Last month I got a note from reader Anthony Giaccone, who wanted to let me know about an interesting baseball-related art project he’d found on the web. I followed the link he provided and found myself at “Stealing Signs,” a series of 100 old-timey baseball paintings, sequenced with musical accompaniment, by an artist named Mark Penxa.
As I clicked through the paintings, I quickly fell in love with them. Some had accompanying text, some had little rows of statistics, almost all were hauntingly beautiful. And of course I loved the uniform depictions.
I got in touch with Penxa, who readily agreed to an interview. Our conversation was interesting, because I tend to think and communicate in very linear terms, while he doesn’t (which is why I’m a writer and he’s an artist). But before you read the transcript, I urge everyone to click through the whole “Stealing Signs” presentation — the cumulative effect is even greater than the considerable sum of its parts.
Uni Watch: Let’s start with you. Where do you live, how old are you, and what do you do for a living?
Mark Penxa: I’m 31, I live in Detroit — well, in the ’burbs, actually, in a village called Plymouth — and I’m a painter.
UW: So you live off your art..?
UW: Wow, that’s really excellent — congrats. Now, “Stealing Signs” is comprised of paintings and sketches about baseball, but what about your other work? Like, do you use other media, do you tend to focus on a particular type of subject matter? In short, how would you describe your art as a whole?
MP: I’m not sure I can answer that. Some of my work is really abstract. I’ve always been involved in art — I did my first drawing when I was three. But my primary focus for years was music, and I did that professionally.
UW: What do you play?
MP: Guitar, piano, a lot of stuff. It’s in the bloodline — both of my parents are musicians. So it was always there.
UW: Were you in bands?
MP: I was in a punk band called Telegraph. We toured around, got to see the world for free, sold some records. But art was always plan B, because the music thing was never gonna last forever. So I started painting and working myself into that — I never went to school for it or anything.
UW: So you’re self-taught, self-trained.
MP: Yeah. Basically, our band left on our first big tour a few days after I graduated high school. And I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, so I was worried about what was gonna happen when this was done. So I would just read Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop manuals while we toured. And when I was home, I’d practice. Then I started painting and getting into that medium. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t really know how to sum up my artwork, because I haven’t been formally trained.
MP: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. That comes from coming up in punk rock — Raymond, you know, he was everywhere. His work is something that just sticks in your head. I don’t know much about him other than his covers for the Black Flag records. And I know that he’s sometimes touched on baseball [I'd completely forgotten about that myself -- PL]. So when I started this, I was a little worried about that.
UW: How so? Like your project would seem too derivative, or you’d be viewed as ripping him off or something?
MP [laughing]: Yeah, I usually go right to the worst-case scenario, so I was kinda worried about ripping him off.
UW: I didn’t mean it that way when I brought up his name — I just meant that you’re in good company.
MP: Yeah, that’s how I took it — it’s very flattering.
UW: Have you always been a baseball fan?
MP: Yeah, absolutely.
UW: What about other sports?
MP: I’m primarily a hockey guy.
UW: Who do you root for?
MP: I’m a homer, so I root for the Tigers. And I follow the Wings, because it’s easy to do that, but I actually grew up as a Maple Leafs fan. That’s because my father was always a Canadiens fan, so I kinda did it to piss him off.
UW: Are you an athlete yourself, or were you when you were growing up?
MP: I did the Little League thing. I wasn’t really any good. But I did go 4-for-4 once against the fat kid. And I’ve always been into skateboarding.
UW: Oh, so that explains skateboard art that you’ve done. Alright, but let’s get to “Stealing Signs” and how it all came together.
MP: It sort of started out as an accident. It was a doodle I did of Al Kaline, and when I stopped and looked at it, it looked a bit like a stencil. Something graffiti-like. I thought about it and said, “Yeah, I should do some of these for my grandfather.” I was going to do 10 of them and give them to him as a birthday gift.
UW: This initial doodle of Al Kaline, was it based on a photo of him?
MP: Yeah, it was based on his Hall of Fame induction photo. I was going to do the various phases of his career, because he’s basically the be-all and end-all for my grandfather. No one else existed. So it went from that, and I started adding paint to the drawings, messing around with dye, and soon I had about 20 Al Kalines — the same damn drawing.
UW: So you were doing, like, different treatments of the same drawing.
MP: Yeah, I was just playing with it. I’d make photocopies of the drawing and try different things.
UW: This was all done physically, not on the computer, right?
MP: Yeah, this is all pen, paper, and paint. And this was a few years ago, when the team had turned around and suddenly gotten good, and I started thinking about how the city had changed because of baseball. People weren’t mugging each other anymore. That sounds harsh, but it’s very real here. Normally, if you’re walking down the street in Detroit and someone approaches you who you don’t know, you’re immediately on the defensive. You assume something bad is going to happen. But when they were making that first playoff run in 2006, people would stop you in the street and ask if you knew what the score was. I mean, everyone here’s out of work, the economy is garbage, and baseball was sort of fixing everything. It was very interesting and cool to see.
