“The best artist has that thought alone which is contained within the marble shell. The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell to free the figures slumbering in the stone.” –Michaelangelo
Sculptor Benjamin Blackburn typically creates his art from mahogany or cedar, but the concept is the same. The baseball players he depicts exist within the wood, and it is his work, and passion, to free them for others to enjoy.
Baseball Art: When did you realize you wanted to become a baseball artist and did you have anyone help push you along the way?
Benjamin Blackburn: My grandfather was a minor league player with the NY Giants for several years and I came to my love for the game through him. He lived in Chicago and had a wide circle of baseball friends and it always seemed to me that these were the happiest people I knew. I couldn’t even tell the names of a lot of the guys who sat on his porch over the years but most of them had something to do with baseball. There was always a case of Falstaff or Hamm’s in the cooler and a couple of guys talking baseball and I loved the stories that they told.
Baseball Art: Have you ever had the opportunity to share your artwork of a particular player with the athlete.
Benjamin Blackburn: When I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, one of the guys who happened to be on his porch one day was Willie Mays. I don’t know if they were in town playing the Cubs or why he was there. By this time my grandfather had his own business and it may have related to that in some way. Anyway, as I often did, I sketched the guys who would show up on his porch. There were hundreds before and after Mays, but he was the first guy who actually showed an interest in what I was doing and then bought my sketch. He paid me $10 for it, wildly overpriced as that was at the time. Mays became my favorite player from that moment on — he was just such a good-hearted guy in addition to being a tremendous player.
Baseball Art: Can you share an experience or interesting story about being a baseball artist?
Benjamin Blackburn: I couldn’t possibly name just a few. I think that’s really the beauty of the sport as a subject. The game keeps evolving and my experiences keep evolving with it. I’m much more interested in the history of the game these days. The modern game is interesting as a game to me, but artistically I’m much more interested in players from previous eras. There’s a sort of magic to the game, for me, pre-1960, that is very alluring. Some of the best moments of my life have involved baseball, somehow. Most of my friends love the game and that’s really not a surprise, I suppose. I think we are drawn to it for similar reasons having to do with the experiences of our youth.
Baseball Art: Are there any athletes that you haven’t drawn that you would like to capture with your artwork?
Benjamin Blackburn: Well, one of the problems of being a sculptor is the amount of time involved in any serious art project. Committing a few hundred hours or more to a project means that there are a lot of things I’d like to get to but haven’t yet. I can’t think of a contemporary player that I am all that interested in doing but there are many from previous periods I’d love to have a shot at. It’s just a matter of time, for me. I’m envious of people who can start and finish a project in a week. I don’t have that skill set! I saw something funny a few weeks ago — it was a very off-beat handmade baseball card set that featured jobs that players had or did from the era when players worked at a second job during the off-season. One of the cards was called “Grave Digger,” a reference to Richie Hebner’s off-season job back in the 1970s (I’m guessing). Would I like to do a bas relief Richie Hebner “Grave Digger” piece? More than you could possibly know. But the art market isn’t set up that way, for me. I don’t do very much on spec and can’t commit that kind of time to Richie Hebner, no matter how much I would like to. That’s what collectors are for. We just need a Richie Hebner fan to make “Grave Digger” come alive. But there are other players as well who have touched me personally. Curt Flood is one. I did his image on a “stamp” bat for a gallery show in Connecticut several years ago but I haven’t yet found the time to do something more substantial involving him.
Baseball Art: Who throughout the history of baseball would you like to have the chance to watch a game with?
Benjamin Blackburn: Without a doubt, Satchel Paige. I think he’d have the most interesting insight on a game of any player I can think of. I remember when Bill Veeck would sit out in crowd at Comiskey — I think he’d also be fun to watch a game with.
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)
Benjamin Blackburn: I work at night, mostly. I have a large shop filled with all kinds of woodworking stuff. There are some pictures of it on my Facebook page. I guess what you would notice if you visited my studio is the amount of raw wood in the studio, on the floor and the number of pieces of wood headed for the firepit. I do a lot of experimenting in my work and that often means trying something several times before I get the result I am looking for. The studio smells like cedar. I get used to it, but that’s the first thing that people tend to remark on. I listen to all kinds of stuff while I work. Podcasts are really a godsend for me and I listen to the radio a lot. During baseball season, I will usually listen to the Cubs and the Yankees games during the day/evening.