A conversation with portrait artist James Fiorentino

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Yogi Berra/JAMES FIORENTINO

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 30, 2016) — Before he graduated from high school, James Fiorentino had already become a prominent painter. When he was 15 years old, Fiorentino’s work, a painting of slugger Reggie Jackson, was featured at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a distinction that made him the youngest artist to be showcased there.

It was a sign of things to come. Over the past few decades, Fiorentino has produced a portfolio that’s made him one of the most prolific American painters.

His depictions of sports stars, past and present, are brilliant.

He has an unbelievable eye for detail and a rich range of colors are used in his art.

His love of history shines through in his work as well.

Fiorentino explains his approach to art on his website, saying, “Sometimes, I step back and wonder if what I am painting will be remembered the way I want it to be when I am finished, but when I am finished, the painting looks exactly the way I imagined it. I don’t concentrate too much on painting a flawless image. I let my eyes and hands do the work.

“Just as a poet expresses himself through words, I express myself through paint. I feel fortunate to be able to use my art as a means of communication.”

Fiorentino was an all-state shortstop for the Middlesex High School baseball team in New Jersey and college baseball at Drew University, where he started all four years as shortstop. In between, he established himself as a rising star as an artist.

Consider the following:

*At age 17 Fiorentino landed a job creating an iconic baseball project. “…Ted Williams commissioned a portrait of himself surrounded by 19 of the other greatest hitters in baseball for a limited edition lithograph sale,” the Newark Star-Ledger reported.

*At age 19 he joined the New York Society of Illustrators, the youngest person to do so.

*In a 2015 interview, curator David Wagner spoke about Fiorentino’s talents. “His painting of John Ford Point in Monument Valley (Arizona) is stunning,” Wagner told the Newark Star-Ledger, a New Jersey newspaper. “It looks like a still from a classic Western. He has a great feel for perspective and composition.”

I recently spoke to Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey, to gain some insight into his work, his influences, his passions, his current and past projects and future goals.

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fiorentino.Yankee.legendsSince it’s Monday, the start of another work week for most folks, can you spell out what you have planned for work this week?

I get the opportunity to do a variety of things. Right now I’m working on painting a farm in New Jersey for a client … and it’s a nice mix. But I try to keep it a 9-to-5 job just like everyone else. Wake up, go through my email, (plan) the day. I’ve got a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, so it’s that kind of stuff. …

I get very busy towards summer time.

Do you primarily work in your studio? Or do you find yourself more productive if you paint in different places, like, in a basement, an attic, a barn? Is it best to be in one place most of the time?

Yeah. So I have a studio and a gallery , which is obviously for private clients. But I do have a studio that’s attached here to the house, which is nice because it enables me to be around my family a little more. But it does give me privacy…

All my work is done in watercolor. …

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James Fiorentino and Buzz Aldrin

In my studio I have everything from reproductions of (astronaut) Buzz Aldrin and (former Soviet Union leader Mikhail) Gorbachev to (former New York Giants baseball player) Bobby Thomson, who was a friend. There’s sports stuff and a brush that Norman Rockwell used,,a lot of my wildlife paintings. So I get to kind of be in my studio, which is great, and listen to the radio or have the TV on. …

He mentioned that his studio is also filled with “museum-style baseball paintings” he has collected over the year, including one of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, and other sports memorabilia.

Do you advertise very aggressively to get new clients? Or is a case of your name growing in prominence, so clients are looking for you instead of you looking for them?

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a little bit of both. I’m very lucky because I’ve been doing it for like 20 years, which is kind of crazy and I’ve really built a great reputation. I’m definitely one of the top artists in the country.

But I don’t aggressively pursue a lot of different projects. … I am lucky that I’m always doing projects for clients, and like any kind of business you’ve built it up, so there are guys that I still have from when I was 15, so that’s kind of cool, and they’ll still want stuff.

But then I’ll put stuff together. I’ll think of ideas, like this Jackie Robinson idea* (the 70th anniversary of his joining the Montreal Royals in 1946, a season before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers).