UW: So how did that play into the project?
MP: It’s hard to explain, but it just got me thinking, and I kept doing more pieces, and soon I had about 60 of them. And when I finally realized where I was going, I tore those up and started over.
UW: And where is it that you realized you were going?
MP: Ah… [Long pause.] I don’t think I’ve figured that part out yet. And maybe because it’s not done. There could be more, I’m not sure. It sounds kind of hokey and hippie-ish, but I think I was kind of playing therapist to some of these guys.
UW: Some of the guys you were painting?
MP: Yeah, the players themselves. Some of them. See, some of the players I painted are completely fictitious. And some of them are very real — Hall of Famers. Grover Alexander, Cool Papa Bell. It’s hard to explain, exactly.
UW: Is that what the title “Stealing Signs” refers to? Like, you’re intercepting the stories of their lives?
MP: Sure. Yeah. You’re the first one to catch that.
UW: What about the subtitle, “Memories from My Past life, 1927″?
MP [chuckling a bit nervously]: That’s a little weird. I’ve always had this strange connection, or nostalgia, for the 1920s and ’30s. That was sort of the subtext. The muted sepia-tone colors, especially, play into that.
UW: But not all of the images are based on photos taken in 1927, right?
MP: No, not at all.
UW: So why is 1927 part of the subtitle?
MP [chuckling again]: It was just sort of the year I put on it. It’s, it’s really, uh, I don’t know if it lessens the whole thing or what, but it just sort of spilled out of me. It felt right. I don’t know why.
UW: I realize I’m asking specific questions about things that may not have specific answers, and that you may have made an artistic choice simply because it felt right to you. And that’s fine.
MP: Paul, this is very weird, because this is actually the first time I’ve talked out loud about the project, and the first time anyone’s asked me any questions about it. So some of these things you’re asking me, they’re things I haven’t really thought through yet. So just bear with me.
UW: No problem. Now, are all of the paintings based on photos?
MP: Most of them. Probably about 75%.
UW: The ones that aren’t, did you just do them out of your head, or are they composites, or what?
MP: Most of those came straight out of my head. There’s one — “My World Still Spins Without You” — that one started with the words. And there’s a couple where I worked some of my friends’ faces into the paintings.
UW: When choosing a photo to render as a painting, were your choices driven primarily by the original photo’s aesthetic qualities, or by who was depicted in a photo, or what? What were your criteria? Were you looking for photos and then basing the idea for a painting around that, or did you already have an idea and you’d go looking for an appropriate photo?
MP: I wasn’t really looking for photos at first. After the Kaline pieces that I was doing for my grandfather, the next batch was completely out of my head. I just started making up all these characters in this soap opera. But once I got an idea of what I wanted it all to look like, those earlier ones didn’t make sense anymore. So then I started referencing photos and things like that.
UW: Were there specific boundaries on the time frame these photos came from, or was it all just “early baseball photos”?
MP: I tried to keep it within the late ’20s, when possible. When I was almost done with the whole thing, someone sent me a link to the Chicago Daily News photo archive. It’s, like, tens of thousands of old negatives. So I started going through that, and I almost — almost — scrapped the whole thing and started over with that. They’ve got some pretty amazing stuff. Prison leagues, prison league football. It’s incredible.
UW: What is it about that particular 1920s era that fascinates you so much?
MP: That’s when my grandfather was growing up, so that’s my connection to it.
UW: OK, now we’ll finally get to some uniform questions. The uniforms from that era had a lot of elements that would look unusual to us today. Some jerseys had pockets or point collars, belt buckles were usually worn off-center, sleeves were often very long, there were sweaters instead of dugout jackets, umpires wore neckties. Were you already aware of all that, or were you surprised to discover these details as you painted them?
MP: I’d always known about that stuff. But I changed some aspects of the uniforms, and in some cases I got a little mischievous and changed the teams that the players played for. There were quite a few that didn’t make the final 100 where they’re wearing those big warm-up sweaters — those didn’t really translate well. The thick-gauge knit looked like popcorn. [Mark's being too hard on himself. After our interview was over, he sent me some original paintings that didn't make the cut, including this one. As I think you'll agree, the sweater came out just fine. -- PL]
UW: The uniform fabric was different back then, too. Your painting style, with its thick lines, really meshes well with the thick wool flannels of that period.
MP: Thanks. I think that’s why the colors worked so well. Just that sweaty, dirty-wool thing, like they were never quite clean.
