Bottle 2 Tha Face, Yo

A very wise man and I were once having a conversation about the nature of arguments, and our musings led us to realize that the ultimate answer in any heated debate would be to smash a beer bottle against your opponent’s face. What kind of comeback could top that, really?

Him: “You see, I think that if the United States had simply learned the lesson the French were given at Dien Bien Phu–”
You: *SMASH*

Argument over, you’ve won.

Sometimes I need the musical equivalent of a bottle to the face. Usually I listen to music as a mood enhancer (the aural equivalent to having a beer on your porch), not a mood alterer. But when I draw or paint, for some reason I need songs that push buttons, not ones that hold hands. And of course I have a playlist for this (creatively entitled The Art Mix, wordsmith that I am), and it’s chockablock full of a lot of crappy heavy metal that I’d rarely admit listening to. But it seems OK because I can say, “Hey, it’s not like I listen to this stuff on its own, it’s just when I use this playlist!”

Some of it is great for the Memory Lane factor (any of the dozens of 80s hair band songs on there), and some of it is the best of what the genre has to offer, such as early Metallica. But the bulk of the list, the songs that seem to work the best for me, fall into basically three other categories: Tool/A Perfect Circle, Ice Cube, and techno.

I alluded to why I might need this kind of music in a post I made on Sons of Sam Horn in a “Helmet vs. Tool” thread (we don’t only talk about baseball):

I couldn’t begin to try to explain why without sounding like a bumbling and pretentious asshole, especially since music criticism ain’t my bag, but I will say that I often listen to Tool when I’m drawing or painting, as if it were the music itself that was ripping aside some repressed lid off of my id and facilitating the process. Puts me where I need to be.


I have to attack when I create art, and that’s just generally not in my nature. Instead I’m inclined to observe and synthesize and maybe talk about it after the fact, and in the meantime, would anyone like another beer? But this more aggressive music is like the full moon to a werewolf for me. And it’s needed.

Because the piece of paper or the canvas is the enemy. And art takes a long, long time to make. Picture the painting surface not as stretched linen, but as a slab of cement, and I literally have to punch a piece of art out of it. And each power jab, each haymaker, it only creates the smallest hairline fissure with each blow, and it’s the cumulative effect of hundreds and thousands of these punches that slowly reveals the painting as the pulverized cement crumbles away.

Dan Fogelberg is not going to assist with that process.

But Vicarious will. Endangered Species will. Keep Hope Alive will. Never Gonna Come Back Down will. The music is the bottle to the face, no doubt, but am I the one swinging it or the one getting smashed across the bridge of the nose? Either way, it works, so I’m not complaining, but it’s an interesting question.

Of Wax Paper, Baby Food Jars, and Jason Bourne

I’ve been painting a lot recently, and it’s been interesting because I never made a serious pass at it until a couple of years ago, and even then, I approached it tentatively… two paintings in two years. I’ve touched on this before, but it was an elephant-in-the-room situation, something I had been avoiding all along because of my unfamiliarity with it, and that avoidance only grew stronger over time.

I’ve picked up the pace a bit in the past six months (four paintings in that span), and what’s interesting is how naturally it’s come. I’m sure lifelong painters could have told me that drawing and painting skills translate well with one another, but it’s not like I ever asked, and besides, why should that be the rule? I doubt I can sculpt; yet that’s an art form. A brush seems pretty different from a pencil point or a pen nib when you think about it.The irony is that using a brush suddenly seems like the most natural thing in the world, and not only that, the most effective. It’s like I’ve been using rocks all my life to try to slay some menacing bear and someone just handed me a gun. The “Holy crap!” moments come crashing in like the tide. Relentless, but in a good way.

You know what I feel like? I feel like Jason Bourne in the film The Bourne Identity, at the early stages of the movie when he returns to mainland Europe, suffering from amnesia. He spends the night on a park bench in Switzerland (he has nowhere else to go), is rousted by two policemen, and before he knows it, he’s dispatched them with martial arts moves he never even knew he possessed. You can see the mixture of confusion and appreciation in his face.

I’ve got wax paper palettes taped down to glass tabletops in my basement studio, recycled baby food jars full of self-mixed opaque polymer washes of various colors, notions for which came bubbling up from my subconscious for no other reason aside from the certainty that they would work. I’m sure these are long-honored tricks. If I had applied myself earlier in life I’d know them already. It’s not even that they’re all that clever, that they’ve saved me from wasting money on real palettes, even though they have. It’s just that I understand the properties of the medium despite my limited exposure to it. And the point isn’t to crow about it; no, far from it. Again, if I wasn’t such a slacker I’d have found this out long ago.

But it just feels like if you’ve never ridden a bike before, and someone hands a Huffy to you and says, “Go for it.” And you hop on it and start pedaling and you go. For someone like me who has uselessly thrashed around in trying to find his way through the universe, releasing this thing which is so clearly embedded in my DNA is nothing short of weird. And it’s not that it’s earth-shattering, and it’s not that it will change any lives (not even my own), but just imagine if you were air-dropped into Brazil and found to your amazement that you spoke Portuguese. Some little part of yourself that you never knew existed was unlocked and stepped to the fore. It’s been almost 38 years and I just realized this, only now.

