Local athletes, veterans advocate healing potential for art in sports

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis says art has been an inspirational factor in his athletic career.

“When I was a kid, I’d pick up fabric paint and draw cartoon characters on my jeans and shirts,” Davis said. “I don’t know where it came from; it was just something that followed me through the rest of my life.”

Art and athletics came together Friday when 1708 Gallery welcomed “The Abstract Athlete,” the first exhibition in Richmond to feature Davis and other professional athletes who have maintained an active art career.

“The Abstract Athlete” explores work centered on the collision of art, sports and science. It features pieces by former MLB pitcher Brett Tomko, and Larry Sanders, a VCU basketball star who later played in the NBA, as well as by U.S. Army veterans such as Alicia Dietz and Joe Olney. Their artwork will be on display at the gallery, 319 W. Broad St., until March 17.

Before the opening of the exhibit, the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center hosted a symposium to discuss the benefit of art in sports. It focused on the effects that creating art has on the mind and body.

The discussion featured guest speakers including Davis, Dietz, former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Percy King and David Cifu, associate dean for innovation and system integration in VCU’s School of Medicine.

“Art can follow you, and you don’t even know it’s following you. Art will always come first to me, and sports will follow,” Davis said. “Not saying I don’t love sports; I enjoy the creative opportunities it gives me. But art is the best combination in my life.”

Within the first three minutes of the gallery’s opening, Davis’s pieces — “The Sea #1” and “The Sea #2”sold, with proceeds benefiting the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts. The works feature bright-colored triangles laid over a monotone rectangular base, creating an eye-popping effect designed to have viewers diving into the deep blues and copper hues of the sea.

King’s two works use hand-carved wood segments in a variety of shapes and colors. King stacks the pieces upon one another, creating a 3-D effect that interprets shadows and lines through the shapes of wood. His first piece on display, “The Boxer,” features a pair of blue boxing gloves. His second piece, “Heavy is the crown,” is a portrait of Barack Obama.

King said art is integral to his performance on the football field.

“It helps with healing, athletic performance, rest — it’s really adding an efficiency element,” King said. “I do things in a more complex and rich way. Art adds that layer of complexity to our hardworking bodies and brains.”

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Cifu echoed King’s message, saying art is therapeutic for people who have experienced mental or physical trauma.

“I’m an artist at a very small level,” Cifu said. “But maybe I’m a healing artist.”

Olney, who served in Iraq as a sergeant and combat engineer, also had one of his pieces sold within 30 minutes.

U.S. bobsledder Hillary Werth takes inspiration from the streets of New York through her painting “Escape.” The landscape features dark purple, red and yellow spray-painted graffiti art and textured backgrounds.

Tomko sticks to his roots in his two pieces, re-creating iconic moments in the history of MLB. His first, “The Great Bambino, features New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. His second, “Color Line,” depicts Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues, running the bases.

Other artists participating in the exhibit include professional soccer player Jay DeMerit and painter Ridley Howard.

“The Abstract Athlete” is the name not only of the exhibit but also of an organization that brings together artists and professional athletes.

Business partners Ron Johnson and Chris Clemnar founded the group and spent two years planning the exhibit. Clemnar is a toy designer, and Johnson has been an art professor at VCU since 2003.

Johnson hopes to display the exhibit internationally.

For more information about the artists, see www.theabstractathlete.com. The 1708 Gallery, a nonprofit space for new art, is located at 319 W. Broad St. Its website is at www.1708gallery.org, and the phone number is 804-643-1708.


Zach Joachim, Jessica Wetzler

Sports Editor, Staff Writer

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