A conversation with painter Opie Otterstad

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 17, 2014) — Opie Otterstad isn’t someone I’ve crossed paths with in press boxes, clubhouses or stadiums, but his interest in merging sports and sports personalities into art work greatly intrigues me.

The distinguished painter has made a living combining his passion for sports and his artistic talent. The Austin, Texas-based artist has, in his own words, “worked for over 250 professional athletes and organizations.” Among the high-profile athletes: MLB stars Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.

For the past 12 years, he’s also produced the official painting for the World Series champion and concocted Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA championship art work.

What’s more, Otterstad worked as the official painter and program cover artist for the NCAA’s 75th anniversary of March Madness, which was celebrated last year. This was an epic project.

It was “the product of eight months of extensive planning, and negotiating between the NABC, Fishbait Marketing, NCAA, Limelight Agency and Opie Otterstad,” a press release stated.

The project was described this way in the press release: “Opie will paint a daunting seventy-five, story-telling portraits. After all have been completed, they will be assembled as one single artistic installation, spanning a staggering thirty feet in length (nearly the width of a basketball court). Once shown at the 75th Final Four Celebration in Georgia, it will go on to become a fixture at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City.

“Each of the paintings will represent a NCAA Men’s Basketball championship year, and will be a portrait of that team’s coach. To make each painting its own special piece, Opie has begun the very involved process of meeting with each of the coaches individually to learn about them and their memories of the games they won. In the cases of coaches who have since past, he will be meeting with those that were close to them and that part of history.”

Indeed, the 75th-anniversary was an ambitious undertaking.

“This project will mean a schedule of almost two paintings a weeks for close to a year,” Limelight’s press release stated. “A year filled with traveling around the country visiting coaches, unveiling works at championship colleges, presenting at the 75th Final Four, and eventually unveiling at the Hall of fame.”

Otterstad is also the official artist for the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. One of his most ambitious past projects was, as the Austin American-Statesman reported, a “17-panel, confetti-colored montage of the University of Texas Longhorns’ football victory over the University of Southern California, leans against a wall in the hallway of his Round Rock home. It will hang permanently in Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center at Royal-Memorial Stadium.”

Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford have collected his art, according to the Austin American-Statesman, which featured a story by Pamela LeBlanc that began this way:

“Opie Otterstad got drilled in the head with a baseball when he was a kid, instilling – at the time, a healthy fear of a fast-moving pitch.

“That hit, though, didn’t dissuade him from a career in sports, even if he never wore a professional uniform or slugged his way to fame and fortune. Instead, he picked up a palette knife and paints and set to work freezing the moments that make sports fans salivate.”

The American Sport Art Museum, located in Daphne, Alabama, describes him this way on its website:

“If a national election were held in America for the title of “Sport Art’s Troubadour,” Opie Otterstad surely would be the winning candidate. A prolific painter of historic athletic events, Opie, as he signs his artworks, takes to the road for about three-quarters of his working year to visit patrons, models, and fellow artists. The trips help him keep up-to-date on their lives and give him the opportunity to swap business information and tall tales with the famous sports figures who have become his friends.”

He was named the United State Sports Academy’s 2006 Sport Artist of the Year. (Past honorees have included the late LeRoy Neiman, Daniel You and Hans Enri.)

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In a recent email interview, Otterstad, who was born in 1970, provided compelling insight about his work, artistic influences and various opinions that shed light on how he combines all these things.

Can you tell me who are your greater artistic influences over the years who have helped shape your painting style? Or is what you do shaped more by trial and error, in your view?

Artistic influences have come in many places for me. My high school art teacher, Tracye Wear, and my mentor at St. Olaf College, Wendell Arneson, both played major roles in leading me out of trying to reproduce photos and into being an artist. Being an student of art history, I claim many bits of inspiration from the pages of what has come before me – Lucian Freud, Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, (Jean-Michael) Basquiat, and Damien Hirst have all found a place into the way I approach my own work. I love the growing and learning aspect of art … a blank canvas is literally “tabula rasa” and everyday a new world awaits.

As for inspiration that comes in many forms as well. I love to paint and capture people – their emotions and the thoughts written on their face, a complete exploration of a person in a moment in time. Athletics gives us a very public display of range of unbridled emotion, the human form at its fittest, and the color and pageantry of a great event. My favorite subjects to paint are always people with whom I have a personal relationship…my most treasured works are ones I’ve given away.