I Mean, Look at That Ass

Oftentimes when I’m in the middle of a fairly involved piece, there’s a point about halfway through when I stop and think, I could just leave it like this. There’s a roughed-out sketchy quality that happens to capture the kinesis of the moment. But as tempted as I am, I always end up finishing it off because I didn’t go in with the intention of creating a sketch; if I did, well… then I’d simply draw a sketch.

The above drawing of Larry Fitzgerald is an overt example of simply throwing down a sketch. I need to do more quick exercises like these, just to keep those muscles sharp. I’ve also made the decision to do more work like this going forward, with the intention of selling it at a reduced rate for the benefit of people who can’t splurge on a full-blown piece. Again, all part of the win-win school of artmaking that I heartily espouse.

Plus, I mean, look at that ass.

The Beatdown

My kids like to draw, and I often have them down in my studio when I’m working so they can scribble away with colored pencils while I’m doing my thing. It’s a way to spend some time with them, as well as getting them out of my wife’s hair, because Lord knows she needs a break every now and then.

I don’t think they’re artistically inclined, not that it matters in the long run. My son is almost 5 and my daughter is almost 4, and their drawings usually end up being a bunch of squiggles, interrupted by the occasional stick figure. Anything can happen, of course, latent talents emerging later in life and all, but by the time I was their ages I was doing fairly representational drawings of whatever was inspiring me at the moment: Clifford the Big Red Dog, Spider-man, etc.

The point of this observation isn’t to lament my children’s apparent lack of artistic skill. Quite frankly, I’d rather their gifts lie somewhere more practical anyway. As long as they have fun drawing, I’m a happy guy. So far so good. No, the point is twofold: 1. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. 2. And you don’t have it, there’s no getting it. 

People often wonder how I’m able to make something look like it does, and to me, it makes no sense how everyone can’t do that. I draw what I see. Here’s an arm, a leg, a face, I’ll draw it just like I see it. Obviously the rational side of me realizes that it is a quirky gift that few people have, but my gut tells me, “How hard is it to make it look like something that’s sitting right in front of you?” It’s like taking a test while having a cheat sheet full of answers right there on the desk.

Ah, the hubris. Stick around, you’ll like this.

I’m currently working on a painting right now, acrylic on canvas, and as I’ve written in past blog entries before, I’m not a very seasoned painter. This is only the third acrylic painting I’ve ever done. It’s been going OK for the most part, about as well as one could reasonably expect from such an inexperienced painter, but there’s one particular snag I’ve hit that’s been driving me up a wall. The painting is of the Dave Roberts steal in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, which turned the series around, sparking the Sox’ comeback from being down 0 games to 3 against the Yankees.

The problem is a simple one, it’s where Jeter’s hand is poised over his lower leg as he awaits Posada’s throw. I can’t get the proportion or color of his hand right, can’t get the light and shadow right, can’t get the uniformed pant leg underneath his hand right. I’ve tried 20 different incarnations of it, I’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this stupid square of canvas, and I’ve come up snake eyes each time.  I feel like I’m trying to think in English and for some reason it keeps coming out as French. I have no idea why it’s happening… just haven’t found the right combination of brush, color and stroke yet, but it’s clear I don’t know what I’m doing.

And suddenly, just like that, I’m the guy drawing the stick figure, wondering how anyone possibly can render a fleshed-out limb. A novel feeling, to be sure.

“Why can’t you draw that?”

 Because I can’t. 

I’m sure I’ll be able to figure this out eventually. Part of being an artist is having problem-solving skills, so I’m not too worried. I can already tell that some of the issue lies with the medium itself, as acrylics are pretty unforgiving because they dry so fast, so blending colors to create convincing shading is a challenge. Something I wouldn’t have known three paintings ago. There’s a reason why I’m doing this, even though it invites a figurative ass-kicking.

The feeling is alien. And probably needed.

Endgame

I’ve talked about this in a prior blog post, I’m sure, but when I was very young and first started drawing (around 3 – 5 years old), I used superheroes and comic books as inspiration. This was an auspicious development, as my interest level in characters like Spider-man was intense enough to motivate me to draw quite often. And in doing so, I got a lot of practice drawing the human body, which I think is important, regardless of what kind of artist you are.

By the time I was 9 or 10, I switched from superheroes to baseball players. Baseball cards and each year’s Red Sox yearbook became my source material, typing paper and ballpoint pen my medium. And though I branched out into more traditional/legitimate subject matter through high school, I always drew athletes on the side.

After leaving Syracuse in the middle of my sophomore year, I didn’t draw much for about a decade. Partly out of apathy, but mostly out of spite. I’ve mentioned here before that what got me back into it was drawing gifts for the groomsmen in my wedding party. This is true. But I haven’t brought up what put that idea in my head, what provided a target to ultimately shoot for, the byproduct of which was the first step of creating groomsmen’s gifts.

I got engaged in Scotland in June of 2001. During that trip I took a tour of Celtic Park (home of Celtic FC),  and while we were on the executive level, I noticed that the walls were adorned with a series of very large canvases of past and present Celtic greats*. The tour guide went on to explain that the paintings were done by a season ticket holder, a regular guy with artistic talent whose ability was brought to the attention of the club somehow (I don’t think we got any more detail than that).

