Conversation with Max Mason
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Max Mason
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: How do you like Major League Baseball’s new rules: the pitch timer, shift restrictions, and bigger bases?
Max Mason: As an unrepentant traditionalist, I was initially horrified. But after watching a spring training game on TV, I changed my mind on two things: the pitch clock will speed up the pace of play, which is good, and I accepted the size of the bases almost immediately. If the players aren’t complaining and it makes the game safer––what the heck. The shift restrictions, however, are terrible. They reward a limited approach to the art and science of batting. One of the major tenets of baseball is, to quote Wee Willie Keeler (circa 1900), “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” The best hitters adapt to defensive schemes: if the fielders all play on the side of second base, then hit it the other way! The rules shouldn’t hamper batting but should reward the ability to adjust and adapt.
EJ: The charm of baseball is that there’s no clock. And with no clock and no place that you have to be going, while the rest of the world is at work, you feel like you’re getting away with something...
EJ: ...Is there a connection between attending a game that is “timeless” and painting a picture of a “timeless” moment?
MM: I’ll tell you, it’s getting harder to get that “timeless” feeling. I know I sound like a grouchy old man––and I am, increasingly––but the huge scoreboards and pumped-up music make it hard to relax at the game. The jumbotron is always telling you when to cheer, as if you’re ignorant and not paying attention. It’s hard to find the game information with all the distractions. A painting, of course, is inherently still and silent. My early baseball paintings were often about the still moment amidst the action, as in Thomas Eakins’s Max Schmitt in a Single Scull. Recently, I’ve tended toward action shots, that are imagined, remembered, or photographed, but the paintings remain silent and still.
EJ: Offhand, how many games have you seen in your lifetime?
MM: I’ve been going since 1961 but see at most a dozen or so a year, which isn’t really that many...
MM: ...From the beginning, I was reading the newspaper religiously and rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals, later the Red Sox, and now the Phillies. As time goes on, I pick up more and more teams. Family and friends are from all over and it’s always fun to talk about their teams and text during games. I’ve become more of a fan of the game itself. I’ve even started to respect and sympathize with Yankee fans.
EJ: Does Tight Spot in Yankee Stadium reflect your sympathy?
MM: I’d NEVER root for them. But their history is undeniable. And they, in general, have always respected the game and its traditions. Hey, it’s not their fault they’ve had such great players. But I did try to gain a bit of psychic revenge in Tight Spot, having Mariano Rivera, the league’s all-time leader in saves, coming in in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two outs to face the game’s best hitter at the time, Albert Pujols. That one has a lot going on outside the park as well, a Yankee Stadium characteristic.
EJ: From your blog it appears The Ballpark Project, your plan to paint “large, dynamic, fan-oriented paintings of all 30 Major League Baseball ballparks,” is well underway. How many have you completed?
MM: Sixteen. I’ve slowed way down and need to sell a few to get the mojo back.
EJ: How did you prepare for the Citizens Bank mural? Did you make photos and drawings? Did you have assistants? Was this project layered with more intention since it is the Phillies’ home stadium?
MM: I had a huge assist from a couple of the architects who were friends from grad school: Don Jones and Bob McConnell. They worked for EwingCole, the firm that designed Citizens Bank Park. I was picked for the project because of the large baseball paintings I’d shown at Gross McCleaf. Don and Bob shared some preliminary plans, and I did some site-specific designs in pastel. I wanted to focus on the ballparks and Phillies fans through the years. The Phillies’ top brass loved that approach. The architects could print out renderings from any point I wanted so I could paint the field and architecture as it would appear, because the stadium hadn’t been constructed yet. The project was a dream come true and the timing was perfect. What a great gift!
EJ: On your blog, you describe working on a commission for Craig Schmitt, a lead architect of PNC Park in Pittsburgh. You note an early moment where you “lost the spirit of discovery that is the prime motivator and inspiration for my work.” I think in baseball this is called a slump. You took a break and, through talking with a friend and discovering that you needed to recreate a separate light effect, the painting came together. Since art mirrors the psychological highs and lows that ballplayers experience, how has managing failure in painting changed for you over the years?
MM: Oh jeez, that’s a big topic. It’s all about resilience. One gets excited by an idea, tries to make it real, gets frustrated, steps back, and finally realizes it looks different than originally imagined. You change the approach or abandon it altogether. It happens all the time. More times than not it’s in the changing that the magic happens. For me, the most important thing is to cling to that original childlike sense of awe and wonder. That’s where all my inspiration comes from.
