For most of the baseball world, Dock Ellis is “that guy who threw a no-hitter on acid.” Here at Uni Watch, he’s “that guy who wore curlers” (more on that here). But to Jay Kaplan, Ellis is a lot more.
Kaplan (who I learned about from reader Matthew Ronay) is the man behind “Ellis, D.: The Dock Ellis Experience,” a group of 15 amazing poured resin paintings based on Ellis’s life, many of them featuring some awesome uni-related content. It’s a really interesting project for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this: If you start with one of the paintings and then click on it, you get a bunch of thumbnails showing Kaplan’s source material and visual references. It’s like getting a peek inside his creative process.
Kaplan was already planning a trip to NYC when I contacted him last month, so I got to interview him in person instead of over the phone. Even better, he brought several of the paintings with him, and they’re even more impressive in person than they are on the web, full of depth and saturation and texture. It also becomes much more apparent that the paintings’ dimensions are the same proportions as a baseball card.
Those photos were taken on June 6th, shortly after Jay and I spent some time chatting over a few beers in my back yard. Here’s what we talked about.
Uni Watch: Let’s start with you. How old are you, and where do you live?
Jay Kaplan: I’m 35, and I live in Sudbury, Massachusetts. But I’ve only been there for a year. Before that I lived here in Brooklyn for 14 years.
UW: Why’d you move?
JK: We have two kids, and it was getting tricky. I was getting sidetracked from doing my art. So now I’m, like, in the woods.
UW: Do you make a living as an artist?
JK: I’ve done so many different things to make a living — art’s been one of them.
UW: I know you grew up in Port Washington [Long Island]. Were you a sports fan growing up?
JK: Yeah. And I still am.
UW: Did you play sports?
JK: I played Little League and played baseball up through my junior year in high school. And I played soccer and a little hockey. Some basketball, but I wasn’t very good.
UW: Were you interested in art back then as well?
JK: I played music, and yeah, I did some art. We had a lot of art in our house. My great-grandmother was an interior designer, so she had bought a lot of stuff, and my parents hung work, like, salon-style, so there was art everywhere. And my grandfather was a painter.
UW: And did your interests in art and sports ever overlap, like they have with this Dock Ellis project?
JK: Here and there. When I was about 12, I took an oil painting class and I made a painting of Denis Potvin. I was a big Islanders fan, and that was right in their heyday.
UW: Have you done other sports-oriented art projects as an adult, prior to the Dock Ellis work?
JK: I did a silly thing. I really got into art in college. In high school, I’d been into writing, but then in college I took an elective — a welding elective. It was actually an African-American Studies welding class. And in that class I made a giant sculpture of Patrick Ewing. So that one and the Potvin painting were probably my two sports pieces.
UW: What led you to do that?
JK: At the time, I was so into just the act of welding, and I didn’t really know much about art, so I’d just weld anything that popped into my head. And I was really into the Knicks at the time. It’s at my parents’ house now, along with a lot of my work. The Ewing is a source of embarrassment for me now. A lot of my friends really like it, but I don’t know if they’re just making fun of me.
UW: Okay, so tell me about your fascination with Dock Ellis, and how that fascination led to this project.
JK: I was doing a lot of self-referential art…
UW: How do you mean?
JK: I used to do these performance pieces and photograph them. I made a piñata in my own likeness, and I hung it from a tree and had someone take pictures of me beating it while wearing the same clothes as the piñata, with red paper on the inside. Another time, I ate a box of crayons. And I took a Krazy Glue dropper and basically had a drop of Krazy Glue about to go into my eye.
UW: Was it actually, like, real Krazy Glue?
JK: It was, yeah.
UW: Did it go into your eye?
JK: No. I just kept it right there for the shot. Another time I filled a bottle of Glass Plus with blue Gatorade, went to a supermarket, and placed it on the shelf. Then I took it off the shelf and chugged it. So I’d done all these pieces with me in them, and I was looking for something with more of a narrative, a story. And I remembered this urban legend that someone had taken LSD and pitched a no-hitter. Then I did some research and learned that there was so much more to Dock.
UW: When was this that you began this process?
JK: Probably two and a half years ago. I’d started making these paintings using resin. I started with abstract stuff, geometric shapes. Then I went to the next logical place, naked women. And that’s when I decided to do the narrative. It took me a year to do the whole series.
UW: You said that you learned there was so much more to Dock Ellis than just “the guy who pitched a no-hitter while doing LSD.” Such as..?
JK: He was almost a black activist. He was outspoken, he had this lively personality. He was a character. He was controversial.