 

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Jackie Robinson (30) is seen on deck, waiting to bat for the Montreal Royals in his pro baseball debut in April 1946. JAMES FIORENTINO

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Montreal Royals player Jackie Robinson crosses home plate after hitting a home run and shakes George “Shotgun” Shuba’s hand in Jersey City, New Jersey, in April 1946. Shuba later became Robinson’s teammate on the Brooklyn Dodgers. JAMES FIORENTINO

This summer for the first time in a while, I’ll be publicly out at the National Sports Collectors Convention (in August in Atlantic City, New Jersey) … and get an opportunity to meet a lot of guys that collect my work and meet new people. So that’s kind of a nice way to see new clients. So it’s kind of a little of both.

A lot of people come to the website. A lot of people email me, and then obviously old clients, but then I’m still pursuing new people, which is nice.

Describing the upcoming NSCC, now in its 37th annual convention, Fiorentino raved about the sheer volume of items that will be on display. “It is literally I fee like miles and miles, probably a couple thousand dealers, I think. It’s all from sports memorabilia and cards to auction houses, to trading card companies, over 60 athletes, which are Hall of Famers from every sport. So it’s a really cool show and it’s tens and tens of thousands of people. I’ll have a booth there with my artwork, showcasing stuff. The National is such a good (event) that I’ll even end up walking around more than even sitting there.”

*Before his April 20 show in Jersey City, New Jersey to commemorate Jackie Robinson’s first professional hit at Roosevelt Stadium, I asked Fiorentino what he had planned for that event.

This is nice where I had an opportunity to paint a couple pieces, so that’s the 70th anniversary of Jackie’s first hit as a pro. He got the home run in the second at-bat against the Jersey City Giants. I met with the city council and we’re doing this really cool show that will be up for a month. The opening’s April 20th and the mayor of Jersey City (Steve Fulop) will be there along with other special guests to speak about that day, one of which is my friend Ed Lucas, a really great guy. A blind baseball reporter. … So we sort of have a little interaction of guys to talk about Jackie and the field, which has been torn down now, and my artwork will be, I’m going to say, around 20 pieces, primarily New York-related baseball guys from going back to the Brooklyn Dodgers and obviously the Yankees and Mets and what we’ll do is well have the paintings up for a month. And then the paintings I did specifically for the show, I have painted three Jackie Robinsons: a portrait of him on the Dodgers and the other two are of him as a Montreal Royal. And one specifically is a famous shot of him coming home when he hit that home run in Jersey City at Roosevelt Stadium. It was kind of cool to have done that one.

Speaking to Fiorentino recently, George “Shotgun” Shuba’s son had this to say about the historic moment, according to Fiorentino: “George is not recognized properly — that in the home run that Jackie hit when he came home both players on base went back to the dugout and the third-base coach turned his back, so the only person to greet Jackie at home was George.” Fiorentino told this reporter that the scene was “an amazing moment in history.”

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Yankee Stadium/JAMES FIORENTINO

Did you look at old historical film reels or pictures from books to figure out how you wanted to recapture that event?

Yeah, I get to research this stuff. So whether it’s through the Baseball Hall of Fame Library or photo houses, I found a wider image, where you see more of the stadium. … I talked to guys who had been there. So you kind of get that historical accuracy and feel for it.

Even since I was like 12, 13, I love history so maybe that’s probably why. I was just fascinated by (Joe) DiMaggio and all these guys I didn’t see before. So when I found out last year that this year was going to be the 70th anniversary, I was thinking, my God, I didn’t even realize that Jackie was here and played in New Jersey, and hit a home run and came to find out that the Dodgers played 15 regular-season games at that field. So it was kind of cool to find all that out and incorporate a baseball art show with it. We are raising some money, I think, for the Little League of New Jersey. So it’s kind of a nice all-around feel to it.

Do you have a certain type of music you listen to while you paint … a certain kind of music that relaxes you or puts you in the frame of mind you want to be in to be productive?

I don’t really listen to much music when I paint like I used to when I was in college. Mainly, I listen to Howard Stern in the morning, and then after I hear that I watch a lot of “SportsCenter,” and I watch “First Take,” and I’m listening, and then obviously when baseball season comes on I’m such a baseball fan that I’ll actually watch spring training games…

Back to the process of creating your paintings, are you a guy that outlines a lot of stuff on paper, like the idea, the theme, the characteristics or things you might want to show or describe? And do you also collect a lot of photos of things maybe related to that type of project that you think will help you with your research to come up with the basic idea?

