Assistant Professor of Art Joel Libby talks about his love of baseball, his work as a professional artist, and how the Baseball Hall of Fame got his painting.
Congratulations on having your painting accessioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Your painting is of pitcher Christy Mathewson. Can you tell us about him? Why did you want to paint his portrait?
Mathewson was a great hurler for the New York Giants back in the dead-ball era. In a time when many ball players were, shall we say, “rough around the edges,” Mathewson was a clean-cut, genteel, well-educated man. His behavior earned him the nickname “the Christian Gentleman.”
In 1936 Mathewson was a member of the first class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As part of a larger series of paintings that I had been working on, I chose to paint those first five inductees.
When did you create the work? How long did it take you? What did you base the painting on?
I painted the Hall of Fame series in 2018, over the span of five months. As with most of my paintings of historical figures, I am forced to rely on whatever photographs I can find.
And how did it come to be acquired by the Baseball Hall of Fame? Were you paid?
I had admired the Hall of Fame’s “Art of Baseball” collection for some time. They have works by some of my heroes like Norman Rockwell and LeRoy Neiman. My rep made contact with their curatorial staff and introduced them to several of my paintings. They loved the work. Over the next couple of months, we developed a relationship with them, and the decision was made to donate the Mathewson painting.
Will you go to see it there?
I had the honor of visiting the museum two summers ago. They had the painting in their archives and were still processing it, so I haven’t seen it on the wall yet. I hope to visit in the summer of 2021 if all goes well.
Have you always been interested in baseball?
I can’t really remember a time before I was interested in baseball. I love the pacing, the tactics, and the occasional mayhem of it. I love that it’s a truly American sport and that it has the power to bring us together. Maybe we should play more baseball.
How would you describe the type of art you make?
As an art history professor, I would tell you that it fits nicely between Expressionism and Pop Art but on a personal level, it’s just me that you see on the canvas. I’ve always been attracted to bright colors and the “messy” and expressive application of paint. When I combined that with my love of portraiture, I found something that felt like home. I paint in this style because it makes me happy and I want to share that with others.
You are assistant professor of art at Walla Walla University. How long have you been teaching at Walla Walla? What classes do you teach? What would you like your students to learn from your classes?
Yes, I’ve had the honor of teaching art at Walla Walla University for the past seven years and it’s been such an excellent experience! We have a fantastic program and such amazing students. I get to teach some of our painting, illustration, and art history courses along with a few other odds and ends.
Each class is grounded in the fundamentals that underpin art, but more than that each member of our faculty is a working artist. We are very open with our students about the challenges and successes we encounter in our careers. They get to see first-hand what life is like as a professional artist. Hopefully they can learn from our mistakes and benefit from our successes.
How is it different now during the pandemic?
The pandemic has presented Walla Walla University with a series of challenges, but the university has turned to meet them head on and I’m proud to be a part of that. All of us here are working to ensure that the students are still getting the quality education they expect from Walla Walla.
I believe you graduated from Walla Walla? And what did you do next?
Yes, I completed my undergrad at Walla Walla back in 2004 and then went on to finish an MFA at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What advice would you have for any young Adventists aspiring to be artists?
I knew I loved making things, but I don’t believe I allowed myself to consider becoming a professional artist until I decided to go to grad school. I think studying art is one of those things that “finds you” rather than you finding it. If you feel called to study art, then find a safe place where you feel comfortable learning and give it all you’ve got.
What projects are you working on now?
See more of Joel Libby's work at JoelLibby.com.
See a previous story about Joel Libby here.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Images courtesy of Joel Libby.
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