UW: The poured resin seems so particularly well-suited to someone who was tripping on acid, and also for the colors and design style of that time period. Was that one reason you thought he’d be a good match for this medium?
UW: Have you done LSD yourself?
JK: Um… I, uh … No comment.
UW: Did you do LSD specifically as “research” for this project, in the course of making the art?
UW: You’ve got some great uniform depictions in there. When I saw the Reggie Jackson painting, with that Oakland A’s uniform, that’s when I knew I had to get in touch with you. And hey, did you know that those early-’70s Pirates pullovers were the first pullovers ever worn in major league baseball?
UW: Yeah. Whether you realized it or not, you were documenting a really transformative period in baseball — striped waistbands replacing belts, pullovers replacing button-fronts, polyester replacing flannel. Were you aware of any of that?
JK: Not really, no. But I did do a lot of research to make it somewhat accurate to the era. I was hoping to capture the ’70s, when he pitched.
UW: What sort of research?
JK: Just looking at tons of pictures. There’s so much on the web now.
UW: Did you collect baseball cards as a kid, and did you go back and look at them?
JK: I did, yeah.
UW: I’m a little older than you, and I got interested in baseball around 1971, ’72, so I grew up watching precisely this period we’re talking about. Like, I remember watching Dock Ellis pitch. But you grew up after this period. So as you were doing all this research, were thinking, “Damn, I wish I’d been around to see that”?
JK: I have a lot of ’70s nostalgia in me, because the house I grew up in was really tricked out ’70s-style. So I sort of feel like I was there for it.
UW: You also have a piece showing Ellis in his curlers. When did you learn about that episode?
JK: There this great book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball…
JK: So I read about it there, and in other articles about him. I just thought it was an interesting thing to do, to wear curlers on the field. And he even used that to show racial bias, because the commissioner said, “You can’t do that, can’t wear curlers,” but he let white ballplayers wear wigs or hairpieces.
UW: I love how, if you click on one of the paintings, you get all those smaller images. Are those the source images?
JK: Those are some of the inspiration behind each painting. Sometimes I feel like maybe it gives away too much. But at the same time, I don’t know — if you just see the paintings, you might not get as much of the story.
UW: So it’s sort of like footnotes.
JK: Well, he pitched the no-hitter against the Padres. So the main image was based on the original San Diego Chicken, which was a radio gimmick. I wanted to draw a parallel between the chicken, which was a side show to the game, and a mustache, which I think of as a side show to a face. And mustaches were so prevalent back in that period.
UW: Right, because the A’s started that whole thing. And of course they also started the Technicolor-uniform trend.
JK: Yeah, I was so excited to do that Reggie Jackson piece, just to match that green and that yellow. I knew that in the resin, it would really pop.
UW: You nailed it, too.
JK: You probably can’t tell from the image on the web, but I actually did his glasses frames in inlaid metal, to accentuate them.
UW: Yeah, I noticed you used some unusual media, like Ping Pong balls. What’s that about?
JK: The Ping Pong balls were from this story when Dock fell from grace and drugs kind of overtook him later in his career. He finally went to rehab, and he was in such a bad state that he would actually sniff Ping Pong balls to try to get high.
UW: Really? What did he think he was gonna get out of that?
JK: I don’t know, but when I drilled holes in them and filled them with resin to make the eyeballs for that painting, they were really stinky. I think they’re made out of some kind of crazy plastic.
UW: No no no, they’re made out of reed or something, aren’t they? Definitely something organic.
JK: Really? Huh. [Actually, Jay was right: They’re made of celluloid, which is a thermoplastic. — PL]
UW: Anyway, so you did that not just because it was visually appropriate, but you were referencing an incident from his life.
JK: Yeah, I just took all this information about him and processed it through my head and tried to come up with images to go with them, and tried to make it work. But it didn’t have to be super-precise or literal.
UW: Let’s get back to the Reggie Jackson piece for a second. Why did you include him?
JK: Dock had a little history with Reggie in, I think, the ’76 All-Star Game [actually 1971 — PL]. At mid-season he had a really good record. Like he was 11-0 or something, and Vida Blue was having a great year too, and Dock said, “They’ll never start two black pitchers, two brothers in this All-Star Game.” And it became a big thing in the press, and it turned out that they both did start. And during that game, Reggie Jackson hit that famous home run off of Dock, the moonshot that hit the light tower in Detroit.
UW: But Reggie wasn’t wearing that green jersey in that game — he was wearing a vest.
JK [sheepishly]: There might be a few, uh, holes in the story.
UW: Well, that’s OK — artistic license and all. Didn’t mean to be such a stickler. I was just sayin’.
