When an Artist Sits Down

by Curt Chaplin

When an artist sits down to commence work on a project involving historical material, a commitment is made to the hours and hours of work that will be necessary before a pencil is ever put to paper for the first preliminary sketch. Accuracy counts in historical art and the painter feels the weight of that responsibility. Before design, color or decorations comes a major, time-consuming effort in the library and online. As reflected in the precise detail in the work of marvelous baseball illustrator/artists like Graig Kreindler, Monty Sheldon, and others, careful, tedious, painstaking research is critical to a successful final result. It is every bit as important as the stroke of the brush. This investigation requires patience and, often, an investment of time far greater than the execution of the painting, itself.

Researching the history and migration patterns of players in the Negro Leagues can be particularly challenging, fascinating and rewarding. During the arc of time that comprised the Negro Leagues, from the late 19th C., through the heyday of the 1920’s, right up until the integration of Major League baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947, there was a constant, restless flow of players and teams. From day to day, sometimes even from game to game, the makeup of teams ebbed and shifted. It is not uncommon to find team photos of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Lincoln Giants, Homestead Grays or any of the numerous other Negro League teams, where teammates pose beside one another wearing the uniforms of different ballclubs. Players might perform under assumed identities for more than one team in the same day. Life was difficult. In order to survive, men had to take the work where and when they could get it.

This crossover movement gave rise to a richness and texture in individual personal and franchise histories, but it poses a daunting challenge to the artist in research mode. My project was to paint the portraits of all 41 former Negro League players who are currently enshrined in Cooperstown. As I gathered information on the players, their various teams and uniforms, I found myself staring through a magnifying glass for hours at fuzzy black & white team photos of squads like the Royal Pionciana Hotel, Page Fence Giants, Indianapolis ABCs and the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants. I was fascinated by the postures, the attitudes and the expressions of the men assembled in those snapshots. Who were they? Where had they come from? How had fate conspired to deliver them to the same place at that exact same moment in time? What had they endured to get there? What had they witnessed? What secrets were they keeping?

At first, there was no personal connection between me and the random groupings of men staring back from the depths of those images. The posing figures seemed far off as if seen through a foggy lens from another age. However, as I spent more and more time studying the pictured figures, they seemed to be peering quizzically back at me, as if asking, who are you? What do you want? Why are you digging us out of the dusty archives of baseball history? Why do you not let us rest? We paid a heavy price to be in this photo. Can you really understand that sacrifice?

It felt like they had a legitimate right to ask.

Weeks went by and, eventually, I moved on to the design phase of the project, beginning work on pencil and chalk sketches of all 41 figures. Often, they were composites of 3 or 4 different images of the same player. As hour after hour went by bent over the drawings, things began to change. It happened slowly, at first, as the hand moved carefully, forming the lines that began to pull a countenance, a player posed in a specific uniform, off the white surface of the baseball. One-by-one, through their furrowed brows, scars, dark eyes and deeply lined cheeks, the faces began to reveal their own narratives of suffering and endurance. Each visage had a different story to relate. They were trying to speak and they strained to be heard. Moving from pencil and chalk to brush and color, the richness of the faces began to leap off the surface and their presence became more vivid. The portraits came to life. The more expressive and intricate the faces became, the louder their voices could be heard. In the 41 images, there were humble faces, tough faces, kind and weathered faces, beaten and tired ones. In the end, what looked up at me from the leather covers of the baseballs were ordinary faces of extraordinary people, each with his own incredible tale. Some seemed defiant, others compliant, still others appeared confused, as if to ask why have they been summoned? Why have they been disturbed? This is simply who I was, they stated silently. This was my life. Do I really need to smile for this painting, or should I look you directly in the eye and make you cognizant of all my suffering?

What was the hint of the Mona Lisa-like smile curling the lip of Monte Irvin trying to tell us? Satchel Paige’s eyes, with all they have seen, appeared to be mirrors, reflecting back on the observer. Cum Posey squints, carefully eyeing us from a past age. Pete Hill gazes skyward. What is he looking for up there? Martin Dihigo simply goes about his business. The ballplayers pose with their gloves, lean on a bat or take a knee. They are human beings stating who they are, frozen in time, in portrait. When I finished the final details on the figure of Louis Santop, I couldn’t take my eyes off his face. I still can’t. His questioning stare silently affixes the viewer. Why does he look at us like that? Is he angry with me for bringing him to life in this manner, or is he okay with my project? Sometimes, he looks like he is seething. No, wait, now he seems more relaxed. I simply can’t tell. He just stares unflinchingly, as if he knows something we could never understand.

Curt Chaplin is a 40-year veteran of broadcast journalism in New York City as a sports reporter and morning radio personality.  His voice has been heard on hundreds of radio and TV commercials.  As the lead voice for Major League Baseball Productions, he narrated numerous Official MLB Baseball World Series Films and documentaries, including the MLB Network series, Baseball’s Seasons.  For the past 20 years, he has been the Hallway Interviewer and well-known announcer voice of the iconic TV show, The People’s Court.  His solo play-by-play call of the Miracle On Ice hockey game, made from inside the arena in Lake Placid on Feb. 22, 1980, was accepted as an exhibit by the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto.  As an artist, he is entirely self-taught in the true folk art tradition. Inspired by the work of George Sosnak, his unique paintings on baseballs are owned by many Major League players and top collectors in the sports memorabilia industry.  He is honored to be included among this group of wonderful artists in this exhibit.

To see more of Curt Chaplin’s work, visit his Facebook page:

Curt Chaplin’s Painted Baseballs

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