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USC art exhibition raises a question: Has any strong visual artist also been an accomplished athlete?

January 31, 2011 |  9:00 am

Has a reasonably accomplished athlete –- someone who had at least a pretty good run as a team member or solo competitor in intercollegiate or professional sports –- ever gone on to be a reasonably acclaimed visual artist?

The question arises from USC’s announcement that its sixth annual “Artletics” exhibition will open Thursday at the Galen Center, home to the university’s men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball varsities.

TMitchMustainSkalijhe show consists of pieces made in studio art courses -- mainly ceramics, but also photography, drawings and paintings, such as "Ansel and Me" (above) by Greg Woodburn, a distance runner on the track  team. The highest-profile competitor/creators are Mitch Mustain (pictured left), the backup quarterback who started against Notre Dame during the past season, and Garrett Jackson, who sees a fair amount of action as a freshman on the basketball varsity.

TMattSagehornMyungJChunhe news release about the exhibition also notes that six of the 20 artists in the show have played on water polo teams that won men’s or women’s national championships (including photographer Matt Sagehorn, pictured, and ceramic sculptor Andrew Hayes, whose "Pollock, a Tea Pot," is pictured below), and another was on the women’s volleyball team that ascended to the Final Four in last year’s NCAA championships. 

The annual show of athlete-artists' work honor alumnus Louis Galen, who died in 2007 and was a major supporter of both athletics and the arts at USC, where, along with the basketball arena, the ceramics studio and a media lab at the Roski School of Fine Arts bear the Galen name (the lab is named for his wife, Helene).

But back to our question. What, if any, congruence has there been between accomplishment in  the visual arts and sports? Or, for that matter, sports and any of the arts, broadening out to music, dance, theater, architecture and film/video?

Please add your ideas to the comments below. Remember, the artist’s athletic accomplishments had to be in college or the pros, not just high school. As anyone who’s seen Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” could tell you, schoolboy stars who had no follow-through -- the Biff Lomans of the world -- are a dime a dozen.

WaymTisdaleBillBaptistNBAEGettyImages And we don’t want to hear about the likes of Jack McDowell, who was a tremendous major league pitcher, but strictly semi-pro as a 1990s alternative-rocker, or Rod Stewart, who can kick all the soccer balls he pleases into his concert audiences, without qualifying as an athlete for our current purpose, which requires college-varsity or professional credentials. And yes, we know that O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all have had credits playing fictional characters in films.  But no, we don’t consider them artists for having done it.The same goes for the large posse of sports stars who are would-be rappers, Shaq among them.

What we’re looking for are bona fide artists whose achievements as jocks or jock-ettes are comparable at least to that of film star Tommy Lee Jones, who as an offensive lineman for Harvard in 1968 threw blocks in one of the most legendary college football games ever played. The man himself reminisces about it in the 2008 documentary film about that tie game between undefeated teams, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.” 

WaymanTisdaleLawrenceKHo Others who come to mind are Paul Robeson, who before triumphing as an actor and singer had excelled as a four-sport athlete at Rutgers, including All-American honors in football; Paul Newman, a pretty fair professional race car driver in his spare time; and the late Wayman Tisdale (pictured in both realms), who starred on the basketball court (three-time All-American at Oklahoma, 1984  Olympic gold medalist on a team with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, solid 12-year NBA career) and the concert stage, where he was an accomplished electric bassist, bandleader and recording artist whose albums and songs topped the Billboard jazz chart.

Culture Monster hopes visual art can be saved from a shutout. Let us know.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: "Ansel and Me" (top), painting by Greg Woodburn of USC's varsity track and field team; Mitch Mustain poised to throw for USC against Notre Dame; water polo star Matt Sagehorn in the pool during high school days at Long Beach Wilson; "Pollock, a Tea Pot," painted ceramic by Andrew Hayes of USC's 2010 NCAA championship varsity water polo team; Wayman Tisdale as a Sacramento King and as a jazzman. Credits: Greg Woodburn/USC ("Ansel and Me"); Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times (Mustain); Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times (Sagehorn); Andrew Hayes/USC "Pollock, a Tea Pot"; Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images (Tisdale basketball); Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times (Tisdale musician).

Comments () | Archives (11)

John Borican was a major track star in the late 30s and early 40s, later a prolific portrait artist and illustrator.