Yeah, more for my wildlife artwork or landscape scenes I would do more types of sketches. For a lot of the sports stuff, because you have to be so historically accurate, I have a real extensive collection of books, images, ball images, catalogues, and obviously today with the Internet you can pretty much find really interesting pictures.

For instance?

He spoke about a painting he came across of Jackie Robinson on deck when he played for the Montreal Royals.

I don’t even know where the heck this is. It’s almost like a barnstorming-looking type of town, it’s just so cool-looking. You know, I love painting these images of black and white water color. And so I’ll look through a lot of images and sort of find what I like as a collector and what I find interesting as a baseball enthusiast.

For example, we’ll look at Jackie Robinson and I’ll have maybe 20, 30 shots of Jackie Robinson here I’ve collected over the years and I kind of find out what makes sense, what looks good.

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James Fiorentino at his home studio in Flemington, New Jersey.

 

So being a collector but also a connoisseur of art kind of helps?

Yeah, I guess the nice combination of probably why this all came together was the fact that I’ve always been painting since I was little. As an artist, it’s always was in me. I painted every day … others sports and baseball. And so, all of a sudden, I’m sitting there doing all these paintings and actually I remember people telling me — I’d show my art work at shows when I was younger — keep painting landscapes and flowers.

I’d paint little images of Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly and sell them for 10 bucks and they’d say stop doing this. I would tell ’em I love painting baseball guys.

When I was 14, that’s when I had that DiMaggio painting at a show. And then when I was 15, I was, like, wow, this is definitely so cool that so many people are seeing my work, and basically why I just kept continuing to do it.

* * *

What impressed you about Norman Rockwell’s overall body of work? As a fellow artist, what would you say about his legacy?

Well, he was definitely very prolific. The guy who painted that long and all those covers and in the national spotlight and just how incredible he was and recognized he was, and obviously all that he could do. I think obviously he was one of those guys that when he was gone now they recognize him as a master. When he was painting he was nothing but like an illustrator. Now he’s a museum-quality master, which I believe everything from portraits in sports to everything. He was just tremendous. I always loved him as a kid, and I love every art from comic-book art to Italian Renaissance to modern art to a guy like Rockwell. I really feel like a guy like Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) is one of my big influences in my wildlife work and landscapes…

Fiorentino told me he recalled taking a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate New York, when he was 10 or 12 and visiting an art gallery there had a Rockwell original. “It just blew me away, and I remember saying, oh my God, imagine if I could got my artwork here some day, and a couple years later I had a painting in there.”

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If they were alive and working today in this age of the Internet and social media, how do you feel like the public would perceive artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and how they would talk about them and dissect their work?

I guess that’s like anything. We sort of live in a new world today, like you were mentioning with everything being so quick. I don’t know.

You could attribute that to anything, even like sports. How would Babe Ruth be perceived today? How would Michelangelo be (viewed)? I don’t know. … In art you have to be great at it, but you also have to be great at selling it and people have to like you. It’s important that all that kind of comes together.

Art no matter what will always be subjective. It will always be someone’s opinion. Not everyone’s going to love it. There are people who wants wildlife or portraits done could care less about baseball, and guys who love baseball could care less about other stuff that I paint. So it’s really what someone enjoys and likes.

I’ve always seen the beauty of, like, a Michelangelo’s as much as a Rockwell or any of these guys. It’s incredible.

But in today’s day and age … I’m more old school. But I primarily just do that for my business.

For your work, how valuable a tool is your personal website?

There’s no question that having a website (helps). Before you would literally have to mail your stuff out or be at somewhere where your clients would be. Today, they can just Google (my name and business). Like I had someone interview me about a month or so ago, an Italian production company, where it would mainly be shown in Rome. And I said, how the heck did you guys find me? (He was told), oh we just Googled (you).

We’re so connected now. You’re in Japan. It’s just amazing. So I think that’s just made it easier for business for people to see your stuff, and also that creates a lot more competition. There’s a lot more guys doing it now.

Is LeRoy Neiman one of your artistic heroes?

Absolutely.

I had the opportunity to meet him three times at least. One time at a lunch at New York City with only a few of us, which was amazing. I went up to him and he said, “James, I admire your work.” …

He was definitely one of the most well-known sports artists, that’s for sure.

Was that because the paintings were so realistic? Did he bring the action to life on the canvas?

