A lifelong sports fan and avid artist, Paul Lempa started teaching himself how to paint at the age of 33 after seeing a baseball art exhibit at the National Folk Art Museum in New York City in 2003. In recent years, Lempa, who has worked extensively as a creative director in the advertising industry, has had his sports art shown in museums, juried shows, national publications and on Topps baseball cards. The June 2011 issue of Beckett Sports Card Monthly called Lempa one of the “Top 12 Artists to Collect” and his Satchel Paige painting currently resides at the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis. Lempa, who is known by the nickname “Moonlight,” because of his late night painting and his love for the movie “Field of Dreams,” takes great pride in being a visual historian for the sports he loves.
Baseball Art: When did you realize you wanted to become a baseball artist and did you have anyone help push you along the way?
Paul Lempa: My parents were very supportive of my artwork. I was always getting art supplies on birthdays and holidays. From as early on as I can remember all my drawings revolved around sports. I would draw something from Sports Illustrated weekly, but back then I never considered it more than a hobby and I probably stopped drawing regularly when I got to college. Then in 2003, I visited the Folk Art Museum in New York City. They were showing a collection of baseball folk art and it was eye opening for me. I really had no exposure to folk art or sports art for that matter, and I found the work to be simple, honest, colorful and inspiring. The only sports art I had ever really noticed prior to that were the works of Norman Rockwell. Looking at a Rockwell I would think, “I wish I could do that.” Seeing the baseball folk art I found myself saying, “I can do that.” So, I did.
When I first started painting, I had no experience in any medium, and so I jumped from acrylics to India inks to oils and back again. I was scuffling and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully, through various websites and social media I was introduced to two artists who profoundly affected my process and style. Both Graig Kreindler and Monty Sheldon, two amazing baseball artists, shared freely with me any and all tricks of their trade. They answered all my emails, took all my calls and provided me with multiple resources to study the craft and improve my painting. There is no way I could have made the improvements I have over the years without their help.
Finally, my wife and four children push me every day with their curiosity, their patience, and their unwavering support. An artist, with a full-time job and a big family cannot survive without the help of his family. I have more help than I could ask for.
Baseball Art: Have you ever had the opportunity to share your artwork of a particular player with the athlete.
Paul Lempa: The first time I shared my artwork with a player was when I went to a signing at the Yogi Berra Museum to get Bob Feller’s autograph on a ball I painted. It was probably one of the first pieces I had ever done and was pretty rudimentary, yet he was still very gracious and appreciative of the time and research I put into the piece. I had information on it about his Navy career and his time on the U.S.S. Alabama. That made his day, and he showed it to everyone around. That was inspiring for me to see.
About a year later I went to another signing to have Don Mattingly sign a baseball that I did of him. I was starting to improve, but still had a long way to go, but he loved it anyway. He actually told me that it was the first time he was nervous about signing a baseball because he didn’t want to mess it up.
My most recent experience came through social media when I tweeted a painting to Andrew McCutchen. About an hour later he retweeted it out to all his followers and my phone nearly exploded. I went from about four twitter followers to 140, and my painting was retweeted hundreds of times. That was pretty exciting.
Baseball Art: Can you share an experience or interesting story about being a baseball artist?
Paul Lempa: I think the experience of sharing my artwork with others is my favorite. Whether it is on the web or at a show, being able to meet people who share the same passion, as I do, for the sport of baseball is inspiring. I have made countless friendships and relationships that only happened because I put a brush to canvas.
You can’t please everyone with every piece you create, but I find it reassuring that there will always be someone that connects with each piece I create. I love hearing stories of people who attended games that I may have painted scenes from, or fans of certain players who appreciate the way I captured their hero’s likeness.
The ones I appreciate the most are those who don’t even like sports, or even know who a player might be, but notice the detail in the folds of the uniform or the way the sunlight hits a player’s face. Comments like those makes me want to run home and get back to work.
Baseball Art: Are there any athletes that you haven’t drawn that you would like to capture with your artwork?
Paul Lempa: I can answer this two ways. First there are a number of baseball players whom I would love to paint. The sport is rich with colorful characters and icons that I am drawn to, and in my research I am always finding new subjects. Al Simmons, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, I could go on and on. It is almost overwhelming when you think of it.