So I stood there, looking at them, and thought to myself, Geez, I could do that. Not in a derisive way (nor a jealous one), just a simple and true observation. Of course, I just meant it in the sense that I could draw/paint such things. Whether or not they’d ever be bought or commissioned by a professional club is an entirely different matter, reliant on connections and luck as anything else, but it was the idea that there was such an outlet for some weekend warrior with a brush, that was the galvanizing force. So I could be another weekend warrior, too, and whatever happened happened.

Shortly thereafter it occurred to me that as a newly engaged fellow, I was going to have to come up with some kind of gift for my groomsmen, and being that art was already on my mind, the decision was an easy one.

So the soft-focus goal would be to become a self-sufficient sports artist, doing work like Stephen Holland, Dick Perez, or James Fiorentino. Each piece is hopefully a step toward that.

*Somehwat evocative of Pawtucket’s McCoy stadium, whose murals were not lost on me as a young artist, trust me.

The Kid

Ted Williams’s 1941 line is as follows:

.406/.553/.735, 1.288 OPS, 235 OPS+ (8th highest single-season mark). The .553 OBP was the highest single-season figure until Bonds’s 2002 (.582) and 2004 (.609) seasons.

His last season (1960), as a 41-year old, he put up a .316/.451/.645 with an OPS+ of 189. Which was three seasons removed from what might be his most amazing season of all, given his age: his 1957 .388/.526/.731 (233 OPS+) at 38 years old.

He is the all-time leader in career OBP (.482), second all-time in career OPS+ (190, to Ruth’s 207… Bonds is 3rd at 182).

These are the most basic of statistics, but in light of the current SABR-heavy focus on how production is measured and with today’s players’ numbers as a convenient framing device, Ted’s numbers seem all the more fanciful. What would it be like to see this guy play now, especially given his larger-than-life persona and all of the off-the-field stuff that constantly swirled around him? Let’s not forget his role in bringing the Jimmy Fund to the forefront of the public eye as well as his war hero status. Someone once said that a movie can never be made about Ted Williams’s life, because John Wayne is dead.

In the mid-80s I went to an Old-Timers’ Day at Fenway with my father. We had seats in the boxes along the 3rd base/left field line, past the bend where it juts out toward left field at an angle. Ted played left field that day, and in the lull before the start of one inning he was casually glancing at the crowd. He happened to be looking at the area where we were seated, and my father (as emotionally reserved a man as you might find) hesitantly raised his hand to Ted, giving him a wave, all the while seeming like he couldn’t believe he was actually doing it. My father was born in 1946, and Ted was his first (and probably only) idol.

It wasn’t very crowded that day (the Old Timers’ game preceded the actual Sox game, and not everyone had arrived yet), and Ted spotted my father’s wave, and raised his hand in return.

My dad nodded to him and put his hand down, then turned to look at home plate with a smile so forceful it seemed as if he was trying to repress it for fear of his face falling off or something, his hands clenched into fists out of sheer joy. He said nothing, which was par for the course with my dad, but even if he had wanted to I don’t think he could have. I was 14 or 15 at the time, and I thought to myself, Holy crap, my dad is a kid again.

Ted’s ability to make that happen is far more impressive to me than any OPS+ he ever put up.

Ted died the week before I was married. I immediately knew that I wanted to draw a picture of him for my dad, but all my art stuff was packed away in anticipation of moving in with my wife after the wedding, and I had no place to draw it, to boot. But I was insistent, so I went to the local AC Moore and bought a charcoal pad, a couple of sticks of black and white charcoal, an eraser, and a mat and frame. And I got to my parents’ house, went upstairs to the room I grew up in as a child, sprawled myself out on the floor and drew the thing.

It wasn’t very good for a couple of reasons. I hadn’t drawn much in ten years, so I was rusty, only recently having picked up the hobby again to draw gifts for my groomsmen. And the conditions were less than ideal (maybe others work well while lying down on the floor, but I don’t). Plus the stress of the upcoming wedding was getting to me, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on the piece. But I finished it and gave it to my dad the day of my rehearsal dinner. I think he appreciated the gesture, and given the timing (Ted’s death and me getting married), I’m sure it held more significance. But in the back of my mind, I really wasn’t happy with the picture. Which is kind of an artist thing, so I wasn’t all that surprised, nor did it stop me from giving it to him.

But I’ve always wanted a do-over. Even though any doofus would know that there’s no way my dad would prefer some new and supposedly improved piece over the one I drew for him in the wake of Ted’s death, and just before I got married, no less. So it wouldn’t be for him, but rather for me and my peace of mind.

Almost seven years later I finally got around to taking another crack at it, this time in color pastel (which is how I would have done it in the first place, if time and materials weren’t such a factor):

Knowing that I slayed that particular dragon was enough for me, so I donated the piece to an auction benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last week. Sometimes these things work out OK after all.

In the Land of Skinny Ties and Hockey Hair

When I’m drawing, I ruminate. That’s the word. I ruminate about the subject matter, usually… it’s inevitable when you spend several hours hunched over a piece of paper under the circular glare of an artist’s lamp. My mind has to go somewhere. And I’ve always felt better about a drawing when I was able to connect with it on a particular level, so this rumination is good. As if my firsthand knowledge would infuse it with more life, more magic, more… something. On the other hand, if it holds no significance for me and my mind takes me to dead ends as I work, you can bet that’s going to be a bad piece of art.

