The superb Texas band Centro-matic will be playing this Thursday at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan. I’ll be there, because I’ve been a fan of the band for about a decade now. But what I didn’t know until very recently — when reader Brad Tucker pointed it out to me — is that Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson has been producing a series of sensational baseball paintings over the past few years.
I’ve always loved Johnson’s music, and his baseball artwork gave me an excuse to interview him, so I sent him a note. He wrote back right away and, in a nice coincidence, said he was a longtime Uni Watch fan. After we got the mutual-admiration thing out of the way, we settled in for a good discussion. Here’s how it went:
Uni Watch: How old are you, and where do you live?
Will Johnson: I recently turned 40, and I live in Austin, Texas.
UW: Have you always been a baseball fan?
WJ: As far back as I can remember, yes.
UW: Who do you root for?
WJ: The Cardinals. I’m a native Missourian and I’ve maintained my allegiance, even thought I moved to Texas around ’83 or so. Jack Buck was the voice I grew up listening to.
UW: What about other sports?
WJ: I own one share of the Green Bay Packers, so I’m a part owner, technically, and I follow them very closely. And I’m pretty obsessive about soccer. Our band plays in Europe a lot, and it was impossible not to take a curiosity in that sport once we started playing over there. And for hockey, I follow the Red Wings.
UW: Why would a Missouri kid follow the Packers and the Red Wings?
WJ: I know, it doesn’t make any sense. There are stories behind them, but it’s probably too boring to get into here.
UW: When did you get the one Packers share?
WJ: That was a Christmas present from my Mom in 1997.
UW: Did you play sports when you were growing up?
WJ: Yeah, definitely. There wasn’t much else to do in the little farming town I came from.
UW: And were you already becoming to attentive to uniform and logo details in those days?
WJ: Yes. And remember, this was the 1970s, so there were so many crazy, classic uniform designs out there — the Taco Bell Padres, the Fruit Stripe Gum Astros [never heard them described that way! — PL]. There was so much eye candy. It was a great time to be paying attention to those details. It was impossible for me not to be drawn to them.
UW: And did you pay close attention to your own uniforms, like in Little League and so on?
WJ: Sure did. My wife and I were talking about this just the other night. We were watching the UT/A&M baseball game, and A&M was going with high cuffs and stirrups, which is not something you see too often anymore. And I leaned over and told her that’s how I liked to wear my socks back from about ’78 to ’82. I had to show some white under those stirrups.
UW: Any other formative uniform-related moments you can recall?
WJ: For basketball, I was just issued, y’know, some shorts and a tank top, so there wasn’t much to worry about there. But I would always go socks-high, sort of the Michael Cooper look. I probably should’ve paid more attention to my game instead of my look.
UW: Nah, I think you had your priorities straight. Now let’s talk about your baseball paintings. When did you start doing them?
WJ: About three years ago. I was living as a bachelor at the time and lacking for stuff to put on the walls, so I thought I’d make some paintings for myself. I also thought it would be a good way to pay respect to certain players, and to learn a little more about their history — not only baseball history but also American history. I try to learn something with each piece.
UW: Were you already an active painter at that time, and did you study art in school and all that?
WJ: No. I wish there was some exotic story, but I actually studied English and played music. Maybe five or six years ago I tried a few small paintings just to take on the road and sell at the merch booth, but I didn’t really dig ’em enough to take ’em out of the house, so I just kinda left them in the closet. Later on, I went to a larger scale, which gave me a little more space for detail, and that’s when they started looking a bit better.
UW: About half of your subjects seem to be baseball characters from the ’70s and ’80s, who I guess were the players you grew up watching, and then the rest are a mix of much older players and Negro League players. How do you decide who to paint?
WJ: A lot of the paintings of ’70s players, those coincided with an art show I had a few months ago up in Denton, Texas, which is where I went to school. For that show, I decided to have a focus on the strangeness and the wonder of ’70s baseball. So that’s where a bunch of those came from. With all the bright uniforms and the questionable facial hair, it gave me a lot to work with.
Soon I’d like to focus on lesser-known, sort of under-the-radar Texas baseball players. But really, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s just a matter of when a certain player will inspire me.
UW: Once you decide to paint a particular player, what’s your working process? Like, do you find a good photo to use as reference, or what?
WJ: I’ll usually look through a bunch of photos to start. If a photo inspires me, I’ll let it guide me — sketch it out on a one-inch-thick board, which takes the paint really well. I may change the uniform scheme a bit as I sketch it, kind of morph it a bit, to make it a little more unique. And then I’m also reading up on the player, learning about him, so I can zero in on what I want to include in the script, be it a story or just a simple quote that I want to include.
