Staff photo by Steve McCrank
Torrance artist Peter Chen displays his Jumbotron Art portrait of Steve Garvey, along with images he has done on Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax.
At some point, a light went off in Peter Chen’s head.
Those cartoonish, super-hero portraits of Major League Baseball players from the 1970s and ’80s that once flashed up on the stadium scoreboards really were pieces of somewhat forgotten pop art.
From his Torrance home studio, the 40-year-old graphic design artist started experimenting. It wasn’t long before he recreated the dot-matrix patterns of the Dodgers infield from his childhood – Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey.
It was like Andy Warhol meets LeRoy Neiman on a Lite-Brite canvas.
Chen’s self-described Jumbotron Art series has subsequently flipped a switch for those who reconnect to that time in their mind’s eye. In some ways, it’s almost as if you could take one of these 12×12 inch portraits, turn it upside down, shake it like an Etch-A-Sketch, and have the opening of an ABC “Monday Night Baseball” game with Bob Uecker and Don Drysdale fall out of it.
What Sports Illustrated has called “Lo-Fi High Art,” Chen has made more than 100 one-of-a-kind prints available as part of his other pieces of baseball work at IconicBallplayers.com, expanding to include many of the current stars of the game as well as those from the past.
As one who grew up a Dodgers fan in Rancho Palos Verdes, Chen explains how he came up with this new-media idea to evoke an old-school image:
Q: In a lot of ways, those light-bulb scoreboards in the old sanitized stadiums were pretty cheesy compared to what people see today on the high-definition TV screens that act as scoreboards today. Is there a particular demographic of people who have reacted best to these portraits and can’t help but smile when they see them for the first time?
A: When I created them, I didn’t expect I’d get so many responses from those who said that once they saw it, it really resonated in the strong way. One of the nicest things that has resulted in this turning popular is how I’m able to speak with people as they’ve connected with me from all parts of the country, telling me about their own hometown heroes. I’ve really appreciated that.
Q: Since Dodger Stadium really didn’t use those kind of light images much on their scoreboards, what stuck into your head to draw upon for these creations?
A: I know they were in Pittsburgh and Houston and Philadelphia and Cincinnati. I really remember when Pete Rose got his 4,192nd hit to break Ty Cobb’s record (in 1985), there was that image of him on the scoreboard in lights. That’s a vivid memory.
My greatest influence was playing a video game in the mid-’90s called “Old Time Baseball,” where if a player hit a home run, they had a simulated Jumbotron scoreboard. That really stuck with me.
I’ve always liked to try different kind of art styles and use baseball as a theme. When if first experimented with this, I did one of Ron Cey and sent it to a friend. He really liked it. So I did the rest of the Dodgers infield and we were hooting and hollering and having a good time. That just led to trying to do all the greats from that era.
Q: So do you think those visual images of players connected you to the game for the first time?
A: I have a lot of friends who were into comics, like DC and Marvel. I never really got into them the same way as I did with baseball. As I think about those comics now, they were really flat cartoon characters. The baseball players were real, and they wore uniforms then that you can’t compare to anything — the Astros, with the numbers on their pants, or the Cleveland Indians with their red outfits. My favorite uniforms were more in line with the Royals, or Phillies or Pirates. And the Dodgers had that Captain America-like quality with the red, white and blue home uniforms.
The players then seemed to be like super heroes, wearing the tight uniforms so their muscles showed. But I did think of them as athletes. As an impressionable 10-year old, they just looked so strong, so quick and so fast.
Q: Did the guys with the large mustaches or the big Afro hairstyles make an impression as well in how you wanted to portray them?
A: The big hair and mustaches really did seem to define the era visually, although I can’t say that they stood out at the time because of how prevalent they were. Nowadays it’s a big deal when someone grows a beard, Afro or mustache. Not back then. Well, maybe Oscar Gamble’s Afro, but Reggie Smith’s Afro was typical.
In doing the portraits, I found there was also a lot of subtle changes in someone like a Wade Boggs to a Don Mattingly to a Thurman Munson. And Rollie Fingers sets himself apart. I had to do a couple versions of George Brett, because people remember him at different points in his career, sometimes with his wavy locks when he was younger.
Q: What else drew you to baseball as a kid growing up?
A: I was about 10 years old in 1981 when the Dodgers won the World Series, but I didn’t go to any games. My parents were from Taiwan – my dad is originally from China – and they really didn’t understand organized sports. Somehow, I picked it up on my own with my friends. I remember going to just one Dodger game – but it was a treat, sitting way up in the upper deck next to the left-field foul pole, where you could hardly see anything. I only played one year of Little League in Rolling Hills – I wanted to be on the Dodgers, but I was on the A’s – and we won the championship. But my mom didn’t want me to play anymore because she didn’t think we’d have much of a chance of repeating our title. I was probably the worst player on the team since my coach always put me in right field, but I loved it, never got bored. I stood there all season and enjoyed it.
Even now, when I’m out with my 6-year-old, who just finished his second year of Little League, I’ll catch a whiff of the wet grass and brings me back to when I got to play.
Q: What is the special technique you’ve figured out that really makes these pieces different from anything else?
A: There are really two parts. One is the printed aspect. That starts digitally. Without getting into real specifics, I was using Photoshop to focus on isolating the dots as pixel art. Once I finalized where all the dots would be, I isolated the dots in Illustrator. And because I was working with so few dots, every one of them that I place made a huge difference. The process really used to exhaust me mentally. You can do a painting on a canvas 3 feet by 3 feet and it’ll take 30 to 50 hours. These don’t take as long, but they really require a lot of mental energy. Believe me, I’ve had a lot of hair-pulling sessions over these pictures.
After the printed part, there’s the gold-foil adhesion method that sticks to the black paper to create the lights affect. Really, it’s been a series of trial and error. I’ve tried silk screening, drawing with a gold pen – all of them were difficult. You could do it with yellow dots, but really, the gold foil really brings the analogy of the light bulb.
Q: Has this become a labor of love?
A: It really has, although I wouldn’t mind making a living off it. This helps a bit financially add to my real job as a graphics designer. I did more of these kinds of projects because I wanted more full control of my own artistic expression. I made myself a promise to do this and see what kind of talents God gave me. I’ve done a lot of other kinds of baseball portraits, and Jackie Robinson is a favorite. But we’ve seen so many photos of him. As an artist, you strive to present someone people may already know but offer them in a different light.
Q: Since they are one-of-a-kind, you’ve kept your Dodgers field together and don’t appear to want to sell it.
A: I’m keeping them for myself. I don’t want to part with them. I think they all should stay together anyway.