EJ: In your YouTube short Max Mason: The Art of Baseball, you mention being attracted to a baseball field’s “design, edges, sharp angles and clear distinct spaces, and shapes and color.” Does a baseball diamond attract you as a shape related to Formalism? Since your father was a landscape architect, was lighting across or in a space something you learned at a young age?
MM: My dad was huge influence on me. He died ten years ago and is with me every minute of every day. He was all about passion and excitement in art. As a professional modernist landscape architect, he was also about formal design principles. He was a weekend painter, and his watercolor paintings had both passion and formal composition, like John Marin. His support of my work was key. He was also a baseball guy and was super thrilled with the Phillies commission.
EJ: Do you follow other baseball painters, Lance Richbourg, for instance?
MM: He was a tremendous discovery and affirmation that this boyhood obsession, baseball, could be a subject of contemporary fine art. I discovered him during the Pop art era and loved everything about his work. It seems almost all accomplished American realist painters have done a painting or two with a baseball subject, but few have concentrated on it. It’s quintessentially American––just ask Ken Burns. The Smithsonian had a show 35 years back or so called “Diamonds Are Forever.” Oh, how I wished I was included! As to your question, besides Richbourg, I don’t particularly like or follow any other “baseball artists.” Its a pretty big commercial genre dominated by hero worship, something I’m not interested in.
EJ: This show at Gross McCleaf will probably include many close action paintings. Where do you get your images? Do you attend spring training to sketch the players? Also, who besides Neil Welliver influenced your loose and quick drawing style? At this point in your career, can you invent coveted views from memory?
MM: I made the spring training pilgrimage several times in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. It was always a joy. One of the beauties of the game is the repetition with small variations that become more interesting the more you see and know––like much of life. I used to sketch all the time, but now I just look and wait for something to strike me and then sketch it out later. If it sticks in the memory, it might be good. But it might not. You just can’t tell at the time.
My drawing style, if you can call it that, was mostly formed from drawing the figure, especially the short poses. One teacher at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Bill Flynn, was a big influence. He was passionate, jumping around, waving his arms, drawing things upside down, using his feet, walking on the paper. It was an exciting class. It made me love to draw and be fearless, though of course I became and am a traditionalist in the mode of Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and George Bellows. Welliver professed to be a modernist but that was a smoke screen. He was a traditionalist and didn’t want to admit it because that would be bad for business. One thing we all are is Americans.
EJ: Getting The Sign is a great portrait. I love how you capture a typical-looking guy with close-set eyes in an elevating, macho moment. Have players bought your work or commissioned you to do paintings? Is thinking about how to paint the game and enjoying it inseparable?
MM: Portraiture is a particular skill. Being a good portrait painter/drawer is a real gift, a marketable gift. I don’t have that, and I feel surprised and gratified when I do a portrait that isn’t embarrassing to look at. Not getting into the weeds of detail is key. Staying in the shadows helps. Those hats covering the eyes helps.
Players haven’t commissioned work. The fact is, they are given stuff all the time. And I just don’t do that. I don’t really like the hero worship part of the game. I’ve done commissions of players but have never really felt great about the results.
MM: I like space and light of a ball field in the afternoon, the tall light towers looming over the city and an arena filled with people. All the hope and potential for drama. The empty stage, so to speak. It’s about the anticipation.
EJ: You did a series of Philadelphia fountains and statues in 2016-17, you make straightforward landscape paintings and still life paintings. Do these subjects take a back seat to or serve as relief from baseball painting? Or do paintings that occur outside the glamour, possibility, and nostalgia of baseball inspire an equal passion?
MM: I love landscape, light, and composition––how the shadow of a tree defines a building, how the blue of a distant ridge defines vast distances. And statues are a part of the landscape, in the form of people and animals, but out of scale and of a different material. I would never make a painting of a statue of a tree. How weird! Baseball is a manmade thing, a construct with history and personal meaning for people. There’s a Woody Allen line from his movie Zelig that sums it up: “I love baseball. You know, it doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just very beautiful to watch.”
edited by Matthew Crain
“In a recently discovered letter, my father relates how much baseball has meant to him, his father, and grandfather through the years. That’s four generations, back to the 19th century, that loved, and continue to love the game.”
- MAX MASON