February 10, 2010

Talkin' Baseball with Dick Perez

With the start of the 2010 baseball season getting closer and closer, I am reminded of my childhood and my lifelong fascination with collecting baseball cards.

Long before subsets were all the rage (and saved or killed the industry…depending on what side of the debate you’re on), my neighbor and I created our own. We’d group together All-Stars, top rookies and separate our collection by teams…not numerically.

And then the 1982 Donruss set hit the scene and brought with it their wonderful Diamond Kings.

Diamond Kings were fantastic! There was one per team and, hopefully, it was the team’s best player. They were, in a sense, card collecting’s first true subset.

In 1985, we were introduced to the man behind the brush, artist Dick Perez when he was commemorated with his own trading card. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with him.

PEREZ: Your opening comments regarding subsets tells me that it was probably more fun to do it your way than having the card companies create them for you. In a way, that is what I did (along with my partner Frank Steele) for the Donruss Diamond Kings and it was a lot of fun, though not as much fun as the painting. I guess subsets were a nice innovation to baseball trading cards, but a lack of moderation precipitated the downturn in the industry. In the 80s when court rulings opened the gates to allow more participants to produce baseball cards, combined with MLB spreading its licensing wings, an immoderate number of companies got into the act, and, undisciplined, produced too many cards and subsets in order to outdo each other. Collectors were confused, frustrated that to complete anything would cost a fortune, and lost interest. I mean, how many Ken Griffey, Jr., did you need? Baseball card collecting lost the two things that are inherent to collecting, the hopeful chase, and rarity, not to mention the smell of the gum.

HOVG: Anyone who knows anything about baseball cards is familiar with your work. I mean, we’ve all seen the Diamond Kings. Tell me…how did you get started with your art?

PEREZ: As far back as I can remember, I had a desire to draw. On the margins around my school notebooks there were caricatures of school mates and images from my imagination. After I realized that there was no way I would ever achieve my real dream of becoming a professional baseball player, I concluded that I had to choose a real life career. I chose art, another risky avenue to success. I went to art school at night to become a Graphic Designer, a practical choice, in order to earn a living. My vision was to become an art director at an ad agency, or graphic artist at an art studio to design ads, brochures, etc. It was a rough beginning to an uncertain ride, but eventually I got on the right bus.

HOVG: And how did that bus ride transform itself into a career painting athletes?

PEREZ: I am frequently asked by aspiring artists/illustrators, how is it that I wound up doing the dream gig of painting a subject that is the object of so much personal passion, and make a great living at it. There is no applicable answer. I can only relate my own fortuitous experience, and I usually answer this way…"I began as a graphic designer, by chance wound up doing design work for university sports information departments and met a fellow who eventually became general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles. My work for the Eagles caught the attention of the Philadelphia Phillies, which led to meeting Frank Steele, who was smart, connected, and a marketing genius who loved my work. At the time my work was so so, but whatever he saw in it combined with my willingness for hard work, his own aspirations, how I fitted in them, and a common belief in taking risks, led to a breakthrough." I did work hard, mostly self taught, to master all mediums, observed, studied, and absorbed the works of the great masters, (Diego) Velazquez, (John Singer) Sargent, (Thomas) Eakins, (William) Merritt Chase, Rembrandt, and others.

HOVG: What went through your mind when a relatively new company came to you and pitched the idea of painting portraits to put on their trading cards?

PEREZ: Actually, they had no idea what it was we could do for them. Donruss was not a new company. They created Elvis cards, golf cards, cards for TV shows, and a variety of other entertainment cards, but knew nothing about baseball. They somehow managed to get a baseball license and found themselves on a Monday morning wondering, "now what do we do?" New York sportswriter Bill Madden (and this year's winner of the Baseball Hall of Fame J.G. Taylor Spink Award) was commissioned to write the backs and offer ideas on how they could separate themselves from Topps and Fleer. Bill was acquainted with our work (Perez-Steele Galleries) and suggested they talk to us and see what we could do. So I guess in some way you can lend credit to Bill Madden for the creation of the Donruss Diamond Kings.

HOVG: Were you apprehensive at all?

PEREZ: Not at all. I have always been a risk-taker. I grew up in the 50s with the '53 Topps, and the Bowman cards. At the time I didn't know why but these cards looked different and more appealing to me. I discovered later on that they were illustrated cards as opposed to photo cards. They were the last of the art cards. Perez-Steele Galleries was created to bring back art to baseball cards through the products we did in connection with the Baseball Hall of Fame. I saw an association with Donruss a grand opportunity to bring art back to baseball trading cards in the main street marketplace. It seemed like good idea to them. We worked out a nice deal, and the rest is history.

HOVG: What was the process? Did you have any say at all…or did Donruss provide you with a list of players?