I did the Bourque and Evans pieces back-to-back a couple of months ago, just before Thanksgiving. This artistic visitation of the Reagan era was by pure happenstance. The Bourque was for my cousin Chris (he of pogo-sticking/deck-crashing fame… Baltimore still bears the psychological scars). He was in town for the holiday and had been none-too-subtle over the years about his desire for a picture of Ray. The Evans was a commissioned piece, to be given as a gift by the buyer to her cousin. So I spent a good week-and-a-half banging out these two drawings, thinking about the individual athletes as well as the time period when they flourished in this town, and of course this led to thoughts of me and who I was back then. Because it’s hard to believe that it was 20 – 25 years ago.

One reason that sports fascinate me is that they provide a natural marker to the passage of time. You could watch The Godfather on 34 separate occasions over a span of 20 years and you get sucked into the story each time because it’s the same, no matter when you watch it. Maybe you think about when you first saw it, but it’s a fleeting notion. On the other hand, you happen to flip to ESPN Classic and they’re showing Celtics-Rockets from 1986 and you think, “Holy crap, those shorts aren’t flattering! And I completely forgot that it was Jerry Sichting who took down Sampson in that game!” You can watch the Celtics or the Sox for decades, but it’s an organic and spatial thing, ever-evolving, each moment a living time capsule.

I was in high school in the ’80s. Bourque and Evans were my guys at the age when I first begin to see athletes as people, however incomplete or inaccurate that vision was (and always will be). Not just men wearing my team’s pajamas anymore, identifiable only because of the logos on their chests. Not players who came before me: swings frozen in time, photographs forever tinged with yellow, backstories needing to be told to me as if they were fables. No, these deeds unfolded before my own adolescent eyes.

And I drew those guys back then, of course. When I was in high school I just assumed I was going to make my living as an artist. I didn’t really know how or in what way, but I never addressed the thought head-on because it was the thing that I was obviously most talented in, and that was enough. Everything would work itself out. But at the same time, a nagging and probably subconscious part of me didn’t want to commit to it, either. Mostly because I didn’t want to have this one thing that I was in sole possession of given over to someone else and have them determine what I was going to do with it. A boss. A customer. Whatever. I’ve bagged groceries and cut plastic lenses for light fixtures with table saws and created computer-aided pattern templates for fat men’s clothes, all with varying degrees of success and for different rates of pay, and it never bothered me too much because those aren’t things I’d ever do on my own time. Tell me to do it and I’ll do it.

But tell me to draw something that I didn’t want to? Open myself up to criticism of an idea that wasn’t mine in the first place? This perversion of my gift? And get paid absolute peanuts for it?

Outrage!

It goes without saying that I was dimly stubborn (stubbornly dim?) about the matter. Not that I was wrong about it — I was dead-on in my assessment — but it was naive. Back then it was all about integrity and whatnot. Now? While I realize that you’ve gotta do what you can to make buck, exploit any avenue that separates you from the competition, it doesn’t change the fact that I know I’m not psychologically built for that kind of artistic employment. And that’s a shortcoming, not something to be proud of.

So I look back and sort of shake my head. I don’t know if they were wasted years, rife with opportunities not taken. I don’t think so… like I said, I’m pretty sure that was never going to be the path for me. Better that I short-circuited it myself pretty early on, rather than finding out one day when I’m 45, I guess.

But on the positive side, those years marked my first steps toward independence, that hopelessly awkward transition from boy to teenager to young man. A feeble and staggering gait towards self-sufficiency and self-determination, the dawning realization that my gift was big fat fucking zero in the Life’s Profession department, over before it ever began. And weaving its way through that, the arteries that supplied blood to the muscles and organs, the fabled Best Years of Your Life. I got my driver’s license. Had a couple of jobs, could see movies whenever I wanted to, went to some parties. Discovered beer. All the while feeling the tectonic plates of my existence grinding against each other, the continental shelf entitled Girls shifting and passing over the one called Goofing Around. Good things. Finding a purpose, even if it was to get her to say yes, or to find someone who could buy booze for you, or to do just enough to avoid failing Trigonometry.

On Friday or Saturday nights, the grocery store where I worked would close down and some co-workers and I would hang out in the parking lot afterward, throwing around a football until the manager shut off the lot’s overhead lamps, usually about an hour after we punched out.

We’d fling our aprons onto the ground, shouting and whooping as we scuffled around the asphalt in our workboots, tossing spirals as our car radios broadcast the feats of an Evans or a Bourque through rolled-down windows.

Getting Some Pub

A fellow poster from Sons of Sam Horn was kind enough to forward my website info to Paul Lukas, author/creator of Uniwatch and contributor to ESPN’s Page 2. Paul’s site is a blog dedicated to the minutiae of sports uniforms both past and present, and he’s very good about linking to any related items of interest to be found in the vastness of the internet.

Paul gave me a shout-out in his blog entry for Monday, January 12th (it’s toward the bottom of the page, submitted by SoSHer Peter Greenberg — thanks, Peter). My site usually get 10 – 20 hits per day, 30 – 40 if I’ve posted something new. On Monday and Tuesday I had close to 400 hits, so the exposure was definitely beneficial. I even got an email from a fellow sports artist who had some very supportive words, which I greatly appreciated.

