Two years ago I showcased Mark Penxa and his beautiful series of “Stealing Signs” baseball watercolors. Now he’s created a hockey version of “Stealing Signs,” and as you can see above, he hasn’t lost his touch.
I was going to write about Mark’s new project, but it occurred to me that it might be more interesting to have him write something himself. He readily agreed, and I love what he’s come up with, not least because his writing style is much more stream-of-consciousness than my more linear style. I think you’ll find it really interesting. Enjoy. — Paul
You and I are Stealing Signs
By Mark Penxa
Ernie Harwell died today and all I that I can think about are cheese and mustard sandwiches.
When I learned of his passing, I had two very vivid and immediate thoughts. The first was that the reassuring voice that had been alongside me since I was a boy was now gone. The second thought was of the cheese and mustard sandwiches on pumpernickel bread that my grandmother would make for my grandfather and me whenever he took me to a Detroit Tigers game. They were awful, terrible sandwiches. Don’t tell anyone, but the first thing my grandfather did once we passed through the turnstiles was open the cooler and throw away the soggy sandwiches. I think he hated them more than I did. He would then fall to one knee and pull five dollars out of his sock and we would go straight to the hot dog stand. Then he would buy me a yearbook. This was a big deal for me. It happened every single time he took me to a game but I still held my breath in anticipation each time. “Did he remember to hide the money?” Yup, he always did.
It had been about eight or nine months since I had finished the first “Stealing Signs” project, which was an ode to my late grandfather and his baseball memories. My friend Eric had been doing this careful but awkward cheerleading routine about how I “needed to continue the series.” Eric and I had grown up skateboarding and playing hockey, and even after I broke his face playing lacrosse in the field, we somehow remained friends. His hockey nerdiness far surpasses mine. He has a small but very interesting complete collection of aesthetic rarities, mostly from the NHL Lockout season. Always a treat to obsess over.
Today was moving day. Out of the drab, worn-out apartment into my new, worn-out house. My packing list for my big move was simple and short: the Tigers cap I bought my grandfather for Christmas; the team photo I had framed for him when I was little; and my guitars, skateboards, and car keys. Everything else could burn for all I cared. Fortunately enough for my landlord, I liked him too much to set the Dumpster on fire again.
But I had plenty of old stuff at my parents’ house, which had served as sort of a storage facility. Nothing is ever thrown away, and everything is always preserved exactly as you left it. I expected to grab a few boxes of things that I would just throw away next week and maybe Mom would have bought me some cleaning supplies. That’s what I was really after. But what I ended up with was a well-organized time capsule of my childhood. It was as if I had found the world’s greatest thrift store. There were boxes marked “Baseball,” “Records,” “Skateboarding,” and “Hockey.” I couldn’t contain myself and started digging.
I struck gold with my 1989 Red Wings scrapbook that I had made from newspaper clippings about the playoffs, including this amazing photo of Sam St. Laurent getting carried off the ice by Joe Kocur. A few more gems were this pic of Tommy Hearns and a triptych illustration of what people thought the uniforms might be like in the year 2000. For whatever reason, I clipped this piece about Bob Probert and his personal demons. I was 12 at the time; I have no idea why I thought addiction was important subject to clip. I do find it interesting that all these years later it would play an important theme within “Stealing Signs II.”
Underneath the scrapbook was a small stack of Red Wings and Tigers yearbooks. I must have looked at these a thousand times as a kid, especially this one from 1994. I never read a single word or a statistic, I just marveled at the illustrations, layout, and color theories (I was never the “normal” kid). While thumbing through the Red Wings yearbooks, I was sucked into all the advertisements. For example: If anyone has a box of these aprons lying around, I want one. This Ball Park Franks ad should be made into a T-shirt (even though “offsides” call is a little disturbing). And the Jacques Demers t-shirt pictured in this JC Penney advert is just terrible. Also, I can’t help but think that the illustration in this ad, as well as in this one, may have had an effect on my artwork.
