Touch 'em All: John Martin on painting Hall of Fame portraits, not knowing who Nolan Ryan is and 36-hour days
Last night was one of those nights that will be special for a lot of people for a long time. Forget about the game for a minute and think about what new Royals Hall of Famer Art Stewart said during his speech. He said he’d always remember the night. It was an honor he never dreamed of.
Well, one man who was integral in the induction ceremony, though he didn’t speak or even appear down on the field, was John Martin. In fact Martin has been a key component in every Royals HOF induction. Martin is a painter with deep ties to the organization. You’ve undoubtedly seen his work. It’s everywhere at Kauffman and his connection to the Royals dates back to the 1970s. He’s done media guide covers, yearbook covers, all 23 Hall of Fame Portraits, World Series and All-Star Game programs and a good 1,500 to 2,000 total projects. His NCAA mural for the headquarters in Kansas City (before they moved to Indianapolis) took him over three years and measured 12 feet tall and 90 feet in length. Yep, he’s the Michelangelo of KC.
A week ago, Around the Horn took a trip to Martin’s house/studio in Shawnee, Kan. and ate up an hour of his valuable time. Martin was already having a busy week, having been in New York two days earlier and he was planning a trip back to his hometown of Ottawa, Kan. later that afternoon.
Martin graciously allowed Around the Horn to take some pictures and snoop around, marveling at all the paintings hanging on his walls. We saw the Art Stewart portrait hours after it had been finished and got an exclusive interview with the man behind the canvas. He apologized because he said he was running on just an hour of sleep. He even claimed he was “slow to the trigger.” You make the call on this, the second installment of Around the Horn’s Touch ‘em All…
Around the Horn: Thanks for showing us around your studio.
John Martin: Not a problem. Happy to have you.
ATH: You said all told, Art’s portrait took between 15 and 20 hours. It’s 9 in the morning and you’re running on very little sleep. Now that the paint is drying, are you happy with the way the painting turned out?
JM: Oh yeah. You don’t short change the painting. When push comes to shove, your sleep or rest time gets short changed. There’s never any doubt about that. You always allocate time and back-up time. When I schedule my work, I have to have a certain time period. I have to think ahead because 90 percent of my work is out of town. I fly maybe 35-40,000 miles a year, mostly on the eastern seaboard. So I have to schedule a lot ahead of time.
I’m the planner and I’ve got to do the whole thing because I’m a one-man band. So I have to allocate and know how long something’s going to take. But every once in a while, I’ll get in a snag like this where two or three things come due unexpectedly. But I usually schedule my work so I have down time and it’s not so rigid. For a three-quarter length life size, I usually allocate a month. In reality, if I had to do it and I worked 12 hours a day, I could probably do it in 10 days.
ATH: Art’s portrait is the 23rd you’ve done for the Royals Hall of Fame. Plus you’ve done a bunch of other stuff. How much work have you done for the Royals?
JM: You know it’s interesting. I may sound crazy, but I actually have an idea as to what that is. I have a numbering system for all of my clients and I actually kept the Royals as a separate account. I’ve done approximately 160 jobs for them through the years.
It seems incredible. I look back at that and say, “my gosh, 160 jobs.” Well, there were times when I would do the media guide, the yearbook and special events. So I may have done five to six – maybe even more than that – jobs in one year’s time. So they kind of add up. I started working for them regularly back in the early 80s and through the mid-90s. That’s when we did the actual yearbook. We, meaning my wife and I, designed it and worked with Dean Vogelaar, who was then the Public Relations Director. And it was fun because we were given quite a bit of freedom as far as the format and given an idea from the past season. We got to go down to spring training and spend a week in Florida. Mainly to collect information on new personnel and we’d have sketches of the design and have those looked over. We’d also have a photographer come down and take pictures of the new personnel and do the team picture. Those were fun times.
So consistently that went from like 1983 to 1996, about 13, 14 years. The one that got a lot of awards was the ’89 yearbook. Of course, we got some awards when we won the World Series. It was the ’86 yearbook after the ’85 Series. But ’89 was a locker that we got and set-up and it was filled with things pertaining to the editorial content. But we always did pretty well with the yearbooks.
ATH: That’s quite a bit of work. With the paintings being on display for fans to see during all 81 home games, plus your work being sold for a number of years, what’s that like as an artist to have your work so prominent and seen by so many people?
JM: It’s great to have that kind of exposure. It’s the knowing that I had a hand with a player being in the Hall of Fame. I was involved in creating something that’s on display, of course that’s the reward-gain of an artist.