JK: Yeah, my audience is an art world audience. They’d never know the difference. Anyway, Reggie stood there watching the home run, which infuriated Dock.
UW: Nowadays, it happens practically every game. I mean, Manny Ramirez does it twice a week. I guess Reggie was kind of a pioneer there.
JK: But it really pissed off Dock.
UW: Which is kind of interesting. Because culturally speaking, the whole “standing and admiring your home run” thing is part of a demonstrative or hot dog-ish approach to sports that’s very black, very much part of the black approach to sports. And the people who don’t like it and criticize it are almost invariably white fans and white media people. So it’s interesting that Dock Ellis, being a very racially aware athlete, frowned upon something that was, in essence, very black.
JK: I don’t think he judged people based on color. He loved Pete Rose, for example. I think he just didn’t like being shown up, by anyone.
UW: Yeah, but what I mean is, you and I say, “showing him up,” but a lot of black fans and athletes would say, “That’s not showing anyone up — that’s just my style, that’s being an entertainer,” blah-blah-blah. And what white fans call “classy,” black fans often consider just “boring.” I’m not coming down on either side; I’m just saying the same thing can be perceived differently by different groups. It definitely speaks to a cultural gap.
UW: Anyway, that soured him on Reggie?
JK: Definitely. At one point a bunch of major leaguers were going to do a tour of Viet Nam, and Dock didn’t wanna go because Reggie was going. The next time he faced Reggie again [which was several years later, because Ellis didn’t pitch in the American League until 1976 — PL], he hit him in the face. Intentionally. Broke his glasses and I think broke his jaw.
UW: And that was years after! Wow, note to self: Don’t cross Dock Ellis.
UW: Have these pieces been shown in a gallery yet?
JK: No, I’m trying to find a place for them now. I’ve got some hopefuls. I’m feeling positive about it.
UW: Assuming you find a gallery, will you show the source images, the backstory, the way you have on the web?
JK: I don’t think I would, unless I maybe did it in the catalog.
UW: So it’s a very different kind of exhibition on the web than it would be in person. I mean, obviously, duh, everything’s different on the web, but what I mean is that the quantitative amount of material you’d be showing would be different.
JK: Yeah. At one point I wanted to get video of the no-hitter, and I contact all these different people, but it turns out that game wasn’t televised. There was some home video that someone shot from the stands — Bob Costas showed some of it on his show one time — and I tried to get that, but I couldn’t. The Hall of Fame sent me some other footage of Dock pitching, and I thought of doing something with that, but I decided not to.
UW: In the course of this project, did you make any attempts to contact Dock himself?
JK: I didn’t. I thought about it, but I wanted it to be based on just the story. Like I said before, at first I kind of treated it like an urban legend. I didn’t want to get too close to it.
UW: Did you contact Donald Hall, who wrote Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball?
UW: If this project eventually ends up in a gallery and gets some media, it’s certainly conceivable that Dock Ellis could become aware of its existence. If he were to come into a gallery, or even just visit your web site, what do you think he’d make of all this?
JK: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, because I spent so much time thinking about him. I was completely absorbed by him — it’s like he’s become a big part of my life somehow. I’d hope he would like it. I know he has a good sense of humor. I read something where he was signing baseballs with some sort of LSD reference. I’d hope he wouldn’t be offended, and that he’d be happy that someone was glorifying his life and accomplishments.
UW: Let’s say you get a gallery, and they do a big opening reception. Would you want Dock to attend the opening?
JK: That would be great, yeah — I’d be into that. He’s actually a drug counselor now, in California, and one of the galleries I’m looking at is in L.A., so yeah, that would be cool.
UW: I know artists hate to be asked this type of question, but do you have a favorite piece among the 15?
JK: I like Kool-Aid and Kools. It’s so iconic, and the idea is so clear to me. It sort of expresses this contradiction that was a big part of Dock’s personality, that he could be angry and loving. Dock smoked Kools, and Kool-Aid can be spiked with acid, so it all kind of fit together.
[That was all the questions I had, so I turned off the tape recorder. But we kept on chatting and drinking, and at some point the talk turned back to sports, so I turned the tape back on. — PL]
JK: Lately I’ve gotten into NASCAR.
UW: Interesting. Do you know any other artists who are into it?
JK: Actually, I’ve got two friends who started their careers based on their interest in NASCAR.
UW: How so?
JK: They were both interested in the aesthetics of it. This one guy, my friend Nathan, he did a lot work that almost looked like the way the patches are everywhere [on the jumpsuits]. And this girl Kristin Baker, she was into the way a car looks when it’s crashed, and her paintings were abstract, but they kind of had this crashing vibe. This was back in the ’90s — I think they’ve both gotten away from it now.