I’m not sure if it will generate any new business, but if not, it’s mostly my fault because I really haven’t configured this website as a commercial development. That’s mostly by design; I’ve wanted this to grow organically and use it as an outlet to spur me to do more work (paid or not) and provide some self-evaluation for me as an artist, and it’s done that so far. Kind of like a “soft opening,” in restaurant terms.

I have some changes in mind for the near future, nothing too radical, but a few tweaks that will hopefully make it easier for a random person who might be interested in some art to approach me about it… more info about the process, pricing structure, etc. It’s probably time to move onto a grand opening, and the link from Lukas’s blog helped me realize that, if only from a psychological standpoint. It’s interesting to see the progression from when I first started the site almost a year ago to now. It may only be visible to me, but trust me, it can be measured in light years.

Freedom

My first drawing of the new year. Non-commissioned. I just think Lincecum has a great delivery that’s full of energy, even when captured in a still. It’s always jumped out at me, and I’ve been planning on doing a drawing of him for a while. I’ve been pretty busy with a lot of commissioned work for the holidays, but once the season was over, I had some free time. I had a blast doing it… the time flew. Charcoal is a very quick medium anyway, but this piece took only two hours to finish.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to me that the pieces I’m most happy with are ones that I chose to do myself. Usually all I see are the flaws in any drawings I’ve done, but there are a few where I wouldn’t change a thing, and they were all non-commissioned. 

I’m sure it’s psychological. I had serious trouble with being told what to draw when I was in college, which didn’t bode well for my educational or professional prospects, at least as an artist. The fact that I can do it now is due to a few things… I still have some control over the process because usually I’m given a subject but have free reign on the actual composition. (“I’d like a drawing of Ted Williams, I’ll let you choose the source material.”) I also think I’ve matured somewhat over the last 19 years. And finally, I can’t complain about the money. I’ve done worse things for a buck, something I had no foreknowledge of when I was school. An office career provides perspective. So I can usually bang out whatever drawing is required, but sometimes it feels like a struggle, and I rarely like the finished product. That doesn’t happen with the ones I’ve done on my own, and certainly not with this Lincecum, which is one of my best pieces, I think.

Just more food for thought.

The Fight

You throw.

You throw because you have no choice. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat. So you throw and you throw and you throw. The source material is a puzzle to be solved and you are but a thief trying out different combinations.

The paper is your enemy. It will be bent to your will. And as each permutation of pencil and eraser fail, your resolve only grows stronger. You must embrace failure as part of the learning curve. Because somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking to yourself, I got this beat. This stupid 2-dimensional image. I got this beat.

Charcoal or pastel dust being ground into textured paper.  The tricks aren’t working, so you improvise. And as the outcome hangs in the balance, there are no worries because a mantra keeps repeating itself in your mind:

 I’m the best that ever was

 I’m the best that ever was

 I’m the best that ever was

The Enemy

I recently completed this picture for someone who is going to give it as a gift, and when he approached me about doing it, he first asked me if I’d even do a drawing of Magic Johnson. An understandable query, but I’m not really hung up on that kind of stuff.

In my younger days, back when I was a lot more passionate about individual players and thought that they were inextricably tied to the hometown team and the city, I might’ve had an issue with it. Maybe not even then, though, at least not with Magic; every Celtic fan knew that Kareem was the real douchebag on those Lakers teams, anyway.

I don’t even have a “favorite player” anymore, so I really can’t summon up enough vitriol to have a most hated villain. The only player in any sport I’ve ever felt some sort of spiritual connection to was Yaz, and that’s only because I was a kid, and he was the Sisyphus who so clearly embodied the Sox during my formative years as a baseball fan. He wasn’t even the best player on the team by the time I started to get into the sport… Rice and Lynn were clearly superior, Evans was in the process of developing into the force he would become, Fisk provided as much offense at a position where production comes at a premium.

But Yaz was the elder statesman, and I was naturally deferential to that. I equated him with my father; he was my father’s player, so I wanted him to be mine, too. Even as a child I was buying into the mindset that the older generations of players were better than the newer ones, despite knowing so little about the sport at the time. It just felt like Yaz had some sort of authoritarian legitimacy about him. Or something. Maybe I just wanted a common bond with my dad.

Once Yaz retired, I was in a strange new world as a fan. I was thirteen years old and without a favorite player. Who would fill that vacuum?

Nobody, it turned out. I was already at an age where no player would ever be a hero to me, no matter how good he was. I was aware of the fact that they were people who were paid by the team to play, and while I could appreciate their skill and feats of athleticism, I never really felt connected with them. Plus, even when removing the pragmatism from the equation, immediately after Yaz there was nobody on the Boston scene who could inspire or evoke that kind of emotional bond, except for Larry Bird. But to me, Bird was almost freakish in how everything he did worked; how can anyone identify with that? Yaz, on the other hand, was like a talented Charlie Brown. I felt like he was one of us, only better through sheer force of will (as opposed to being touched by God like Bird, or Ted Williams, for that matter).

