
Roka is also a close friend and frequent collaborator with Moore alum Janell Wysock, a textile artist and talented photographer. Roka and Wysock have collaborated on a book project called Sesh, where they traveled the U.S. and overseas capturing inspiring creative people in their studios and workspaces through drawings and photography.
Roka has collected the art work of Moore alums like Kelly Kozma, Aubrie Costello and Romy Burkus, and these connections have developed into friendships. “All of these women I was meeting became a common thread,” she said. “They were all Moore women, and they were talented and strong and empowered. I started going to Moore events and drawing there."
When asked about her dream assignment, Roka mentions other illustrators who are known for drawing live. “David Downton is one of the most talented live portrait artists I’ve ever seen and someday I would love to have a residency at a hotel, like he does at Claridge’s in London, where he has private drawing sessions with some of the most beautiful women in the world. Really, I would like to have the career of a photographer like Annie Liebowitz—journalism, books, exhibits. That’s why I call what I do ‘drawtography.’ Have sketchbook, will travel!”
For more of Roka's work, visit her Instagram page