I will say, the first time I saw the banners blown up out at the stadium. That was really something. I went into the stadium with some friends and I had not seen them up there yet. And when you drove in and saw that from the parking lot that was like, “Wow.” When you think about it, there probably aren’t too many artists that have their work on display at 15 feet high. That is rather unusual. When you see that on the stadium, you can image the feeling you get. Some artists work for an exhibit or a show, but for me it’s to come on out to the stadium and you can see them for half a mile.
ATH: You’ve also done some of the postseason posters, media guides and yearbooks since you’ve been getting work with the Royals. While we were down in your studio, there were photos of Art around the actual portrait. How do use photos in your work?
JM: You’ll see some of these montage works. Sometimes I’ll get an assignment that features five or six players. The last media guide I did, I think was 2000 when they had Damon and Dye, Sweeney, really a pretty good core of young players. What I try to do is get enough photos of each player and try to make a balance of pictures and try to make out something that says who they are and what style they play. Maybe they swing the bat or the way they pitch. I try to look for some way someone would look at that and they’d say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s this particular player.’ So I try to get the right photo and then try to start developing it into a painting. You really have to know your subject. I try to get a feel for a player, how he plays, his moves, motions and so on.
I did do quite a bit of sports photography at that time. I got to go to the dugout and work with the press photographers. In the early days, if I didn’t have enough information on a particular player, I’d get a press pass and go in and take my own pictures.
One story that was funny, it was 1977 and I was shooting some players that I wasn’t satisfied with the information that I had, so I went to a game and we were playing the California Angels. And it was maybe the fourth or the fifth inning and this pitcher for the California Angels was lights out. I was like wow. The guy had great form. There hadn’t been anybody on base. And I looked at the guy next to me and I said ‘Who is that guy?’ He said ‘You mean, you don’t know who that is?’ ‘Nah’ I said. ‘That’s Nolan Ryan.’ I said ‘This guy’s pretty good.’
So I took some pictures of him because his motion was just sweet. And it turned out, one of my commissions I got later on was for Major League Baseball. So I ended up doing the cover for the ’80 World Series. But the cover, the motion is based on Nolan Ryan. They said that book sold more copies than any of them in the history up to that time. I did four World Series covers and three All-Star game covers.
ATH: So, it seems like you work in both photography and paint?
JM: Photography is just a tool that is used as a reference. If I’m assigned to do a particular person for the Hall of Fame, most of the time it’s from photos that have been taken that I’m working from. The way they’ve been designed it shows the portrait head and shoulders and then an action shot would be worked into it. That’s what I started when we came up with the Hall of Fame. In the case of Art Stewart or Joe Burke or some of the other people that were executives – even though I did a large/small with Danny Mathews – it depends on the situation and what it called for.
ATH: You’re obviously a Royals fan. What’s the most rewarding portrait you’ve done?
JM: Boy, I don’t know. I think, well, the only reason I point it out is the timeliness of Dan Quisenberry and working with the people out there. He’d already been diagnosed with cancer. Not only that but because of the person. Quiz was a really special person. He had a lot of great qualities off the field too.
But that one and of course, Dick Howser. That was after he had already died. I have a special feeling for all of them because of their achievements. I guess because of their timeliness of their health, it was really special that I was in a position to make a contribution like that. Otherwise, they all have their own special meaning. The first ones I did of Amos Otis and Steve Busby. And of course George and Frank. They all have their own story. But because of the timeliness of Quisenberry and Howser. I can say things about Ewing Kauffman. It was a great time for the Royals.
ATH: Now, your work hasn’t been limited to the Royals. So what’s the most meaningful piece that stands out in your mind?
JM: I think in sports, of course, I’ve always thought this Longhorns Stampede piece for the University of Texas was one of my favorites. The other one was the All-American room at the University of Kansas. The piece that’s over the fireplace. It’s coincidental, but probably our (editor’s note: Martin is a Jayhawk) greatest athlete was Al Oerter who was a four-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the discus. In the background, you can see the ancient Olympian with the discus and the statement it makes about the student-athlete.
One of my favorite pieces, sports pieces, was the one they call the Mount Rushmore of Kansas City (another editor’s note: this painting features Buck O’Neil, Len Dawson, Tom Watson and George Brett). It was done to raise money for ALS, it was a very successful print. We had all four of them sign it. We did a limited edition of 250 prints. They sold for $500 and the first 100 sold for $1,000. We sold most of them out, so it was very successful. What was really neat about it was I knew all four of them before it, but we had all four of them come over and sign it down in the studio.
ATH: Well John, that wraps it up. Thank you so much for your time.
JM: It’s not a problem. Thanks for coming out.