Wade Boggs was a little too selfish. Clemens originally fell into the Bird category, then he started to seem a little unhinged, neither of which make for a connection on spiritual grounds. At least not with me. Funnily enough, Ray Bourque was about as regular as you could get, yet boringly so. Unlike Yaz, there was no Greek Tragedy to Bourque’s storyline, no feeling that he was Batman as opposed to Superman. He was a tweener. He was close to Bird’s level of proficiency in terms of skill, but lacked the swagger and the killer instinct. He was a nice-guy replicant. Cam Neely? Neely was the guy everyone in Boston should have been worshipping. The owner of a scorer’s nose for the net coupled with the lightning fists of the hardiest goon, Neely was a god, but only among the puckheads of the town. A demographic that was larger than most cities’ at the time, but still not big enough. And then it all ended way too early for Cam.

Which brings up the only guy I’d never draw. Ulf Samuelsson. Not that anyone would ever want a picture of him in the first place, unless it was a Boston fan who wished to see a simulation of him being disemboweled by ravenous pigs.

Shortly after Neely retired, Clemens and Mo Vaughn left town via free agency, and after that, it wasn’t too difficult to remain detached about who was wearing the laundry. Pedro was the closest, but he was so prideful that I knew there was going to be a split somewhere down the road. Which is fine, that pride is what made him the pitcher he was. I’ve switched companies several times in my career, I’m certainly not going to begrudge anyone else for doing it. Usually it’s the doublespeak afterwards that pisses me off, but if press conferences were held every time some regular guy took a job elsewhere, they’d probably sound very similar.

So if I feel no transcendental bond with the players on the teams I root for, I really don’t hate any opposing players, either. Aside from Ulf. Or maybe Bill Laimbeer.

But Magic? Nah, no problem. I’ll even draw old Yankees without any hesitation, guys like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. I’d do a Reggie Jackson or Ron Guidry if the price was right. I’ll generally avoid any post-1996 Yanks*, but that has more to do with their recent fan base than the players themselves. In a vacuum I think Jeter is (or was, anyway) very good player. He’s just not the Messiah he’s made out to be by Yankees fans (similarly, I genuinely like Peyton Manning as a player, but I can’t stand the people who never saw fit to mention Brady’s name in the same breath as his). It’s kind of weird to feel so blasé about it all.

I feel like Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. Maybe all I’m looking for is a worthy nemesis. Is that too much to ask?

*The exception being that I’d love to do a Paul O’Neill drawing, with his whiny constipated face all contorted as he threw a bat or bitched about a call or took a swipe at a Gatorade cooler. Commentary, if you will.

Archetype

This drawing is of my niece and goddaughter Riley, my sister’s child, it was for her birthday (I had promised to do a picture of her after her christening earlier this year). Although I guess you could say it was more for my sister than my niece, but that’s OK.

I get the feeling that drawing kids’ portraits would be a lot more lucrative than sports subjects. Not everyone’s a fan of sports; hopefully every parent is a fan of their kids. And people will spend silly money when it comes to stuff like that, just because.

The problem is that I have no desire to do it. I mean, I did in this particular case, obviously, but if it were somebody else’s kid I’d have had to drink a 12-pack of Miller Lite before I even tried to start the damn thing, just to drown the self-loathing. And I have no idea why; it’s not as if athletes are a more credible genre. One could say the above piece is a “truer” work of art, in that I took the source photograph myself, as opposed to using one from the pages of a magazine or downloaded off the internet. Larry Bird is not hanging in the Guggenheim or MoMA.

I’ve given the matter some thought. Sports are a big part of my life, but I’m a serious movie buff, too, and other than a Clint Eastwood/Josey Wales drawing I’ve done, I don’t do any work featuring movie stars. I think I feel like there’s a legitimacy involved with drawing athletes because it’s the human form. I spent a good chunk of time in high school and college doing figure drawings, and what I do now is an extension of that. It’s something I can respect.

But in digging a little deeper, I had a minor epiphany: I think it’s because I’m in a state of arrested development, and drawing pictures of sports stars is a thinly-veiled cover to drawing superheroes. The first art I ever took note of was from comic books. As a child I sharpened my drawing skills via endless sketches of Superman, Spider-man and The Hulk. And while I never really got into comic books themselves (I’m not a sci-fi or fantasy geek, and too many comic book narratives skew in that direction), I’ve always held a fascination with the idea of the superhero. More from a literary side of things, how they owe a debt to Greek mythology or Beowulf or Jekyll and Hyde.

Extrapolate this interest out to observing real-life specimens in peak physical condition, performing feats of wonder while wearing boldly-colored uniforms, and the comparison seems rather apt.

My son is a huge superhero geek now, no small thanks to my influence, which is great, since I get to live vicariously and credibly through him. (“Uh, I’m buying the Iron Man DVD on the day of its release for my son.”) He also watches quite a bit of sports with me, mostly because he has an inquisitive mind and wants to know what it’s all about, although he’s a TV junkie who would watch C-SPAN if it meant keeping the set on. Sometimes when I’m trying to explain a certain sporting situation I try to couch it in terms of superheroes so he can understand it better. And then the lightbulb went off in my head.

I showed him two clips from The Natural: the clock-shattering scene at Wrigley and the final home run. The intersection of sports and myth, of man and superman. Roy Hobbs and his magical bat Wonderboy.  Arthur and Excalibur. Thor and Mjolnir. Green Lantern and his power ring.

