On the Similarities Between Baseball and Painting

Close-up of paint on my palette

We’re heading into my favorite time of year, springtime. We’re not quite there yet, but the first ritual–spring training–has begun. That means Opening Day is on the horizon, my team (the Boston Red Sox, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention) could win this year, and anything is possible.

Although spring’s not here yet, I feel it around the corner. I saw some green leaves just beginning to poke out of the cold ground yesterday, and Opening Day is exactly a month away. All this thinking about baseball has made me think about the many similarities that exist between painting and baseball.

Batter up!

● There is no time limit to either making a painting or playing a game of baseball. You can try to guess what time you’re going to be done, but then you go into extra innings, or realize that the painting has not been resolved…it can take a while. You never know.

Stage 1

● Preparation. The grass is cut, the infield dirt is raked within an inch of its life. In the studio, the canvas or paper is pristine, prepared just the way you like. Everything is ready.

● Everything always starts out orderly enough, with a full field of players and a bench in reserve; everyone is theoretically ready to step in. In the studio, you’ve got your brushes, your tools, your ideas for a new painting; you’re ready to go.

● The pitcher serves up the first pitch, the way you load up a brush with paint and move in. And things start to happen.

Stage 2

People who say nothing happens in baseball are crazy–or at least lulled by the crude, stopwatch action of those other games that are ruled by the clock. Patterns are created in the dirt by running cleats. There are beautiful curves and actions like the angle of the second baseman’s arm as he tags the runner, the arc and speed of hit balls, the stance of batters. These patterns and timing are fascinating and exist in painting too, like the way a drip of paint will fall off the brush when you swing your arm, the way layers of paint build on each other and create bumps and lumps on the surface, or glimpses to the layers beneath, the way you can bear down or just use the very tip of the pencil or brush, and it makes a difference in how the painting appears.

● There are many roles to play. (Purists might argue that’s more true in the American League, where we have the Designated Hitter who doesn’t play a position in the field, but that’s for another post).

Stage 3

So, you have your DH, who hits for power. You have a lead-off batter who’s supposed to get on base however he can, then steal, run like the wind, and score as soon as possible. Closers are pitching specialists brought in late in the game, when their team is ahead, to seal a win.

Likewise in painting. I have my go-to moves that are always productive, like drawing on the surface. Usually, this will create an interesting shape that can even become the main object of the painting, but even if it’s terrible and I have to paint over it, that creates an interesting texture. Sometimes I’m a superstar on fire (a la David Ortiz in 2004) and I can do no wrong in the painting; it all goes quickly and effortlessly. More often, I’m a grinder like Dustin Pedroia, who will foul off pitch after pitch, doing everything to not create an out, trying to get something productive out of each and every at-bat. Sometimes I’m the closer, trying to home in on the last detail that I need to finish up a painting and that can be delicate–if you do too much, you’re going to have to mop up your own mess, and if you do too little, you don’t feel satisfied. Closers get paid alot, and that’s because what they do is hard.

● There are lots of ways to end the game/painting.

Stage 4

As mentioned above, you could be playing extra innings until one in the morning, you never know. You could have a heroic walk-off home run. You could have a tense nail-biter that goes down to the wire and gives everyone gray hairs. You might go home dirty as hell, (like Rickey Henderson who eventually became the all-time stolen base leader because as a Little Leaguer, his mother didn’t believe he’d put in any effort if he didn’t come home dirty, and the best way to get dirty was to slide into bases). All of those metaphors apply to painting just as well as they apply to baseball.

● Habits, like the ritualistic tapping of bat on heel or dirt at the beginning of every at bat. In the studio, I have my own little patterns. The brushes get lined up a certain way. I do certain things first–prime the panel with a sealer like Matte Medium, put down a thin layer of paint, begin drawing freehand shapes and doodles to clear my head, look at what I’ve done, then begin painting over the chaos that now exists on the canvas. The rest of the painting time will be spent editing, so to speak. But the steps I take first are important and set the tone for what comes after. I think the players who adhere to habits and rituals feel the same way. It’s their way of opening the door for themselves, focusing on one thing at a time, allowing something to happen, then dealing with what happens.

Stage 5

● Muscle memory and confidence. By taking batting practice, hitters improve their timing and speed. By fielding many, many balls, outfielders learn how the ball caroms off the wall and grass, and it’s the same with painting. By painting, you become a better painter. Your hand and eye get more practice and things happen more naturally. You get better and more confident about knowing when to keep going, and when to leave something alone.

● Competition. Let’s leave the opposing team out of it for a minute and talk about individual performance…Like any ballplayer, I’m competing with myself, trying to do the best I can to make something memorable. Trying to do it better than I did yesterday. Never being satisfied.

Here’s to success in the studio, and Go Sox!

Final: Five Boys, acrylic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 48, $4000


With a lot of help from my friends…

This blog is dedicated to Rose, Gary, Zaineb, Sharon, Nubia and Mia.

