Michael Roche is a brilliant Napa Valley artist, but he is also an architect, brand guru, father of three, coach to many and a selfless volunteer. His colorful pop-inspired artwork — “The Panel Project” — is currently on display at the CAMi Art and Wine Gallery in Calistoga, and one doesn’t have to look far to come across his other works. He has crafted dozens of wine brands, named popular restaurants, redesigned numerous homes and had a positive impact on the lives of many.
“I love Michael’s work — his use of intense color, familiar objects and his wit,” said vintner and artist Laurie Shelton, owner of CAMi. “People visiting the Napa Valley are drawn to the positive energy given off from his artwork.”
Roche grew up in Oakland. His parents divorced early, but his brother — Rodrick — as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins ensured that Roche was never far from a large and involved family. His father, Joseph, who worked at the C&H sugar factory in Crockett, and his mother, Janet, who worked primarily within government sectors focused on the politics of housing and urban development, have both passed away.
Reaching the highest levels of education was expected in the Roche family. His grandmother was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Fresno State University, and his mother earned a full-ride scholarship to Stanford, where she had graduated with honors.
Every day after school Michael and Rodrick headed straight to their grandparents’ house. There they completed hours of homework and ate dinner with family members.
“My grandmother was a retired teacher,” Roche said. “Between her and my mother, there was no skipping out of homework. There was an unwritten expectation that we’d go to college and go on to have a positive impact on society.”
Before her passing in 1999, Roche’s mother had worked as the director of housing and development in the city of Berkeley, then in Washington, D.C., as deputy assistant secretary of public housing within the Carter administration. After that, she was the chief of staff for the speaker of the assembly at the time, Willie Brown Jr.
Roche said the adults in his life had planted a seed that each child in the family was capable and then set about nourishing and expecting that seed to grow. He attributes at least some of the reason for his broad array of interests to the fact that he was always encouraged to explore.
“We were always taught that we belonged in the room,” he said, “that we were free to explore our interests, including art.”
Hidden from view
After graduating from private Catholic schools in Oakland, Roche headed to UC Davis, intending to study environmental design. After college, he knew exactly where he wanted to go — to San Francisco to work with renowned architect Daniel Solomon.
“To my brain, architecture represented the highest level of creative training with a practical outcome,” he said.
For three years he worked with Solomon, exploring innovative design concepts while he learned how to draw, build models and create blueprints — honing the basic skills of the trade.
“When I entered the master’s program at Berkeley, having already learned the tools from Daniel allowed me extra time to explore and experiment,” he said.
While in graduate school Roche worked with another mentor — Gary Strang, also a prominent San Francisco architect — on a project titled “Infrastructure as Landscape.” The project attempted to expose and celebrate aspects of everyday life that are often hidden.
“We attempted to highlight what was hidden from view,” he said, “asking questions like why are sprinkler heads hidden in lawns or how might steam that's generated under city streets be used to power something useful or beautiful.”
One element of the project was to enlarge pictures of everyday items thousands of times bigger than their normal size. Doing so caused the pictured items to become pixelated almost beyond recognition when viewed up-close, but from a distance, they were perfectly recognizable.
This feature of distortion — blurry up-close but clear from a distance — was an “aha” moment that has informed his career ever since.
“I am interested in the essence of an object more than the precision of objects themselves,” Roche said. “People can recognize the object in my artwork — many of the items are nostalgic — but each unique composition intends to spark more than that.”
Roche’s art — exemplified by “The Panel Project” — is often a study in the power of how simple shared experiences connect, not only to the nostalgic past but also to each other. He also examines how vivid color, coupled with “non-perfect” representations of everyday objects and a simple word or two, might provoke deeper meaning.
“There is a lot of art and architecture out there that seems a conversation with only themselves,” he said. “It’s like they’ve created an exclusive language. I intend my work to be more inclusive than that.”
The architecture of the in-between
On completion of his master’s degree from the Berkeley School of Architecture and Urban design, Roche was awarded the prestigious John K. Branner Fellowship. The award allowed him to travel, visiting some of the most iconic architectural sites in the world. He wanted to observe important structures such as the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Hagia Sophia mosque in Turkey and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but he also wanted to witness how those structures actually functioned within the cities where they exist. He was seeking what he refers to as “the architecture of the in-between.”
With an artist’s eye, Roche focused in on what others might see as mundane: a room where shoes were removed at a mosque, placement of park benches and lighting around grand music halls or adjacent structures meant to house guests and serve workers from the main attraction.
Taking this notion of the “in-between,” Roche returned to San Francisco and began work with The Gap, assisting them in their quest to design “the store of the future.” There he found that his architectural training, artistic eye and ability to notice what was often overlooked combined to form a powerful approach to solving business problems.
“Whereas art doesn’t need an endgame or goal, ‘creation’ actually addresses some sort of problem,” he said. “And problem-solving is at the heart of making successful business decisions. Doing it well can have a big impact.”
Part of those impacts came in the form of helping companies name their products and services.
When Chef Thomas Keller of the five-star French Laundry restaurant in Yountville opened another location in New York City he worked with Roche and his team to name it.
The problem was how to link this new restaurant unmistakably to Keller’s reputation for exceptional quality and finesse but also signify that it stood on its own. The solution? They named the new restaurant Per se -- Latin for “by itself.”
Since then Roche has been involved in the creation of many well-known brand names, their design and even some of their business strategies. Francis Ford Coppola Wines, Joel Gott Wines, the new Truss restaurant scheduled to open in Calistoga, the Model Bakery, the St. Helena Montessori School and even uniforms for the St. Helena track team all bear some level of influence from Roche and his team at Life and Branding (LAB), a company he co-founded that provides a range of services.
Beyond LAB, Roche works directly with numerous private clients on projects that span everything from renovations to complete redesigns.
“I love how his brain works,” said Rebecca Demchuk, a St. Helena resident who has worked with Roche. “His redesign of our bathroom fits so perfectly with how we live. Michael makes clever decisions that provide the biggest bang for the buck. It has been transformative.”
Roche finds time to complete the many aspects of his life and still even play golf on some weekends. In his free time you might find him leading a group to help in a disaster zone (Haiti after the earthquake, for example) or engaged with his children (ages 24, 20 and 16), or you might see him at the St. Helena track.
“Besides being the coolest and most fashionable coach out there, Michael brings his tremendous creative talents and out-of-the-box thinking to coaching our athletes,” said David Pauls, head coach for the St. Helena track and field team. “He lays out plans that maximize each athlete’s potential — both physically and mentally, including strategies to incorporate their training into daily workouts and competitions.”
I’ve known Roche since 2005, when he worked with Jeff Smith, founder of Hourglass Winery. I was struck by his friendly demeanor, eye for detail and ability to succinctly put into words the world around us. En route to San Francisco one day we crossed the recently constructed southward-bound span of the Carquinez Bridge. I was impressed by the simplicity of the design and how it contrasted with the older, more elaborate northbound section.
When I asked Roche about his impression of the structure, he pondered for a moment.
“It looks like what it is,” he said. “It’s functional. It’s straightforward. And sometimes that’s enough.”
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