UW: Have you ever thought of a NASCAR-related project?
JK: There’s this one driver, Travis Kvapil, who drives the No. 28 car. For a while he didn’t have a sponsor, so he just put “11 million” on the hood of the car, because that’s what it would cost to sponsor him.
UW: Sort of like “Your Ad Here.”
JK: Exactly. So I saw that, and I thought that would be great if I, as an artist, could sponsor that car and just do some artwork on that car.
UW: So let’s say you’re a gazillionaire and you go ahead and do this. What would you put on the car?
JK: Maybe some kind of op-art thing that’s forms a vibrating pattern, so other drivers get mesmerized and crash when they’re coming up behind you. Or you could just do a minimalist thing, or just something ridiculous, like popcorn all over the car. And at the end of the race, the drivers always mention the sponsor — like, “Yeah, this Office Depot car really came through for me today.” So it would be incredible to hear them say, “This Jay Kaplan art car was was just great.” It would be a great juxtaposition between corporate America and art.
UW: Have you ever discussed this idea with anyone?
JK: I did work for Jeff Koons at one point…
UW: Well, he certainly has enough money to do it.
JK: Definitely. And it was so great when he put a float of his rabbit sculpture in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. I still know him and his wife, so I mentioned the idea to his wife. I e-mailed her about it, thinking maybe she’d tell him and he’d do it.
UW: Any response?
JK [laughing]: No response.
UW: Are you aware of the recent taxi art project here in New York?
JK: Was it cool?
UW: I didn’t like the designs, frankly, but I really liked the idea of using taxis as a means of creating public art, especially since so many taxis also carry advertising.
And that’s where we left it. Jay hasn’t yet found a gallery for the full 15-painting set, but he’ll be showing four of the pieces, along with some non-Dock artwork, in this group show, which will have an opening reception this Saturday from 6pm-10pm. He’ll be on hand, and I’ll be swinging by as well.
Uni Watch News Ticker: New York’s sanitation workers are getting new uniforms (with thanks to Neil Berger). … The Arkansas Travelers, double-A affiliate of the Angels, are changing from blue caps to red after winning the first-half division title (with thanks to John Evans). … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Novak Djokovic, an Adidas-sponsored athlete, wore Nike sneakers at Wimbledon and whited-out the swooshes. Details here. … While looking for something else, I came across this photo Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio. Note the connective strap on Ted’s stirrup. … Also came across this shot. Look closely and you’ll see that the ump is wearing his cap backwards, even though it has a abbreviated brim. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before. … Super-detailed guide to spotting fake NFL “authentics” here (nice find by Drew Wagner). … Good photos here, here, and hereof the Tigers’ one-year tiger-head style from 1927 (with thanks to Doug Mooney). … Early Astros prototype? Marc Swanson isn’t saying. … Thinnest stirrups ever? … Slow news day in Denver. … Chris Flinn reports that baseball-snagging guru Zack Hample snared a few BP balls at Shea a few days ago and was surprised to discover to find that they were All-Star Game balls. (As an aside, I had no idea there was a “baseball-snagging guru” out there, but the guy actually has a blog devoted to the topic — cool.) … “Many UFC fighters have started wearing tape wraps around their gloves to match the corner they’re assigned (blue corner has blue tape, red corner has red tape),” reports Mike Miller. “Probably helps the judges tell the fighters apart for scoring.” … Good gallery of USA Olympic basketball jereys here (with thanks to Erkki Corpuz). … Did you know the MLB logo was designed by DC Comics artist Jim Sherman? That’s what this page claims (with thanks to Dave Sikula). … Pesky Pirates patch problem persist for Jack Wilson. He must really love that one undershirt (with thanks to Bill Blevins). … Kudos to the U. of Minnesota, who’ve told Victoria’s Secret not to include them in Vicky’s pink collegiate product line. Details here (and nobody’s happier about this than Minnesota resident and scourge of all things pink Minna H.). … Mariners and Padres will be wearing 1978 throwbacks tomorrow night. … Nice photo gallery here of Cal football uni history — a history to which these are now being added. … I’m an architectural intern in Philadelphia and each summer there is a softball league comprised of architecture firms, contractors, and real estate firms,” writes Eddie Layton. “In general the league is very laid back and unorganized, although a few teams do have a semblance of uniforms or others (like ours) just try to all wear the same color T-shirt. This past week, however, we played a firm that had some pretty classic uniforms. I’ve attached a couple of pictures that my fiance took while we were playing.” … Reprinted from last night’s comments: Why did Bruce Boisclair (one of the least baseball-y names ever, by the way) pose for a photo with an aluminum bat?