Does watching athletes in person and on the TV help you develop your style of them that will transform them to canvas, such as the little quirks or mannerisms that a certain individual has? Are photographs as useful as broadcast images, or perhaps useful in a different way?

When you paint anything historically related, the subject of photos and images comes up. My work draws from many sources, but I would never want someone to look at one of my works and exclaim, “Oh! I love that photograph!” I strive to say something new in every piece: my vision … not just copying a photo. As much time goes into the composition on the computer as it goes into painting. Quite often when you’re looking at the hands of Kobe Bryant or Babe Ruth in one of my paintings, you’re actually seeing my own.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding your work as a painter? (Can you recall how it was said and how it affected you at the time and how it may have grown as a sign of wisdom for you as time marched on?)

There are a number of nuggets of wisdom that have shaped me over the years, mostly from my early teachers mentioned earlier. “Let me know when the other 50 percent kicks in.” “You’re not as good as you think you are.” “If you’re going to be an artist, then it is your whole life. It colors everything you do and everything you say – you need to decide if that is what you are going to be right now. Otherwise, don’t waste my time or yours.” All of this may sound a little harsh, I suppose, but it was what I needed to hear at the time. It got me out of being a child that is praised too much for the ability to draw and into being an artist. It is not what I do; it is everything that I am.

*Can you provide a rundown of your typical “week in the day, and week in the life” as you work and relax and handle everyday responsibilities, including art projects, and activities? And to pinpoint part of what I mean: About how many hours a day/week do you spend working on painting?

The typical week of an artist is anything but typical, but it ALWAYS centers around work. With over 2000 works in the past 20 years, my palette knife and plate are never far away. The art of painting on the road, in hotels, on car rides, and in planes has become an efficient machine. I enjoy painting in different locations and different cities. If I get time to paint plain air or with a live model, it’s like dessert. I am often teased by my peers for not having any fun and being a workaholic, but honestly, if this wasn’t my living, it would be my only hobby. The act of creation is what inspires and motivates me every day.

In various newspaper articles I’ve read about your career, the writers mentioned that you have frequently hung around Major League Baseball clubhouses for research. What, in particular, is helpful about seeing the ballplayers in their everyday element to giving you a better grasp of who they are as people?

To answer why being around clubhouses and concert venues is invaluable to my work is really easy. While I am not an active participant in making the story, I am very useful at telling it. In my own small way I am a part of it. Most of my original friends in baseball are now either coaches or retired, and I remain around. There is a continuity within organizations that ties me to them. So as each season begins, there are always old friends and new introductions. The better an artist knows their subject, the more information I have to capture not only what they’ve done, but who they are.

Switching to music for a moment … how is capturing the charisma and uniqueness of a musician similar to and different than doing so for an athlete in a painting?

Musicians and people in the arts have many of the same characteristics that I enjoy capturing as people in athletics. The emotion, the color, and the show is all part of expression in the arts. Watching, as a musician pours out the experiences of their life in front of an audience desperate to hear those sounds and stories, is captivating.

Who do you consider the greatest living painter? Why?

The greatest living painter I have ever met is a gentleman named Philip Trussell (here’s his website: http://www.philiptrussell.com/) in Austin, TX. He is the closest person to Van Gogh who I will meet in my lifetime. Philip lives a simple life, that he has built over many years, dedicated to the singular pursuit of his work. He is unassuming and reflects a quiet genius and intellect that makes me wish I was less successful and more dedicated to an unapologetic artistic life.

Listening to him speak is a living lesson on how to think about art and integrate it with a truly intellectual mind. Often in group conversations he will go on descriptive tangents based on his work, and as others in the conversation look to me to explain, the perplexed look on my face remains unchanged, and I shrug my shoulders.

Who are 3-4 painters of the past you’d rank as the best of their lifetimes?

Ranking the best painters from the past would only be reduced to my opinion. I love visiting museums and galleries to see what others are doing. When I am in New York, I visit “Madame X” by Sargent at the Met. It’s a personal tradition. I love it and have painted people looking at it several times. I love different artists for different reasons. For example, I really like Cy Twombly because I really don’t like his work. It challenges me. It forces me to open the scope of my appreciation wider than I am comfortable, and from that can come personal growth in my own work.

Here’s the link to Otterstad’s website: http://www.opieart.com/main.html

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