UW: You use mostly acrylics on wood or board, right?
UW: How long does it usually take you to do one of these?
WJ: There’s a lot of standing back and letting things dry. I guess maybe two and a half to three days. And that’s not all nose to the grindstone. It includes a lot of taking breaks, playing a little music, and so on.
UW: You tend to include a lot of text, which seems like it would be really painstaking. Do you write it out first on paper and sort of block out how it will fit, or do you just wing it, or what?
WJ: Man, I totally wing it. It is a roll of the dice as to whether it fits or not. And sometimes it doesn’t, and I have to figure out how to round the space out when that happens. Maybe I’ll kinda eyeball it, but really, I’ll just start painting and commit to it. Sometimes I get lucky, and sometimes I don’t, and that can be a really frustrating moment.
That’s the part that takes the most time, getting all the script in there on the painting. That’s a carpal tunnel special — sometimes I have to put the brush down for a bit and then pick it up again later.
UW: Yeah, I was struck by the amount of text in some of your pieces, and it’s all rendered so nicely. Do you have really good handwriting in normal life?
WJ: I have okay handwriting, but painting the letters instead of writing them tends to make me slow down, which makes them look better. Each letter gets a new dip of paint, so it goes on thick, and that helps the letters really pop.
UW: Most of your subjects are players who were really great, or really important, or both. But I was surprised that you included Dave Kingman. He didn’t quite fit the pattern. Why did you choose to include him?
WJ: The story of the rat really piqued my interest. I just couldn’t stay away from it. I slept on it for a few nights and I thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna do a Kingman.” And I hadn’t painted any Mets at that point.
UW [sarcastically]: As a Mets fan, I really appreciate that you chose Dave Kingman to represent us.
WJ: No problem. I’ve got other Mets who I plan to work on, but he was the first. The rat story was just too good.
UW: But the rat incident came later, after he’d left the Mets! But whatever, let’s focus on the positive. You’ve included a few details that we’ve actually discussed at some length at Uni Watch, such as Bill Buckner’s Cubs batting glove, and Hank Aaron’s Adidas-striped cleats. How do you decide which details to include and which ones to take liberties with?
WJ: If it’s a signature-type detail, I include it. Like Buckner’s Cubs glove, I had to include that.
UW: Had you been aware of the column I wrote about that back in 2006?
WJ: No, I’m embarrassed to say I totally missed that.
UW: No no no, it’s so much better that you picked up on that detail without having read about it. When that column ran, so many people were saying, “I’ve watched that play a million times, seen tons of photos of it, but I never noticed the Cubs logo on his glove.” But you noticed it on your own. That’s awesome! [After our interview, I sent Will the link to that 2006 piece, which he said he enjoyed. — PL]
WJ: Thanks. That Buckner painting will actually be appearing in that “30 for 30” episode about Buckner [Catching Hell], which should come out this fall. I do try to pay attention to the details, like the 1976 patch on Kingman’s sleeve. That was really important.
UW: Did you have fun getting all the shades of orange just right for J.R. Richard’s Astros uniform?
WJ: Good grief, it took a lot of time to get all of those right. That was a fun one to do.
UW: Do you paint other stuff besides baseball?
WJ: I’m sticking to baseball right now. I’ve had a few requests for basketball players, soccer players, but I’m pretty backed up on baseball commissions right now, so that’s keeping me busy.
UW: I’ve been a Centro-matic fan for years, but I never got any baseball vibe from your music. Have you written some baseball songs and I just haven’t noticed?
WJ: There are probably some metaphors floating around in there. But a straight-up, overt baseball song..? I don’t think I’ve written one of them.
UW: That’s good. I was afraid maybe I just missed the boat on that.
WJ: Four or five years ago I kinda had to put the nix on the sports metaphors. I was abusing them, they were showing up a little too much, so I kinda had to shut that down for a while.
UW: What about the other guys in the band — do they care about this stuff?
WJ: They do, they do. I don’t think any of them is quite at the level I’m at, but they all have their interests. Mark, our guitar player and bass player, is the most knowledgeable Dallas Mavericks and NBA fan I’ve ever met. He keeps me up to date on that, because I don’t really follow the NBA too much. And we all follow college football, but I’m kinda the baseball guy.
UW: Is it hard to keep up with your team when you’re touring?
WJ: Sometimes, yes. But oftentimes I’ll get back to the hotel, or wherever we’re staying, and I’ll find myself checking out MLB.TV and settling in to watch the ballgame, whether it’s on a delay or whatever.
UW: Do you collect anything sports-related?
WJ: I have a small jersey collection — maybe 20 or 25. Mostly baseball and hockey.