The second group would be the players I painted early in my career that I would love to take another crack at. Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Joe DiMaggio are three players I would love to paint again to see my progression.
Baseball Art: Who throughout the history of baseball would you like to have the chance to watch a game with?
Paul Lempa: I would have to say Vin Scully, although I feel like I have already done that. When you listen to him call a game you almost feel like you are sitting there with him. Having a career spanning 60 plus years, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, all those games and memories is unparalleled. “It’s time for Dodger baseball! Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good evening to you, wherever you may be.”
Even though I was born in 1970, I have an affinity for baseball in the 1950’s, especially in New York were the Dodgers, Giants or Yankees won the World Series every year. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and the “Shot Heard Round the World”, the legendary tales from those days are endless. I also love to watch the game today with my children, of course. Scully is one of those unique individuals who can bridge the gap from the 50’s until today, and I think offer a unique perspective on the national pastime. It would be a pleasure to grab a dog and a beer on a sunny afternoon and watch a ball game with the one and only Vin Scully.
Baseball Art: Could you describe your “Studio Space” and what we would we see if we visited you during a project? (your table, what is on the walls, what music is playing or TV shows? What time of day are you most productive)
Paul Lempa: Well, I really wouldn’t call it a studio space. I work in the corner of my TV room that is set up with 2 easels and a set of draws for my supplies. I am pinned up against the corner of the room near the sliding glass door leading to the backyard. I get some good natural light there during the day, but when the weather is nice I do see a fair amount of foot traffic from my kids going in and out of the house. Would I like a big studio space with plenty of great lighting, high ceilings and lots of quiet? Absolutely! But before I am an artist, I am a father, so I would gladly trade that for the chatter of my children, and the occasional toy whizzing by.
That being said, you can see why I am most productive from about 9pm until midnight. Then I can play music from a pretty eclectic collection. Anything from Jay-Z to Miles Davis to Radiohead can be heard playing. Sometimes, when I really want to feel inspired, I will put on Ken Burns: Baseball documentary. Not to watch, but just to have the sounds and stories of the game on behind me.
Baseball Art: Is there anything else you’re currently working on that you’d be willing to share?
Paul Lempa: There is currently a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called Hometown Teams which takes a look at how sports unites us and influences American values and character. No part of American culture so colorfully and passionately celebrates American ideals as does sports. I was commissioned to do a series of paintings for when the exhibit reaches Jersey City. It is currently at the Yogi Berra Museum.
I chose to feature Roosevelt Stadium, and the 1956 and 1957 seasons when the Dodgers played 15 home games there. I just love the fact that for a few fleeting weeks, Jersey City, NJ was the home to MLB for the only time and hardly anyone knows about it. The World Championship banner from 1955 was raised on a flagpole in Jersey City. It was a great sense of pride for the city, but was also a portent for things to come. If Walter O’Malley was willing to raise a Brooklyn Championship banner in NJ, he was also getting closer to moving them out of Brooklyn. It was a pivotal time and these were important games for many reasons.
In those 15 games New Jersey was treated to some of the era’s and the game’s greatest players. Aaron, Ashburn, Banks, Campanella, Clemente, Drysdale, Mays, Musial, Reese, Robinson, Snider all doffed their caps in Jersey City. More than a dozen Hall of Famers played there. The Dodgers went 11-4 in those games, with crowds averaging almost 20,000, nearly 5,000 more fans than the 1956 Ebbets Field average. and almost 7,000 per game more than 1957. Nearly 300,000 people showed up.
There were some memorable moments too. Willie Mays hit the only ball out of the stadium on August 15th, 1956 in a 1-0 Giants win. Don Drysdale hurled a 5 hit shutout of the Cubbies as a 20 year old. Duke Snider beat the Redlegs with a walk-off homer on July 25th, 1956, and Jackie Robinson almost singlehandedly beat the Braves in 56, going 3-4 with a home run and 3 RBI in a 3-2 win. I will be painting scenes from these memorable games as well as a crowd scene entering the outside of the art deco styled Roosevelt Stadium, and an aerial view of the park.
As with many old ballparks, Roosevelt Stadium is now condominiums, and I thought it would be important to immortalize these games in some way. After all, Jackie Robinson once broke the color barrier in that stadium as a Montreal Royal in 1946 against the Jersey City Giants.
Learn more about artist Paul Lempa at his official website.