I think his thing was just like anything else, at the right place at the right time and created a new style of work that nobody had ever seen before, and he got his start doing artwork in Playboy with Hugh Hefner, and just got a name for himself in that and kind of making sport an art form, which a lot of guys weren’t doing yet. So he started making it collectible, interesting and different.

Are there one, two or three painters who are brilliant but overlooked these days?

I’ll give you the name of a friend of mine, an named Benjamin Blackburn*, who does sculptures, bat sculptures, wood sculptures of ballplayers and stuff. He does amazing artwork, and he’s had his stuff in museums and galleries. But I know he’s maybe not going to be as maybe seen as much as my work; it’s just a different medium, but just incredible baseball stuff. …And there is so much competition now with so many guys painting,which I guess is a good thing. I bet at The National I will see a lot of younger guys doing it … and I love meeting these guys and talking to people

*http://baseballart.com/sculptor-benjamin-blackburn-carving-name-for-himself-as-top-baseball-artist/
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How would you describe your friendship and relationship with baseball icon Yogi Berra (who passed away in September at age 90)? And maybe it changed, though, from when you first met him as a teenager to his final years.

I guess it all goes back to when I first met him, which I think was around 15, and I went to a baseball card show and he was doing an autograph signing, and I had him sign probably the first original I had done of him, this portrait of him. He loved it.

I think all these guys really liked it when I was so young, too, painting them and seeing my age. And so I said to Yogi, and I think my mom was there, “I’d love for you to sign if we make prints of these. Would you sign them?” I had never made a print before of anything and he said, “yeah, you know, no problem. How ’bout you come to my house?”

I mean, what guy would do that?

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As a teenager, James Fiorentino met Yogi Berra.

So we made the prints up and went over to his house in Montclair (New Jersey), and I’m living in New Jersey so it wasn’t that far of a ride, maybe like an hour ride, and (then) we’re sitting in Yogi’s living room, and he’s signing all these things for me, telling me how much I loved it and actually showed me an original art of LeRoy Neiman (1921-2012; leroyneiman.com). And he was really proud to have that hanging in the house.

So that’s when I first met him and then I must have been asked by someone, I don’t remember who, it could’ve even been Ed Lucas when I first him, but I started doing artwork for his golf outing, which was to help the Cub Scouts. And so he would see me every year, a a couple times a year, and he got to know me as a kid, and I would do these originals and donate them.

I had told people there was one time, and you forget about all this stuff, and I was sketching him on one of the holes (during the golf fundraiser) and he hit a hole-in-one. And when we had our show at Yogi Berra’s Museum, the second show I’ve ever had there which was last year, I asked his son and he said that was the only hole-in-one he ever had. So I just remember being there for that….

But I would see him all the time at Yankee Stadium on the field and at other events. He was always good to me. I’d have him sign some stuff before he passed away maybe three or four year ago for my kids. I wanted them to have something from him, and how nice he was to me. The museum’s incredible.

I don’t think people realize how great this guy was as a player. Sometimes when they’re gone, it’s like, wow, this guy was a legend. The guy’s statistics, all the World Series he won (10 times), the fact that he was in D-Day . An incredible life.

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Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout/JAMES FIORENTINO

Do you feel privileged that you had the opportunity to interact with Yogi so much and create all this art of him?

Yeah, I really do. I guess I kind of take things for granted, but I’m very humble about it. I’ve been doing it all my life and I never really think about it. I think sometimes now looking back on 20 years, it’s like, wow, doing all this for Ted Williams and (Phil) Rizzuto and all these guys and Yogi and just to have that opportunity and meeting (Mickey) Mantle, it was amazing. And you’ll never get that back. When you think of all that kind of stuff, it is pretty cool and it just goes back to me having a love for history and baseball and I certainly love the current players but I was so into the older guys.

Do you think Yogi helped you gain greater insight into older baseball fraternity ?

Yeah, a little bit. I think Yogi was kind of one of those guys I didn’t have long, long conversations with him. Some of the other players I would have longer conversations with. It depended what I was doing. When I was doing the artwork for the Ted Williams Museum, I remember having long conversations with Bobby Doerr and George Kell and we would talk all about baseball and they would ask me about playing baseball — at that point I was playing in high school. …

Ralph Kiner was also talking a lot about baseball, and actually Ralph was amazing, talking all about Rockwell. He had a Norman Rockwell original.