UW: Are they things you bought new, or vintage?
WJ: A little bit of both. eBay’s always a fun source.
UW: Do you ever wear them onstage? I think I’ve only ever seen you in a T-shirt.
WJ: I did wear an FC Barcelona shirt onstage one time, around 2006, back when they won the Champions League final. But that might be the only time.
Big thanks to Will for sharing his time and insights. Some quick follow-ups:
• If you’re interested in commissioning Will to make a baseball painting for you, you can contact him here.
• If you’re not familiar with Centro-matic, there’s tons of info about them on their web site. If want to check out one of their albums, I strongly recommend Love You Just the Same as an ideal starting point.
• I encourage all New York-area readers to come down to the Merc on Thursday to see Will and the band. Wear a jersey, so we can all find each other. (If you don’t live in New York, other dates on Centro-matic’s current tour are shown here.)
• Finally, you can see Will’s painting technique (although the image he’s working on isn’t baseball-related) showcased in the band’s latest video. Dig:
By Brinke Guthrie
That’s our major eBay find of this week. Here’s a bunch more:
• I love this totally rad 1960s NFL poster.
• The St. Louis Browns don’t exist anymore, but you can still show your support for them with this great little sticker.
• I absolutely owned this 1970-71 Kentucky Colonels press guide back in the day.
• Here’s a very nice player-worn KC Chiefs sideline jacket.
• Hmmm, what’s with the blank helmet?
• And just for PL: a Mets garden gnome! [No thanks. — PL]
Seen something on eBay that you think would make good Collector’s Corner fodder? Send your submissions here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Big congrats to Kirsten, whose Project Neon venture is featured in this week’s New Yorker. … Here’s an interesting piece about gloves on the PGA tour. … Jeff Barak attended the NHL draft and took lots of photos of fans wearing various jerseys. … Turns out Phil already covered this over the weekend, but in case you missed it there: In yesterday’s Ticker I mentioned Chase d’Arnaud’s unusual NOB, but Larry Miller noticed something I didn’t, namely that the lowercase d looks like it’s probably an upside-down P. Good catch! … “Interesting situation came up in Saturday’s LA Galaxy/San Jose Earthquakes game,” writes Ethan Allen. “Starting goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was injured in the first half. His backup, Josh Saunders promptly got red-carded, forcing the Galaxy to use diminutive forward Mike Magee in goal for the last 60 minutes of the game. Magee used Saunders’s goalkeeper jersey and military-themed gloves in the first half, before switching to a pair of Donovan Ricketts’ gloves in the second. But wait, there’s more: As Saunders was getting ejected, I noticed that the Galaxy’s black goalkeeper jerseys have the two stars above the crest (to note the team’s two MLS championships), but they’re done in black, so you can only see them when the light catches them.” … Jim Walaitis attended Friday’s Cards/Jays game and had a good view of outfielder Matt Holliday. “From the beginning of the game, it was very obvious that he really, really likes his sunflower seeds,” says Jim. “I don’t ever remember seeing a player eat (and eat and eat) on the field in the middle of game action before. All those pictures were taken within a couple innings, though I could have taken many more if I’d wanted. Holliday’s habit was quite the topic of discussion among the fans in the area around me (especially as a possible explanation for his level of fielding skills).” … Neil Roesler was recently at a convention in Fargo. “One of the speakers was a gentleman who was involved in securing the TCF Bank naming rights for the University of Minnesota football stadium,” he says. “His presentation was all about the logistics of working out these deals, the branding considerations, contract details, etc. Of particular note was when he went through his ‘naming risks’ slides, and there for all to see were the No Mas shirts such as ‘I’m Calling it Shea.’ I couldn’t get my phone out in time to snap a picture, but I’m still happy to report that the revolution is at least leaving its mark.” … New soccer ball design for La liga, EPL, Serie A (with thanks to Kenny Loo). … Legendary
WASP theme park Manhattan clothier Brooks Brothers is getting into the college apparel biz (with thanks to Matthew Robins). … Remember the Philadelphia stationery store with the paper sock monekeys in the window? Ben Marciniak spotted a similar display in Boston, only this time with a Bruins theme. … I’m still calling it Giants Stadium. … “I’m not sure how clear it is in this photo,” says Chad Dotson, “but Nationals prospect Derek Norris [No. 25] wore a darker uni than his Harrisburg teammates in Monday night’s AA game at Richmond.” … I just won this absolutely killer Durene jersey. Might end up being a tad small for me, but nobody else bid on it, so at that price it was worth taking a gamble on. … New away kit for Arsenal. … Condolences to the family of Norma “Duffy” Lyon, an important American artist who worked in a unique medium. R.I.P.