On Sundays during the summer of 1973, The Daily News published full-page color caricatures by artist Bruce Stark. Each week, thousands of kids (and adults) across the New York metropolitan area looked forward to seeing which Yankee and which Met would be featured. Players like Mays and Murcer, Seaver and Stottlemeyer, Nettles and Fregosi, Munson and Grote. The list went on and on.
One 10-year-old living in Northern New Jersey at that time didn’t need to pick up a copy of the Sunday paper to see the work of this legendary artist working at the largest newspaper in the world. Ron Stark — who was already impressing his classmates with his cartoon-style sports drawings — grew up surrounded by the work of his well-known father.
“My dad’s work hung on our rec room walls. What a source of inspiration for a young child,” recalls the younger Stark, now 47, and well-known in the world of baseball art for his realistic paintings of some baseball’s greatest players.
Stark has become known for his life-like portraits of players such as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and others. He shudders at the thought of being called a photorealistic artist — probably because his paintings convey so much more life and realism than a typical photograph ever could.
In the painting “Going Home,” Stark depicts Jackie Robinson pausing to study a baseball while packing his leather satchel. Stark’s tight brushwork skillfully leads the viewer’s gaze around the painting – from Robinson’s pensive visage, to the seam of the ball, the open bag, and the well-worn cleats still on his feet. Robinson’s career was one of the most storied in the history of the sport, and Stark captures emotion and history from that career in a single frame. The Robinson painting is one of Stark’s recent works, and is one of his favorites.
Most of Stark’s work is from days gone by, partly because Stark likes the idea of baseball being played for the love of the game. “Nostalgia and I seem to go together for some reason,” said Stark. “My mind wants to believe that there was a more innocent time in America’s game, more down to earth. For some reason that idea appeals to me, whether it was actually true I don’t know.” Not surprising then, that one of the few current MLB players to come off Stark’s easel is Yankees captain Derek Jeter.
Unlike many other artists painting baseball today, Stark manages to come up with compositions you won’t see in any coffee table book of photographs. Although he’s willing to take a commission for a piece done from a recognizable image, most of his paintings are poses or compositions that fans have never seen before.
Some of Stark’s other personal favorites include Gehrig standing on the dugout in his away uniform, the painting of Dimaggio sitting almost profile on the steps with the ’39 patch, Williams later in his career holding his glove, and the one of Negro Leagues catcher Josh Gibson. Interestingly, Stark feels that the best pure portrait he’s ever done is of basketball great Bill Russell.
Stark grew up a Yankees fan, and whether playing sports, watching sports or daydreaming about sports, the sporting world consumed him. His dad had press access, working for the Daily News, so for a young sports fan, it was a “privileged existence,” he recalls. “Locker room and field access, how many kids have that?” He fondly remembers sitting courtside, with “feet on the hardwood,” during Knicks games during the 1970 season.
In his younger days, Stark’s ability as an artist took a back seat to his talent as an athlete. Hockey was his favorite sport, but he excelled on the diamond — and went on to play baseball at Emerson Jr/Sr High in New Jersey, four years more years at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and some semi-pro ball later on.
Despite Stark’s obvious artistic talent, there was a time when he did not think he would pursue an art career. Growing up the son of a well-known professional artist, “the visual stimulation was constantly in front of me, but I remember when I was approaching high school age that I made an unconscious decision that I could never compete with my dad’s success.” Stark decided at that point that he would be “anything but an artist. It took until my early 30′s before I would shake free of that.”
Stark says his father didn’t want to push him into becoming an artist because, “quite frankly it is not a career for the faint of heart. I marvel today at the way he was able to handle the deadlines and pressure of producing good art on a daily basis for at the time the largest newspaper in the world. Now freelance artists such as myself have other pressures and I think dad wanted to spare me of all of that.”
When asked to describe his technique, Stark hesitates. “This is a hard question because with most things I consider myself to be logical and analytical in my approach, yet with my art I cannot tell you how I arrive where I do. Chalk it up to lack of formal art education. I’m a grad of the Bruce Stark School of Visual Art and Hard Knocks.”
As an artist, Stark says he does not intentionally limit himself to just one sport. “Baseball has the tradition, and of course, the clientelle in the memorabilia field, so naturally a lot of my focus is there. It would be wonderful to paint some old time hockey players in those colorful jerseys or even football, but the money seems to be in the grey baggy flannels, which is okay, because I really do love baseball and its history the most.”
Stark says his favorite players of all time are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Josh Gibson. “Both of these guys had hardscrabble lives and careers, and they played in eras or circumstances that were less polished and more raw. I think I’m drawn to tragic figures. Frankly, I love all the deadball and Negro league players for those reasons.”
When questioned about the future, Stark says he has no specific goals. “My personality doesn’t tend toward specific goal setting, mostly I just want to keep getting better,” he said. “That is what drives me. I believe in the idea that my focus should be not on things out of my control such as success in the art world, but rather on striving for excellence, which is something I can always influence.”
Stark remembers with amusement what turned out to be his first paid gig. “I had been sending out samples of my drawings and got a call from a fairly small publishing house wanting a book cover painting of Knute Rockne, with a four-week deadline. I politely declined saying that I don’t do color. I hadn’t painted since 10th grade art class. After hanging up the phone, I wondered if my dad could give me a few quick lessons, and being desperate, called back and confidently said that I’m the man for the job. Got it done and I was on my way to being a working artist, thanks mostly to God’s grace.”
He also recalls other challenges. “The Mickey Mantle piece on my website was outside in the garbage for two days. A large Ted Williams that later sold for a good price sat leaned facing an air conditioner vent for four years. After I scraped all the dust off I decided to give it another go. I’ve learned to tuck them away and not throw them away. Sometimes the mind just needs a break from the same image. Bobby Orr took about three or four years to complete. I just kept starting and stopping in disgust.”
Stark says his motivation is internal, not external. “Honestly there is no competitive aspect of this in my mind, so what I have to prove is that I got every ounce out of the abilities God gave to me.” Stark says he completes a dozen or so fine art pieces per year, and accepts commissions. He has done some military commission work for the US Marine Corps, as well as a painting of Pope John Paul for the Bradford Group and some U.S. postage stamp pieces for wounded veteran charities.
Stark says he is waiting for feedback on his recent Jeter painting, before deciding whether to take on other current players. He is also intrigued by the idea of creating paintings of players who were active during his own childhood, such as Thurman Munson. Stark believes he has benefited from years he spent early on honing his drawing skills. Afraid to get into color in the early part of his career, he became a master of drawing. He advises up-and-coming artists to learn to draw really well before beginning to paint.
Today, Stark lives in Florida with his wife and four kids. He has become a big fan of the Florida Gators, and whichever other teams his kids root for. You can visit Stark’s website to see more of his work. His paintings are also available as giclees (digital prints) on canvas.