It started, Mark Penxa says, as a tribute to his grandfather -- an artistic "journey through American sports lore" that featured special renderings of famous athletes, and ones long forgotten.
Called Stealing Signs, the first part featured baseball: 100 paintings and sketches, similar to the Derek Jeter one above. Then came hockey: 76 of them. All offered special elements -- stats, names, other items -- and their slightly abstract style set them apart from straight-up portraits.
Now Penxa, a Detroit-area native who also works at a screen and printing shop, is embarking on his most ambitious project yet: a visual "road trip" from state to state, inspired by stories and suggestions from readers and fans who were touched by his original works. He's going beyond baseball this time, too. All sports are open. All eras, too.
And he knows he's got a long, long way to go to get through all 50 -- it'll take years. So suggestions are welcome on his Facebook page (portraits can be purchased, as well).
Tell me about the beginning of the project.
The project started off as a thank-you card to my grandfather. He had been sick for a long time and getting worse. Baseball was the center of our conversations since I was little, he took me to every Tigers game that he could and we would watch every game together.
There was a gap where I wasn't around very much because of traveling and work and the usual day-to-day stuff. I hadn't watched a game with him or heard one of his stories in a long time, and now his memory was really bad and communication was limited to handshakes, hugs and tears. So, I painted a portrait of Al Kaline (seen below is a remake of the original), then Jim Northrup, Hank Greenberg, Norm Cash and so on, to serve as visual flash cards. It was the only way I could think of to still talk about baseball.
After I did those initial paintings, I couldn't stop making them and before I knew it, I had over 100 of them scattered across my apartment floor. So, I put them online on my personal site just to have new content and one day [ESPN Playbook writer] Paul Lukas mentioned it on his Uni Watch blog. The next thing I knew, I was receiving emails from all over the world with people telling me their stories about what their dads and grandfathers told them. It was amazing.
And the other series?
The second series had to be a thank you to my dad and his love for hockey, but I've always wanted the third installment to be about other people's stories and their heroes. So I've been working up to this point where I get to say thanks to everyone that shared themselves with me and kept me going.
Hearing more stories and taking suggestions will (hopefully) be taking place via a Facebook page or through email. I really would like to hear about the athletes from around the country that were local heroes, but never went pro for whatever reason. I think that would really be great and I am really looking forward to that. For now, I'm sticking with the usual suspects and essentially doing a Top 25 for the first few states just to give everyone an idea of what is happening.
Calling it a "road trip" just sounded fun to me and going state by state felt like the best way to catalog it all and keep it as tidy as I can. I think if I were to do it any other way would seem to random and be way too difficult to understand.
So these first projects are all yours? Or a bit of both -- your ideas and fan suggestions?
A bit of both right now. I'm sure as the project moves along I'm going to get thrown some really great ideas, but for right now I've been posting progress pictures and asking people: "Which jersey? What should go in the background?" Etc. Trying to connect as much as possible.
What are your favorites so far?
[Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett (both above), Tommy Heinsohn (below), Derek Jeter and Joe Black] would be my favorites so far. Jeter, Heinsohn and Joe Black are from the upcoming New Jersey series.
No real reason for the favoritism other than I just liked the way they turned out. The Montana piece was a struggle. I painted that four different times and the Joe Black is just, well, simply Joe.
So what's next, state-wise?
There isn't a set schedule yet. I've been posting polls to see which state I should "visit" next, so I've been keeping it somewhat regional but deciding has been pretty random and mostly by feel so far. [I] will crawl up to Maine and New Hampshire [soon] I'm sure.
As far as a release schedule goes, bimonthly. I work two jobs, so I've been fitting this in wherever I can and working on them all a little each day.
All images courtesy of Mark Penxa.