On a day when the landlord locked the deadbolt and I couldn’t get into the studio to pick up my paintings for my first solo show…

On a day when the elevator was out of service and I had to carry each painting down five flights of stairs, one by one, occasionally bumping them on the stairs or wall…

On a day when I had to carry each painting a full block to the car…

On a day when the street sign where I needed to turn was missing and I got hopelessly lost…

When I had all the paintings as well as all the food and other accoutrements for the evening with me…

On a day when I started crying in frustration and was a sweaty, weeping mess when I arrived, late, at my own opening reception…

My friends were there to take over. They greeted all of the guests and bought them drinks while they waited for me to arrive. They prepped the gallery space and offered to come pick me up in their own cars. They reserved a parking space in front of the venue, carried the paintings in, and parked the car for me. They hung my paintings in less than ten minutes.

They made everything perfect.

Thank you to my wonderful friends for all of your help in making my solo show a success. I truly appreciate it!

Love, Maura

Maura McGurk’s First Solo Show: Pride and Prejudice, An Exhibition on Gay Bullying

Maura McGurk’s first solo exhibition will feature paintings created in response to gay bullying.

McGurk began this body of work in fall of 2010, on the heels of several suicides by teenaged boys who had been bullied by classmates. These suicides were well-publicized due to their sheer number and proximity in time: five suicides in the month of September received national attention, though possibly up to ten were documented in the US that month.

McGurk was shocked and saddened by this news, particularly the story of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year old who killed himself after being secretly filmed during a date and subsequently outed by his college roommate.

“I couldn’t get him out of my head. Imagine, he had just begun his freshman year–he wasn’t even a month into college”, said McGurk.

Around this time, McGurk went to the Vermont Studio Center for a month-long residency, where she began working on paintings that expressed her remorse about Tyler.

“I began the first painting by stenciling alot of words–literally quoting events–because this story was so specific, and involved texts and tweets and name-calling. But as I delved deeper into the story, I began unleashing colors more than words, and using dripping, dangling shapes and unsettling colors like yellow-greens to show the heartbreak, rather than talk about it.”

As an abstract painter, McGurk was surprised to realize that human figures were emerging in these works, though not necessarily in a realistic style. Legs appear in two paintings–In Secret, where they are bent at a vulnerable angle, and Fragile, in which a pair of cartoonish, spindly legs parade on their own in a field of green paint. Another, more classically abstract painting, Encounter, calls up the human figure less directly by using pinks and flesh tones, and a ferocious pencil scribble to suggest limbs and bodies in motion.

McGurk acknowledges that such expressive bursts of drawing in many of the paintings came from a sense of urgency and upset over the suicides. “The drawing within the paintings was a way to let out the heartbreak I was feeling for these kids. Just a very immediate, reflexive kind of thing that came from not knowing what to do with this terrible sense of loss. Sadness for kids I didn’t even know. Most of the paintings are built up slowly and thoughtfully, layer by layer, but sometimes I was too upset to work slowly and then the pencil came out and dug in.” Indeed, some of the pencil marks are not drawn lines at all, but desperate and furious tracks carved again and again through the paint.

The public is invited to the opening reception of Pride and Prejudice, on February 22, 6:30 – 8:00 pm, at the Sapphire Lounge in New York City.

For related content, please also see:

Maura’s Lavender Menace Paintings, related to gay issues
Maura’s Sketchbook Project
Maura’s It Gets Better Project video

The Abraham Lincoln Caper

In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday today, I wanted to share my newest project. I’m entering a contest to replace a stolen portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and you can find out more about it here:

Stay tuned as I report about my ongoing adventures!

The Only Art Worth Doing Is the Art That Makes Things Better: An Interview with Maura McGurk

Bridge, Acrylic/Mixed media on panel, $3000

In an interview with fellow artist Gina Marie Dunn, Maura McGurk discusses her creative process and inspirations for creating political art. She also considers some practical issues about being a fine artist, and, true to form, even finds a way to reference the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

Please access the full interview here.


The Business of Happiness

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals and former executive at AOL, had a wake-up call one day when the plane he was on prepared to crash. His life flashed before his eyes, and he realized that if he were to die just then, he would not die a happy man–even though he was young and rich, with the world at his feet.

Luckily, he and the other passengers walked away unhurt, and Leonsis embarked on a lifelong quest to pursue and define happiness. His extensive research, personal experiences, and business endeavors all led him to the conclusion that success comes from happiness, not the other way around. And even more, he believes that people and businesses that actively pursue happiness become more successful.

This theory interested me because my pursuits as an artist are tied so closely to both my personal happiness, and my business success.

