|SPORTS ARTIST MONTY SHELDON QUICKLY BECOMING A LEGEND
(by Dennis C. Purdy, Sr., Vintage & Classic Baseball Collector,
Monty Sheldon grew up on Possum Trot Road in rural Ohio, 90 miles north of Cincinnati, a fan of the Big Red Machine, his boyhood icons. Today, at 33, Sheldon is on a fast track to becoming an icon himself in the baseball collectibles hobby.
The youngest son of Monty, Sr. and Doris Sheldon, the younger Monty's fame as a noted sports artist has been spreading like the proverbial grass fire across the hobby's plains. Drawing since he was three years old, Sheldon for the last two years has created a major stir within the baseball collectibles hobby with his handpainted baseball art.
For those who've had the pleasure of viewing first hand his incredibly realistic work, the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Many collectors, as they view his work up close, just silently shake their heads in awe.
"Sheldon was born with both the desire and ability to draw," says his mother. "He started when he was three or four, and his father and I always encouraged him. And he loved baseball, too. I remember buying him packs of baseball cards before he even started school. Of course I kept the gum," she adds with a smile.
Monty, Sr. was supportive of his youngest son's abilities, too. He saw to it that Monty got to the school of his dreams, the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Art in Dover, New Jersey. Now retired, Monty, Sr. had worked hard his whole life, mostly as a heavy equipment operator. He wanted his son to have every opportunity in life to pursue his dream of being an artist.
Once at the Joe Kubert School, Monty had to support himself, so for two years he followed somewhat in the footsteps of his father by taking a hard job as a laborer for an oil refinery. "That job helped me decide," Monty says, "that I wanted to be an artist." Besides, working as a self-employed artist allows him to show up for work in shorts and a t-shirt, his preferred mode of dress.
After two years at the Joe Kubert School, Monty became a bit disenchanted with what the school had to offer him, although he did derive a dedication to his craft and learned to work with deadlines. A friend and fellow student at the school who lived in Portland, Ore. invited Monty to visit. Monty, on his way to Australia to check it out as a possible new home, took his friend up on the offer and went to Portland. He liked it so much he stayed and never did make it to Australia.
Once in Portland, his friend Jack Pollock, who worked at Dark Horse Comics, helped Monty get a job at the company as a staff artist in the production department, mostly doing the inkings on penciled work. He became Dark Horse's 13th employee, a company that would eventually grow to around a hundred.
Monty's nine years at Dark Horse was a very rewarding time for him, but the day in November 1997 that he attended the Tacoma Dome Sports Collectors show became an epiphany.
While at the show, Monty was behind the dealer table of his friend, Mark Macrae. Macrae knew of Monty's artistic ability, and thought Monty would like to see the work of Eric Black, a California sports artist, who was also at the Tacoma Dome show. Black had done some baseball art with magic markers and watercolors. When Monty saw Black's work, he agreed with Macrae that it was good. He was so taken with the thought of painting artwork on baseballs, he told Macrae that he would like to take a shot at it as well. So in the weeks after the show, Monty created his first baseball art, a Rube Waddell ball.
When Macrae saw the Waddell ball he was stunned. He was so impressed that he immediately forged a working relationship with Monty. Macrae now is more than Monty's friend, he's his broker, and is in charge of getting orders for Monty's art.
Monty was initially able to keep up with the orders, but word of his work spread so quickly that now, says Macrae, Monty has a backlog of orders more than a year long. And the dramatic rise in price charged (they started at $225 per ball and now charge $975) hasn't slowed the orders at all. Collectors who've seen his work aren't phased by the price in the least. They know they are getting a one-of-a-kind collectible, that is made to their specifications, and truly is a piece of art.
In a little less than two years since he completed his first ball, Monty has now finished 160 pieces of art. Typically a customer will order one or two balls, but occasionally Monty gets larger orders. One collector placed an initial order for four balls, but when he saw the completed work he ordered 50 more balls. He has since upped the order to 85 balls, and most will have a matching panel on the ball, identifying it as part of his individual collection. He's even building an extra addition to his home to house the display.
As a true baseball fan, Monty prefers to create his baseball art for collectors who have an equal passion for the sport rather than for dealers who just want to resell the balls. "It's exciting to create something like this for a true fan," he says.
Nearly all the balls Monty has painted contain both pictures and reference material, usually facts or statistics from the player's career. He meticulously researches the information he puts on the balls as accuracy is paramount to him. "Could you imagine doing a Joe DiMaggio ball and listing a 55-game hitting streak instead of 56?" So, over the last two years Monty's reference library has grown from 5 books to more than 170, in large part to Jason Nogee, a book specialty dealer from Oakland, Calif. The books not only confirm his statistical needs, but many of them have pictures Monty adapts to his artwork.