Olympian Shannon Bennett has gotten press for her outsider art style paintings on sports figures.

Michael Warren was an All-American on the UCLA juggernaut under John Wooden and later played Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues.

Alex Karras was star defensive tackle with the Detroit Lions and later played Mongo in Blazing Saddles. . . before starring in Webster.

Do Fred Dyer, Jim Brown, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Carl Weathers, or Arnold Schwarzenegger count yet? At least Bruce Lee would.

Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) was a pro skateboarder.

Mike Reid was a NFL Pro Bowl selection with the Bengals. He won a Grammy for country music song "Stranger in My House" in 1983.

Olympic team gold medalist swimmer Suzannah Bianco, and NCAA Diving champion Rio Ramirez are among the many former athletes on Cirque du Soleil rosters.

Certainly Ernie Barnes should be part of this discussion. He played in the NFL and his art was often featured on The Cosby show and in galleries.


Leaving off John Wayne (USC football Scholarship) and Olympian Johnny Weissmuller would be a mistake.

So would leaving off American Realist painter George Bellows. He excelled at baseball (and basketball) at Ohio State and was scouted while playing semi-pro ball.

Sculptor Joe Brown (1909-1985) was a college athlete and professional boxer, and he taught both boxing and sculpture at Princeton for decades. His bio can be read at http://mtfoe.org/about/index.asp.

Frazetta was scouted by pros for his baseball prowess and was a great golfer. His physical prowess translated into his paintings of Conan and his muscle-bound ilk as he posed for himself to get reference and the "Emotion" of the pose and painting. The example of the art used to illustrate this article shows that the artist must have loads of time to do sports as there not spending much time learning to draw or paint.

I cant think of any to tell the truth. I played some juco ball, but as with my son who was in the top 200 nationally it took all his time, and in college they wont let you take lots of subjects as you have to win for them. Even Landry Fields, who my son grew up with and now on the Knicks, had a communications degree at Stanford as that is what they push you towards, when Player/athlete of the PAC 10 last year. Takes far too much time for art, not that artistes these days put much time or effort into drawing and fundamentals themselves. Cameron his cousin, MVP in Big West, is getting his history degree, but all that gym and travel time takes away from anything but book learning. My boy wanted to do film and so had to quit ballin. Wont let you do both.

Athletes do have far more discipline, realism and work ethic than artistes. Would be nice for it to rub off. Most great artists do love sports, just takes so much practice to acquire the skills necessary it is pretty much impossible in two fields. Music too, greats like jaco pastorius, Jocko originally for his love of ball, had to make a choice and he broke his wrist so had to be the greatest electric bassist ever instead of drummer or athlete. Lots of rugby, bicycling, boxing and bullfights in early Modernism.

Chuck Connors was a two-sport athlete who played basketball for the Boston Celtics and baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers & the Chicago Cubs before becoming known to millions of fans as "The Rifleman".

Actors aren't artists. They are interpretive performers. Most of whom are simply performing entertainment anyway, not art. Art is the highest common denominator, not the lowest.

As athletes are on stage in a way, its not that big a jump, Those on Sports Center are often as entertaining as actors, better actually as they actually have somethingto say.

Writers can be artists, certainly not always. And directors can be if they aren't literal about the scripts.

Most who excell at a field just doodle in visual art, the brains are formed in different way by training. Even Miles Davis paintings were embarrassing, as much as all these actors attempting to be artists. Fine for personal therapy and enjoyment, but please all you Dennis Hoppers, keep in in the closet. Er, your art that is.

art collegia delenda est

Bernie Casey who was drafted in the first round by the SF 49ers earned a M.F.A. from Bowling Green University and went on to be Chairman of the Board at Savannah College of Art and Design for 20 years. He was an accomplished painter and published poet. Although some in this discussion may not consider actors as artists, I will mention that he appeared in many films and on television. I also believe that he was an a great track star in college(hurdles?).

Utah Jazz rookie forward Jeremy Evans is a fantastic artist. Here's a portrait he did of coach Jerry Sloan:

Former NBA forward Thurl Bailey is a professional singer and is especially notable for his albums covering Christmas classics.

Desmond Mason who played 9 years in the NBA is a fairly accomplished artist. His art has been shown all over the country, and he has a studio in Oklahoma City.


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