Surrounded by all these memories was haunting but exciting for the three hockey nerds in the room. There I was, with a faithful friend and my father, nerding out about the aesthetics of the game we loved. What was supposed to be a quick stop to “grab a few boxes” turned into four hours.
Growing up, my grandfather was my best friend. I’ve been told he was flawed like the rest of us, that he wasn’t always pleasant, but I never knew that man. I only knew the warm human being who would protect me from those terrible sandwiches at any cost. The man who would play endlessly long games of catch with me in baggy gray gabardine pants and would paint these grandiose portraits about baseball with his carefully carved memories.
My relationship with my father is the same. He has the same tall tales — but of another sport. The brutal, unforgiving sport that I love and that we can talk about endlessly. It was never my intention to do another “Stealing Signs” series; to me it felt like a one-time thing. But as my friend and I dug through those boxes there was a narration happening over our shoulders, an overflowing of hockey stories, one after another, being recited by my father. He loves telling them, and at that point I knew I had to continue my sentimental journey.
That first night in the new house, I set up shop as quickly as I could and started drawing. A few days later I decided to name the new series to motivate me and to give myself a goal. “Stealing Signs II: Memories from my last life; Saskatchewan, 1934.” Why 1934? I had no idea. I started researching, trying to find something to spin it in my favor but I came up with nothing. It wasn’t until Iater that I finally came up with the answer… which can be found within the Tigers team photo that I mentioned earlier. It’s a small coincidence, perhaps, but it stitches together the two art projects quite nicely.
I cannot finish this without thanking the Uni Watch faithful, with whom I have exchanged some pretty great e-mails. You too have your own stories, aesthetic opinions, and even priceless knowledge on how to convince an entire household of daughters that they love hockey too! I tried my best to keep you all in mind — I made sure to illustrate the stitches around the logos, to not toy around with the colors too much, and to make sure that Al MacInnis was a Flame and not a Blue.
Thank you all. I hope I got it right.
Thank you, Mark — wonderful stuff.
Now that you know the backstory, go ahead and check out the hockey version of “Stealing Signs.” Click on the three periods plus the overtime and check out all of Mark’s magnificent paintings. I think you’ll agree that they’re as strong and evocative as anything that’s ever been featured on this site.
ESPN Reminder: In case you missed it yesterday, the first installment in my week-long run of columns about the World Cup went up yesterday afternoon (although, in a scandalous oversight, there was no mention of the kits worn by these South Korean penguins). The second installment is now available here.
Giveaway Results: The three winners of the PC-to-TV converters are Jonathan Gault, Brian Schulz, and Jennine Mara, all of whom should watch their mailboxes. Your prizes will be shipping out shortly.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Manny Parra of the Brewers has provided the latest object lesson in why button-front jerseys cause problems. That’s a strip of Velco, which was exposed — and therefore not working — during his start on Sunday night (with thanks to Matt Powers). … Here’s something you don’t often see: a white-on-white game. That’s from the Oregon 6A high school softball championship (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … Also from Jeremy: Lots of interesting stuff from the new FIVB World League (that’s volleyball, kids), including an interesting collar and a dimpled fabric for Bulgaria; an unusual number font for Brazil; reflective NOBs for the USA and China (also note how the descender on the “J” goes below the text baseline — unusual for an NOB); two different libero uniforms — one solid-blue, one just with blue shorts — for Cuba (“First time I know of that two liberos have been used in a match,” says Jeremy); and Johnny collars for Poland and Germany. … With the World Cup about to start, I suspect we’ll be seeing lots of haircuts like this one in the weeks to come. … Saw Bryce Harper interviewed on the teevee last night (sans eye black, thankfully). Among his quotes: “Ever since I was seven years old, I’ve wanted to be the number one pick. And ever since I was seven years old, I’ve told myself I had to be the number one pick.” I know, it’s just a canned quote, but that is still really, really sad. … But not as sad as the NFL now having an official pizza.