I’ve had so many  unbelievable conversations with a lot of the old-time players, even a guy like (pitcher) Mickey McDermott, who became a friend.

So that interaction has been really neat.

To some people, Yogi Berra was like a cartoon character because of his funny saying and mannerisms, but how do you prefer to describe him and characterize him as a person, athlete and individual who had a great life?

He had an incredible life. He obviously wasn’t born with the perfect athletic body, but was an incredible player. He could hit. He was hitting pitches all over the place. He worked hard. Just a great winner. Obviously he went into coaching. A great leader. He really did care about people … about the game … about the players, the Jeters and Posadas (Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada) and all their teammates, and helping out at the museum. …

But I think if you look at him you say, How the hell is a guy like this hitting? Which probably makes it more amazing.

In 2015, was it a real thrill to have a show at his museum?

Fiorentino explained that the 2015 show at the Yogi Berra Museum was “a collage of his life.”

It was a really neat show celebrating Yogi’s life, and we had Roy White there, for example. And to have it so soon after he passed away was very meaningful, and his son, Larry, was there, which was really nice. And it’s always nice to get compliments from them: saying “Oh James, we’ve seen your work before and this came out beautiful. Or I remember this day.” Or just personal stuff from the artwork I’ve done.

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Commemorating Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game and Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, who held the old record of 2,130 games. JAMES FIORENTINO

Fiorentino remembered having three exhibits at the Yogi Berra Museum , which opened in 1998, over the years. The first time featured a Latino sports art show. At the second show, he had a solo exhibition, and Yogi attended the opening. “It was funny. He was hiding in the back,” Fiorentino recalled. “I said, ‘Yogi, you’ve got to come out.’ And he finally came out and saw a couple people…” 

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For some of the historical painting projects that you’ve done, where and how did you paint former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as Gorbachev and Desmond Tutu, the South African civil rights activist and now-retired Anglican bishop?

The Gorbachev and Tutu (art) were all painted when I lived with my family, because that goes back to 2001. I was at home with the parents after college, and that was for a charity event in West Palm Beach, Florida. So they were auctioning off the originals and it was pretty amazing. I remember sitting in (Donald) Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate for lunch and all of a sudden, there’s maybe only 30 people in there, Gorbachev’s there and Desmond Tutu’s introducing himself to me, and that kind of stuff is more amazing to me. I’m so used to meeting all the athletes that meeting these political, historical people is amazing.

(Former astronaut) Buzz Aldrin, I met him here in New Jersey, and I’d done that painting in my studio. I had an opportunity to talk to him for a while actually. He was talking all about my watercolors. He couldn’t believe it was watercolors. …

Congressman John Lewis, we presented a painting I did of him many years ago at his office in (Washington) D.C. It was the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, so to meet him there. I brought my whole family and my two little boys, because one day I can say you were in his office.

He had pictures with all these different presidents around and I remember he had a baseball card framed with like 12 Negro League and famous African-American ballplayers there. The history in that room (was special). So that kind of stuff to me is really amazing and cool to do.

Did Bush, Clinton, Gorbachev, Tutu and other political figures make any memorable remarks about how you portrayed them in your paintings?

Through an interpreter, Gorbachev just told me how much it looked like him.

Tutu came up and introduced himself, and he was really gracious.

John Lewis was so excited that I did this artwork of him. He was so pleased, he couldn’t wait to hang it up. He invited us to come back for lunch. (The painting) hangs in his office in Washington.

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Revealing insight

When Sports Collectors Digest once asked Fiorentino to explain “what sets his art apart,” he responded by saying, “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I’m in a great area — to be an artist in this tri-state area with great teams. There are a lot of people who collect and want to buy art. I paint in water color and my water color is very tight and realistic. It looks like oil or acrylic. When artists, professors and professionals see it, they can’t believe it’s water color. So I think there’s something in my painting because of the way I paint with water color. There’s also a lot of emotion, a lot of spirit in my paintings. I think just my passion and my love for sports, my passion and my love for baseball comes out in my pieces. I’m glad that other people really love it.”

Recommended reading: http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/10/nyregion/artistic-shortstop-makes-hall-of-fame-with-brush-not-bat.html