PEREZ: Not only did we choose the players, but Frank Steele was a brilliant man who knew the collector mentality, was a passionate baseball fan, and had great business acumen. He was responsible for many of the art subsets and photo sets. All of which I designed. Because of the long lead time, we based our selections for Diamond Kings according to a player's performance the year before they appeared. There were many years that some teams had no stellar standouts, but I felt it was important that each team be represented, sort of like All-Star selections.

HOVG: Do you have any favorites?

PEREZ: My favorite year was 1995. I really had fun with those, experimenting with color and geometry, and departing from traditional tonal values. My favorite of those was Chili Davis, so I guess that makes him my favorite, though you hate to choose a favorite child.

HOVG: You don’t have to, but are there any duds that you’d like to admit to?

PEREZ: Duds didn't see the light of day, and are erased from my memory. I had very few do overs, but I am sure there are some renderings that fans found less than perfect. There was one piece that I did for Topps' Allen & Ginter, one of one cards that, after it was submitted, I thought was horrible and I got called on it by a collector who had a web site. I apologized for submitting something sub-standard, but overall I have had a better batting average than I would've had as a baseball hitter.

HOVG: Were there ever any “oh, no…I have to paint THAT guy” moments”?

PEREZ: Mostly it was, "We can't use this guy, his year is going into the toilet" so we re-selected. Remember, I was painting for the following year. Some guys would have a great season beginning, but dropped from radar in the last third or quarter of the year.

HOVG: Most artists don’t have the blessing and curse of having every kid who collects cards or millionaire ball players who appears on them as critics. What have you heard, both positive and negative, from your “subjects”?

PEREZ: The positive feedback from fans and league officials through emails, letters, and personal contact has been overwhelming. Not so much from the subjects of my paintings. For most athletes the art disciplines are not in their line of vision. Their concentration on what they have to do to succeed is so mono-focused that a painting of them is just another image of their likeness to be used as cards, promote MLB, their teams, or to exploit them. But having said all that, I have had some positive encounters with many of my subjects. To name a few, Ted Williams knew, liked and appreciated what I did, Ichiro Suzuki, who has a great appreciation for art and the history of baseball, commissioned a painting, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Dale Murphy, Nolan Ryan, Terry Francona…all gentlemen.

HOVG: Not that long ago, you made the jump to Topps…how did that come about?

PEREZ: An introduction by a mutual acquaintance. I have always felt that Topps was and is the true card company, though I was impressed by the quality that Upper Deck bought to card making. When Topps called I responded knowing that if I was to be associated with baseball cards, Topps had to be on my resume. In addition, Topps has an understanding of the baseball trading card legacy and has emulated the great cards of the past. To re-visit the classic card designs of the past was Perez-Steele Galleries' main emphasis, so I wanted to contribute on a larger scale through my association with Topps. That relationship is now on hold in order that I complete my art retrospective book, due out this summer.

HOVG: A lot of people out there don’t realize that you were also the official artist of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. What line on your resume (for lack of a better term) are you most proud of?

PEREZ: My title of "Official Artist of the Hall of Fame" ran from 1984 until 2001, a great run of which I am most proud. But we moved on, me to fulfill many other interests (and make a lot more money), and they to give other artists the opportunity to participate up there. Many of my paintings are there on their office walls and archives, so I am quite humbled by that. But the pinnacle of my career was to be honored with a solo exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum in Philadelphia, PA, the nation's first art museum and art teaching institution. The exhibition called Art At Home Plate - Philadelphia Baseball Legends on Canvas was the unveiling of a series of 32 original paintings commissioned by the Phillies to be the centerpiece of a permanent exhibition in the new Citizens Bank Park. There had never been a baseball art exhibit at the Academy, let alone a one man display of it. Ironically, and unbeknownst to me at the time, the exhibit was installed in the salon that the great American realist Thomas Eakins taught. I credit Eakins with the very first, true baseball painting "Baseball Players Practicing", painted in 1875.

HOVG: You’ve met and painted Presidents, Hall of Famers and numerous sports icons…any stories you want to leave us with today?

PEREZ: There are many stories and too little space. One can get a glimpse of some of those experiences in the
"Photo-Op" section of my web site, and I hope to be blogging more of them in the future.

HOVG: So…what’s next?

PEREZ: Sometime this summer I hope to publish the definitive baseball art book. It will be a 12"x12", 564 page visual history of baseball seen through the lives of the 292 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It will provide biographical sketches, lifetime statistics, and short historical accounts of each of the baseball eras...Origins, Deadball, Golden, Depression, War and Post War, Expansion, and Modern. This is primarily an art book, a retrospective of my career work, over 1000 pieces, complemented by 402 new works that took over two years to create. 338 of these new works have never been seen, the rest have never been published. Carefully researched action paintings will show the evolution of equipment, uniforms, ballparks, fans, etc.

Dick Perez was born in 1940 in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. He lived from the age of six in New York City's Harlem and moved to Philadelphia in 1958. Perez attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts) and the University of Pennsylvania. You can stay connected with his work over at his website,
www.dickperez.com.


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