Cup 41

Person: Roman Kroke

Drink: Espresso

I was sitting on a small floor cushion inside a fourth floor studio in Art House Tacheles. It’s an art center in Berlin that began as a department store in the Jewish quarter that was later used as a Nazi prison. When the Berlin wall fell the partially demolished building was overtaken by artists and transformed into studio space and a nightclub. It’s interior is filled with wall to wall graffiti and a streams of visitors looking at both the building and the art of its tenants.

Roman Kroke’s studio was much calmer than the rest of the building. Old American music played softly in the background while small candles on the table created a soft light illuminating the walls covered with black and white photos, old handwritten notes and black and white illustrations depicting scenes from the 1940s. After spending a day discovering Berlin’s history, it was moving to be in a building and a room with so much history and character.
The illustrations on Roman’s wall depicted excerpts from Diaries of the Dutch Jew Etty Hillesum. It is one of his most prominent projects. Etty was in her mid-20s during the Holocaust. The book, published posthumously, starts with intimate diary reflections describing the difficulties of life in Amsterdam during the German Occupation. The second half is a series of letters she sent from the Westerbork work camp where she lived until she was taken to Auschwitz and later died. Roman illustrated several scenes from the book for a documentary titled The Convoy and is now turning illustrations into a published book.

The pictures and letters covering Roman’s walls serve as both research and inspiration. His work, which focuses on the Halocaust and Berlin’s history, helps draw attention to events that are too often forgotten or misinterpreted—he loves interpreting history from a fresh perspective. As he told me, history from yesterday can teach us lessons we can apply tomorrow.

Roman career is much different than the one he had when he left university. As young student he had a difficult time narrowing his many interests down into one degree but eventually settled on International Human Rights Law. After several internships, his law career was off to a good start; however, he quickly realized he was not meant to have a life in law. His true passion was illustration.

He continued working part time as a lawyer and researcher while he launched his art career and eventually reached a point where he could be an artist full time. When I asked Roman if there was something he wished he had known back when he finished earning his law degree and he answered with a metaphor:

Every tree begins as a seed and grows inch by inch. No seed becomes a big tree overnight because every step is necessary.

He was saying you have to endure both good and bad to grow. The way he phrased his answer was powerful. Roman answered many of my questions with similar stories or insights—sometimes he answered my question with a question of his own. I appreciated his insight and imagination because it forced me to examine things from different perspectives.

Roman sees the world from a different angle and that quality leads to fascinating and thought-provoking conversation. I could see why the friend I was staying with in Berlin suggested we meet. Our conversation covered a variety of topics. One minute we are talking about the art workshops he runs for high school kids, the next I am writing down a list of my favorite country music artists. I told him I like country music because it reminds me of home and he asked me to write down a few names he could look into since country isn’t popular in Germany. 

After I’d written a list, Roman looked at it and commented that my handwriting was interesting; very linear—straight lines, sharp points, few curves. I found his observation interesting because earlier that week I’d looked through the hundreds of pictures I’d taken so far on the trip and realized I was drawn to pictures that had straight lines and symmetry. I took out my camera and showed him one of my favorites; a cross section of the Berlin wall that had several parallel lines.

Roman looked at the picture and agreed that it was very linear but then noted the fluffy clouds and blue sky were an important piece of the photo. He said without the sunny backdrop, the picture would be too structured and therefore boring. Then he pointed out the reverse is also true. A picture of a blue sky without substance would also be boring.

What makes the photo interesting is the mix of the two—the dichotomy of the wall’s strong presence against the peacefulness of the sky. It had the right balance.

I loved his critique of his photo because his insight related to more than just photography. It related to life. The key is finding the right balance.

During the course of our conversation Roman and I talked about the challenges of doing creative work, especially when self-employed, and it was clear many of the challenges stem from finding the right mix of two things. Working hard without overworking or burning out. Moving a project forward without forcing it. Enjoying the moment but still preparing for the future. Striving for greater things while still appreciating what you have. Being creative yet pragmatic, confident yet humble. The list goes on.

Finding balance is incredibly difficult—and even if you do, it’s usually for a fleeting moment. Life is too fluid. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort. Roman uses swimming as an outlet for stress, surrounds himself with people that support his efforts and fortunately has incredible passion for his work that pushes him through the moments of doubt that everyone experiences.

I’m glad I met Roman and heard his stories before going back to the US and jumping into a career. Too often people get so wrapped up in their work they neglect another aspect of their lives—family, friends, heath, etc. It works for a while, but if the balance is wrong for too long, things start to fall apart.

Cup 41, and the picture of Berlin, serves as a reminder that I need to have structure in my life, but not so much that I don’t have blue skies too.

Because everyone’s life is a unique piece of art. And like Roman said, if you find the right balance you make it interesting.

You might even make a masterpiece.