When Hobbs sent his home run ball arching into the light stand, setting off a shower of sparks, my son leaped off the couch, jumping up and down just as if Roy was wearing a cape and saving the girl. And it was great to see him and feel that same thrill again myself, improbably so, having seen that home run dozens of times before.

I was around ten years old when I switched from drawing superheroes to drawing baseball players. I’ve never really looked back. But it’s dawned on me that on some level I’m just redirecting; in drawing these pictures, I’m just choosing a more socially acceptable alternative to sketches of grown men (or mutants) in spandex. But it’s still the same thing. They are the same stories being played out since man began to put paintings on cave walls. The weight they hold is ingrained in us, just like a dog that circles to tamp down nonexistent grass before it lies down to sleep.

And this picture…

…tells me far more about ourselves than one of a smiling baby.

Raison d’Être

I was flipping through Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago when I came across this photo:

And I thought to myself, That’s a pretty cool picture. I’d like to draw that. Which is usually how it goes. Now I’m not an Ohio State fan or anything, I just like the composition: the boldness of the red jersey, the contrast between light and shadow, the intensity in Laurinaitis’s face. So I scanned it and filed it away for some day when I actually get motivated to draw it, a day that will probably never come. I’ve got tons of scans just like this, all waiting for their day in the sun.

What ultimately might get me to do this picture (or any of the others I’ve got waiting) is if I think there’s someone who would appreciate a drawing/painting of it, hopefully on two levels: because they’re a fan of the subject matter (in this case, Ohio State/Laurinaitis), and because they have some appreciation of art, however small or unexplored. If I know of someone like that, I’ll create the picture and then give it away to that person for free, usually as a surprise. It’s a win-win… I had an excuse to do the picture (I simply need to work on my art more, so any reason helps, plus I enjoy the process), and they get something they’ll hopefully enjoy. And if it’s really appreciated, so much the better. To me, that’s the juice. Although it goes without saying that if I lived anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, I’d charge $1,000 for the piece (I’m only slightly kidding). Geography plays into these things.

I posted about seeing this picture and the thought process behind why I draw things on Sons of Sam Horn, and a fellow member who is an Ohio State alumnus posted this in response (it happened to be the week after tOSU’s loss to USC) :

“Saturday was one of the worst regular season losses for the Buckeyes in a long time. I didn’t get to see a lot of the game because I was at a wedding up in Vermont. If it wasn’t for said wedding, I probably would have tried to get to the game as I have a bunch of friends/relatives in SoCal and I’ve been meaning to get out there to visit my last living grandparent, my father’s mother.

As luck would have it, there was a TV in this “study” area on the way to the bathrooms from the reception hall. I was rather worried about this because the place where the wedding was being held (The Equinox) didn’t seem like the type of place to have some random TV somewhere. I looked in a few of the bars in the hotel before the reception and didn’t find one. I heard about the TV when the groom (a very good friend of mine from high school) approached the table and said, “Hey man, I have two pieces of good news for you. There’s a TV in the study and the Buckeyes are winning 3-0.” I got up, grabbed my beer, gave him a big hug and went to check out the game.

I only watched a little bit. I’d check the score from time to time, but it didn’t look like it was going to be the Buckeyes’ night. 35 unanswered USC points later, my buddy goes, “See, I saved you from heading out to LA to see that craptastic game.” (He read about how I’d be in LA if it wasn’t for the wedding in my blog). As you may or may not know, a loss in college football pretty much eliminates you from national championship contention. This is especially true for the 2008 Buckeyes because of their less than stellar showings in the past two national championship games.

The nice part about the placement of the TV was that it really was directly in the path to the bathroom from the reception room. The good part about this was that I could still be social while at the same time, check out some of the game. It was also a nice reminder to head back into the reception and not spend too much time out there when I started seeing the same people or hearing comments like “You’re still out here?” It also provided some laughs when I would curse at the TV as some of the snowbirds from the wedding would walk by.

Since Saturday, I’ve been feeling really bummed about the game. I was so bummed that on Sunday, I went from predicting a Patriots win over the Jets to fearing that the Jets would romp the Pats. It would have fit right in with Liverpool’s win over United and USC’s complete demolition of the Buckeyes. Thankfully, the Pats pulled it out in (IMHO) one of Belichick’s best regular season wins during his tenure in New England. I think it was Steve Young on the ESPN pre-game show saying something like “The Pats won’t score 10 points today” that really set me off pre-game.

Anyhoo, the Pats lifted my spirits about sports in general but it wasn’t until I saw the picture above that my Buckeye pride was rekindled. I love the picture. It is of a senior, who put off making millions to come back to take one more crack at trying to win that elusive national championship. I love his number (for obvious local reasons) and the big fat swoosh on the front of his jersey. I’ve always loved when they wear the scarlet jerseys and the contrast of the gray helmets which is as familiar as fall Saturdays in the ‘Shoe. It’s a great picture. Thanks for posting it.”

This is what art can do for us.
 

“I Can Do Anything. I’m the Chief of Police.”

Because life can always be boiled down to Jaws quotes.