Ted says he’s observed over the years that the happiest and most successful people, and businesses, live by six rules:

  1. Goal-Setting
  2. Involvement in multiple Communities of Interest
  3. Having an outlet for Personal Expression, no matter how small
  4. Gratitude for what you have
  5. Giving Back to the community
  6. A Higher Calling, which does not have to be religious

Looking back on some companies I’ve worked for which were inherently happy, productive places, I can see how they subscribed to these rules, even if unknowingly. The same applies, in reverse, for those institutions where no one wanted to show up in the morning.

As I set out to put myself on a path where I can keep making artwork that is meaningful, and grow my work and practice, I’ll keep Ted’s research in mind.

To happiness!

The Artist-Collector: Alison Wells

Alison Wells
I’ve always been intrigued by the kind of artwork that artists collect. What do artists surround themselves with, outside of the studio? Is it the same or different from their own works? How do they go about choosing the pieces they live with on their walls, and do those pieces influence their own studio work?

Alison Wells is a Trinidadian artist who has lived and worked in New Bedford, Massachusetts since 2004. Her paintings have long dealt with an inherent duality. During grad school at UMass Dartmouth (where I was her classmate, studio neighbor, and friend) her work depicted the struggle of the individual in the city, and showed the city as a source of strength and energy, as well as a source of psychological and emotional turmoil. In this body of work, the abstraction of grids and architecture did battle with figurative silhouettes; the colder, straighter lines imposed themselves over organic shapes; and a limited palette of black, white and neutral tones subdued brighter colors, which made appearances as accents.

In time, the abstraction has yielded more frequently to figuration such as palm trees and silhouettes. A warm, colorful palette has emerged from the accent colors. The grid has broken down and yielded to organic shapes that seem to bend in a sea breeze, blowing in from her native Caribbean. And so the fascination with the double-life of the city has become an exploration of the double-life of an immigrant, living somewhere that is not her native home.

Looking at Alison’s art collection recently, we discussed some of the connections that emerged between her own work and the work she collects, and wondered what it all meant.

Interestingly enough, many pieces in her collection are black and white photos, line drawings, or paintings with a limited palette and a graphic line. This seems like a direct contrast with her current colorful, organic explorations.

“I’m drawn to the illustrative”, she admits. “The sharp lines, black and white, graphic elements. I have a side that likes that. Maybe I live vicariously through them now; I just love the fine line and the detail.”

Many of the works are arranged side by side, leading down a hallway to a window which looks out onto a downtown New Bedford street. The street is full of its own angles and vertical lines, its own blacks, whites, and grays. The corner where the art collection meets the street is anchored by one of Alison’s large “city” paintings, heavy with black lines and vertical drips.

“I have a side that likes that”. As she gestures to her own painting, it’s easy to see the similarities to her own earlier work.

Scott Barry's portrait of Alison
Alison points out her “closest view to New York City”, a black and white line drawing of New York City rooftops, acquired in a trade with a friend, Susan M. Funk.

As to how she acquired her collection, these trades–one artwork for another–are common. She owns a portrait of herself, painted by Scott Barry when they were both students at UMass Dartmouth; he gave it to her after she posed as his model, and she insisted that he take a painting of hers in return. Other pieces in her collection were part of special studio sales or other gatherings involving multiple artists.

Alison actively tries to collect local New England artists. One of the few colorful works is a pastel drawing by John Vliet of Pope Island in nearby Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and there is a handmade decorative mirror by local artist Brooke Syvertsen.

Karl Blossfeldt
She proudly points to her favorite piece, Papaver Orientale (Oriental Poppy Flower Bud) by Karl Blossfeldt, a black and white photo purchased at the Red Cross Art Show which I organized in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (I wrote an earlier blog post on donating artwork to charity that mentions this show).

Interestingly, this piece (or one very like it) also hung in Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment on Sex and the City. The black and white aesthetic meets the city once again, and a collector looks on.

The Dream of the Woodshop

I’ve been having lots and lots of dreams lately…I usually never remember my dreams so this is notable.

The other night, I dreamed that I was cutting wood panels in a wood shop. I was cutting panel after panel, then taking them over to the drill press and drilling four shallow holes in the back, near each of the corners. I kept cutting and drilling, and putting the finished panels in a cardboard box on the floor. Cut, drill, fill the box. In the dream, I knew that I’d take that box to the studio and paint on them all. It was one of those dreams where you work very hard and wake up tired.

In grad school, when I had access to a wood shop, that’s how I made the small-size wood panels I painted on. I bought pine boards at the hardware store, cut them down to either 12” x 12” or 6” x 6”, then drilled the holes in the back for hanging.

Maybe my creativity has been unleashed by leaving the office job. Maybe I was telling myself to “replace” a particular painting I’d thought of before going to bed, which had become chipped, and was made through that process. Maybe it was inspired by having peeked in the wood shop of a nearby college where I’ve begun teaching. Maybe it was inspired by a need to sell alot of work!

If anyone needs a handmade painting, please let me know; the panels are ready.