UW: Yeah, I’m assuming all your reference photos were black-and-white, which freed you to impose your own color palette. And I love that muted sepia feel that you got. It’s almost like a color version of black-and-white.
MP: Yeah, if I did have a color photo to work with, I just took the color out of it. There’s not much red, white, or blue in there.
UW: Has this project changed the way you look at baseball, and the way you react when you see a baseball uniform?
MP: It doesn’t change the way I watch a game. But it’s increased my appreciation for the game.
UW: Some of the images have accompanying text, and some don’t. What’s that all about, and how did those choices develop?
MP: Like I said before, it has to do witt that therapy aspect. It’s what I thought these players were saying to me. That sounds so weird. Creepy. At first I looked at it as, “For some reason this came into my head, so I’m writing it down.” Like, “Roy Campanella wants me to say this.” I don’t know. Really, it was my own therapy.
UW: Well, that was my next question — how much of this was therapy for you?
MP: Oh, probably a lot. I mean, I can try to hide behind these guys, but I’m gonna be exposed sooner or later. I mean, a lot of it is about my own, uh, junk. But it’s everyday junk, the junk we deal with. It’s just those things that go unnoticed and get passed off as not being a big deal — bleeding hearts, mild addiction, and stuff like that.
UW: Are there any particular players you chose to depict who might not be household names but who you chose to depict because you found them to be appealing characters in some way? I know there’s one where you listed the guy’s first and last games, and they were just a few weeks apart, for example.
MP: He died soon after his first game. I found him on baseball-reference.com.
UW: Who was it?
MP: Couldn’t tell ya. I didn’t document it. I just noticed it was some player from the ’20s, whoever he was. I like that I can’t remember who he was.
UW: Because his name isn’t as important as the circumstances defining his career?
MP: Yeah. I mean, he got to go to the big game. That’s what matters. It’s sweeter that way. He died, but he made it. His wife was proud of him. It’s a success story.
UW: What about the ones that have stats in the background?
MP: They’re always in reverse order. Don’t ask me why, I just did it that way.
UW: You mean with the player’s final season shown at the top, instead of at the bottom?
UW: Is your grandfather still alive?
MP: Yes, barely. He’s holding on.
UW: What does he think of all this?
MP: He doesn’t. He’s seen it, but he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. His dementia’s getting really bad.
UW: I’m sorry. Does he understand on some level that you did all this as a gesture to him?
MP: Yeah. He knew about it before it was finished. As I was working on it, I let him know, “Hey, this was meant for you, but it’s kind of taken on its own life.” He got the gist.
UW: Is the project being exhibited in the physical world, or only digitally?
MP: Only online. I tried, I shopped it around to galleries and art spaces, but I kept getting turned down.
UW: Well, hopefully I can help change that.
Can’t even begin to say how much I love Mark’s work. Big, big thanks to him for sharing his thoughts with me, and for creating something so special. And if anyone out there runs a gallery, get in touch with Mark pronto.
Raffle Results: The winner of the helmet raffle is charter member Joel Keller, who has already chosen this helmet as his prize. “I’m a Giants fan,” he says. “This helmet reminds me of the era when my dad became a fan, so I might give it to him. Then again, I might not.”
As for the rest of you, don’t despair — I should have another raffle to announce next Monday or Tuesday.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Lots of readers wrote in to let me know that big-shot designer Michael Beirut has penned an ode to my favorite object, the Brannock Device. … I’ve written several times about Johnny LeMaster’s “Boo” NOB (details here). According to this item, he was fined $500 for that stunt, which I hadn’t known until now. … More Japanese all-stars wearing “E” and “W” (for East and West, natch), courtesy of Jeremy Brahm. … The Pro Football Hall of Fame has some new exhibits — here’s a bunch of pics. Of particular interest: another padded-crown helmet (with thanks to Brandon Yarian). … Not many coats make it to the Museum of Modern Art. And now one that recently did make it has died — literally. … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: In the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, Michigan’s Mike Hammerstein had a double-decker FNOB, while teammate Tim Schultz had a single-line version. … I think we’ve all seen illustrations of the new Iowa State football togs by now, but I believe this is the first photo (with thanks to Andrew Cinnamon). … Great hockey jersey collector’s site here (with thanks to Casey Barcomb). … Vince reports that Braylon Edwards said the following during a live web chat yesterday: “I am already mad at Rich Rod because he gave the No.1 jersey to someone other than a WR, which is breaking tradition. But I think he is a great coach and will lead Michigan to a turnaround.” … Fun piece here about players in the “wrong” uniforms. I once did something similar, but there’s always room for more (with thanks to David Cline). … I’ll be partaking of non-uni culture with the ’rents this afternoon, so everyone play nice while I’m gone.