One roadblock in Monty's efforts was getting the uniform colors correct for oldtime baseball players who are pictured for the most part in black-and-white photos. So Marc Okkonen's book Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century was a godsend.
Monty's work will soon be featured on its own website, and has also been displayed at the MCI Sports Museum in Washington, D.C. He is even working on an idea to get his work displayed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. "What I envision is a display of baseball history by decades, wherein the viewer of the exhibit will walk along, pressing a button on each decade's balls, and the 20 or so balls in each decade will rotate around so the viewer can see all the balls close up and at all angles." Monty figures it will take him about three years to complete the ambitious project.
Besides doing work commissioned by others, Monty sometimes creates art balls for his own collection. One such project, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Black Sox scandal, pictured with this article, is the "Eight Men Out" collection. The eight-ball collection has one ball for each of the players banned from baseball after the gambling scandal was exposed. Each ball commemorates one game from the 1919 World Series, an eight-game series that year, won by Sheldon's beloved Reds over the White Sox. Also, each ball has the box score of that game, a brief description of the game, and the role of the featured player. A future work will be a set of balls commemorating the 1927 New York Yankees, with one ball for each member of the starting lineup.
While he currently is keeping some of the balls for himself, Monty sees them someday ending up as desirable items in the major sports auction houses. "That's where this is all headed, someday," he says. "It takes me about 20 hours to do a ball from start to finish, so it's a major investment of my time. Artists in other mediums, such as magazine covers, get at least $2,500, and sometimes much more, to do a cover, then get to keep the artwork, and later sell it at auction for as much $10,000."
Some of the balls have varied from the normal format. For example, he did a ball of Eddie Gaedel, but the ball he used, fittingly, was a much smaller ball, to honor the memory of the smallest player ever to play major league baseball. This one required much more time to complete because of the tinier nature of the work. He was also commissioned to do a ball of Fidel Castro by a fan of Cuban baseball.
While collectors and fans are amazed by Monty's work, it's just normal
routine for him. "There's nothing magical about it," says Monty. "I start
with a Wilson baseball, because the seams are wound tighter together, which
makes for a better seal. I then remove the lettering from the ball with
nail polish remover, a trick I learned from my mom. I then apply a coat
of Gesso, a base for acrylic paints, to the entire ball.
"After I paint the ball, I spray on a UVcoated clear acrylic. This protects the ball from sunlight, fingerprints, chipping, etc., and the ball can be gently wiped off with a damp cloth, if necessary." He uses Haagen-Dazs lids to put his paint in and film caps to set the balls on while he works on them.
In terms of other projects, Monty has an eye on hockey pucks, and has experimented with them somewhat, although he still has to iron out the wrinkles on what to do with the sides of the puck, He's also working on a series of collector boxes in which to house the balls, as well as a line of hand-painted cigar boxes. He wants something that is both practical and befitting the finished balls. "I tell collectors when I deliver a ball not to put them in the standard plastic ball holders, because over time, if they take the ball out of the holder, the acrylic paint may stick to the side of the plastic holder."
As for the future, Monty just plans on enjoying doing what he's doing, and is glad that those closest to him are patient and understanding. "My girlfriend Tiffany is so obliging, she's really great. And my mom is just glad that I didn't grow up to draw pictures of naked ladies, I think. And along the way I had the great support of my brother Jeff and his wife Amy.
"I'd probably still be at Dark Horse today, had it not been for Mark Macrae and that fateful day at the Tacoma Dome show. But that wouldn't be so bad because there were some terrific people there, too, like Mike, Neil, Rich and David. They helped me along throughout my career, as did Jimmy Johns with his computer expertise and Annie and Patrick at Focus Foto.
"When someone looks at the finished art ball, they mistakenly assume that it was all done by me. The reality is that what we are and what we do, or create, are the result of all the composites and the effects of those around us and those who've crossed our paths during our life. Anyone who creates knows that.
"The ideas, help and influence of my friends like Steven Birch, Joe Kamei, Sean Tejaratchi, John Seuferling, Jack Pollock, Mike McPhillips, Dan Semmens, Perry McNamee and Phil Amara all show up in my work today.
"Even the input and ideas from collectors who purchase and comment on my work, will have an impact on the future balls I create. For all of them I am truly thankful and grateful. I would not be where I am today without the sum of all their influence and support."
For more information about Monty Sheldon's work: Email his agent Mark
Macrae, or call 510-538-6245.