As anyone who’s read some of my previous posts knows, I rarely let an allegedly finished piece stay finished. There’s usually some aspect of it that nags at me until I return to the table and re-work it, and sometimes I can fix it and other times I can’t. Prior to last night, the most recent example of this phenomenon was with the Paul Pierce drawing I did in August. I had to battle to even come up with an approximation of his face, and once having claimed that moral victory, I went back to the well rather than play it safe and leave it alone. I think it ended up working out for the most part, yet it’s never a sure thing, this revisitation process. But I tell myself I wouldn’t be what I am if I didn’t have that inner eye that felt the need to improve things… I have to be my own worst critic.

So of course I wasn’t finished with the Ted Williams picture I “finished” the other night, either. What didn’t I like about it? I thought the hat was kind of messed up. The visor seemed too large and the angle at which it sat on his head seemed wrong. The thing is, I scrutinized the source photo many times and determined that the proportions were correct (it wasn’t like I was overtly screwing it up, which does happen), it’s just that it wasn’t working out as drawn on the page. And in the past, I’ve often been too slavish to the source material, assuming that my goal was to achieve the highest degree of verisimilitude as possible.

But lately, primarily because I’ve been drawing so much, I’ve built up a sufficent trust in my own eye and in knowing what works and what doesn’t. Which brings me to our man in blue from Amity (which, as you know, means friendship).

There’s a scene in Jaws where Hooper and Brody are drinking wine and lamenting over the fact that the shark is still at large, but the only way to prove that is by doing an autopsy on a recently caught tiger shark, the results of which should yield definitive proof (e.g. human body parts that either are or aren’t present in the shark’s slow-reacting digestive tract).

Brody says, “So let’s have another drink and cut that sonofabitch open.”

Brody’s wife responds, “Can you do that, Martin?”

Brody drunkenly slurs, “I can do anything. I’m the Chief of Police.”

There was a time when I’d doggedly stick with trying to make the cap in the Williams drawing appear as it did in the source photo because that was the goal. Right? Well, who made that rule? I can make the cap look like how I think it needs to look to make the drawing work. Of course I have jurisdiction over that.

I can do anything. I’m the Chief of Police.

It’s kind of sad that it’s taken this long to assume that mantle over my artistic process, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

The kicker is that in this case, I doubt anyone can tell the difference between the version with what I felt was a screwed-up cap and the version where I just drew what I thought looked “right”. But that’s OK. I can tell, and even if there really is no difference (and there might not be), there is when it comes to my peace of mind over the drawing. Which is what matters most. I am, after all, the Chief of Police.

As an aside, I was working on the changes to this drawing during the Sox game last night. I started once they fell behind, 7-0: knowing I wasn’t going to turn the TV off or stop watching the game (despite the score), I figured I could at least divert my attention from the train wreck while paradoxically keeping an eye on it. I paused briefly when Papi hit his home run, and then stopped altogether once Drew hit his.

Superstition will not hold sway for Game 6. This piece is finished, believe it or not. Part of me wishes it weren’t, just so I could work on it again on Saturday night to conjure up the necessary gold dust, but that would be pushing it. I think the Red Sox are now also the Chief of Police, anyway. They won’t need it.

Not a Bad Town to Live In, Considering the Gig

I’ll always have Ted.

The Boston sporting universe as we know it could come to an end tomorrow and I’d still have plenty of opportunity to draw some sports-related art for people, because we have Ted. Boston athletes come and go, our love affairs with them blossoming and eventually withering (usually in an ugly or petty fashion), but The Kid occupies a zone impervious the the whims of the sports talk-show caller or message boarder. He had the presence of mind to be incredibly talented yet equally cantankerous in an era where that was less damaging to one’s public image, an indictment of both Ted and the times we live in now. And since so many of us were born after he stopped playing, he’s simply a Warhol-esque icon, shorthand for some larger statement about the game and ourselves. I can do charcoal drawings of Ted until they put me into the ground, and there will always be a taker for them. I just finished the above commissioned piece, and I’ve got another one of Willams that’s almost-completed and already has a few prospective owners (I started it without a commission attached, I just liked the picture). Progress below:

But consider this. Boston also has the following athletes who occupy the next tier down from Ted, a tier that is still in rare air but slightly short of that iconic God status (which your Jordans, Alis and Ruths have attained): Larry Bird, Bobby Orr and Bill Russell, with Tom Brady waiting outside but ready to knock on that door.  And by all rights Pedro Martinez should be included amongst that group, but his period of utter dominance was Koufaxian in its brevity, and he had the nerve to leave town of his own accord, so I doubt he’ll be truly appreciated for what he was by the majority of Boston sports fans until years from now, if ever.

Then you’ve got the tier below that: Yaz, Havlicek, Bourque, John Hannah (who would be ranked higher if he played a sexier position, nobody wants drawings of offensive linemen). Ortiz and Manny occupy this level now, and Manny would be higher if he didn’t dog his way out of town, because based on skill alone he’s the second-best Sox hitter ever after Williams. Ortiz could move up with a few more good years and one more transcendent October or two.

I don’t think any other city in America can rival the depth and breadth of this pool of sports icons, and if it can, it’s because it boasts multiple teams per sports league, like New York, Chicago or LA.

I benefit from this twofold: they’ve provided a huge positive impact upon the teams I root for, and they also possess that je ne sais quoi that make people want artwork of them.

I could live in worse places, and this was even before this current and remarkable decade, in which Boston has turned into Titletown. It’s easy to forget sometimes.