It started, Mark Penxa says, as a tribute to his grandfather -- an artistic "journey through American sports lore" that featured special renderings of famous athletes, and ones long forgotten.
Called Stealing Signs, the first part featured baseball: 100 paintings and sketches, similar to the Derek Jeter. Then came hockey: 76 of them. All offered special elements -- stats, names, other items -- and their slightly abstract style set them apart from straight-up portraits.
Now Penxa, a Detroit-area native who also works at a screen and printing shop, is embarking on his most ambitious project yet: a visual "road trip" from state to state, inspired by stories and suggestions from readers and fans who were touched by his original works. He's going beyond baseball this time, too. All sports are open. All eras, too.
Recently we caught up via email with Penxa, who has "visited" Pennsylvania so far on his trip. New Jersey is underway. New York is coming in July.
And he knows he's got a long, long way to go to get through all 50 -- it'll take years. So suggestions are welcome on his Facebook page (portraits can be purchased, as well).
Tell me about the beginning of the project.
The project started off as a thank-you card to my grandfather. He had been sick for a long time and getting worse. Baseball was the center of our conversations since I was little, he took me to every Tigers game that he could and we would watch every game together.
There was a gap where I wasn't around very much because of traveling and work and the usual day-to-day stuff. I hadn't watched a game with him or heard one of his stories in a long time, and now his memory was really bad and communication was limited to handshakes, hugs and tears. So, I painted a portrait of Al Kaline (seen below is a remake of the original), then Jim Northrup, Hank Greenberg, Norm Cash and so on, to serve as visual flash cards. It was the only way I could think of to still talk about baseball.
After I did those initial paintings, I couldn't stop making them and before I knew it, I had over 100 of them scattered across my apartment floor. So, I put them online on my personal site just to have new content and one day [ESPN Playbook writer] Paul Lukas mentioned it on his Uni Watch blog. The next thing I knew, I was receiving emails from all over the world with people telling me their stories about what their dads and grandfathers told them. It was amazing.
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