YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Every Major League Baseball stadium has a charm of its own and artist Max Mason aims to capture the essence of all 30.
The Philadelphia-based artist mounted an effort a decade ago to paint a scene from the stands of every Major League park. Mason hasn’t yet finished the project but some of his pieces will be on view in his “Painting the Game” exhibition, which opened June 13 at the Butler Institute of American Art and runs through Sept. 5.
Mason’s exhibition includes five paintings that depict scenes from the stands at Major League stadiums, including PNC Park in Pittsburgh and Progressive Field in Cleveland.
They are part of the 15 paintings of baseball stadiums he has completed so far. All focus on the action in the stands and not the action on the field.
“The paintings are about the experiences of going to the park,” Mason says. “A lot of it is my own personal experience of visiting the parks.”
Each painting is a fan-centric scene. Mason has sold at least seven of them so far.
The large-sized paintings are up to five feet wide and take special note of the breadth and architecture of each stadium, as well as its light and shadows, view of the city, and the movement in the stands.
The PNC Park piece “is about the light and the city scene and the action in the seats,” Mason says. A passing vendor is seen hawking programs. A fan rises and exhorts the team on. Another, who bears a resemblance to Pirates hero Roberto Clemente and is wearing a vintage Pirates jersey, turns and looks toward the viewer.
Originally, the painting did depict Clemente – until Mason repainted it, making subtle changes in the face so that it is just a fan.
“It became a bit of a distraction. So I repainted it to look [a little less like Clemente],” Mason says. “I didn’t want it to be a weird apparition of him that is sitting in the stands. It’s a salute and show of respect to Clemente’s contributions to the game. But when it was realistic, that’s all people could see.”
The painting of Progressive Field shows the view from the upper deck in right field. The sun is setting over Lake Erie, casting long shadows from the scoreboard onto the outfield.
Mason hopes to have prints of the paintings of both stadiums available for sale in The Butler gift shop.
In planning each painting, Mason went to a game and made sketches of both the entire scene and details. He also took a lot of photos. “I used them like notes,” he says, explaining that none of his stadium paintings were made by copying the photographs.
The artist, who grew up in the Boston area, remains a Red Sox fan. He moved to Philadelphia in 1991 and also adopted the Phillies.
After teams played in empty stadiums last season, Mason is glad fans are back in the stands this year.
“I love baseball and the atmosphere of it,” he says. “One of the terrible things about COVID was that it caused the absence of all that. … Baseball builds community more than any other thing I can think of. People of all shapes, sizes and colors are rooting for the guys wearing the laundry they like. To be without it for a whole year, people started living in their own silos too much.”
In addition to the ballpark scenes, Mason’s exhibit at The Butler includes other pieces related to the game.
His spring training series of four scenes occupies one wall of the Giffuni Gallery on the second floor. The paintings, made in the 1980s, are among Mason’s earliest baseball works. The Butler owns the four paintings and one already is on display in the Donnell Gallery.
Four paintings Mason made this year are included in the show. They depict players in the four aspects of the game: batting, running, pitching and fielding. “The poses are all very dramatic. So they fit together,” Mason says.
The fourth wall features four smaller and more personal paintings. “One is a portrait of my [baseball] glove that I made in 1976,” he said. “There is also a small painting of a center fielder standing in a pool of light, a self-portrait of Mason selling score cards, and a view of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati taken among a flock of birds flying overhead.
The center fielder painting demonstrates an aspect of the sport that makes it unique, according to Mason.
“When the spotlight is on you, you’re on,” he says. “When you are at bat, or when the ball is hit to you. It’s a metaphor for life. We are on these islands and we define ourselves based on our life choices and experiences. Ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves.”
The exhibition is Mason’s second at The Butler. His first came in 1991 and was his first museum show.
The artist vividly recalls how it came to be.
“I was having an exhibition of baseball paintings in 1988 at a gallery in Philadelphia,” he says. “[Butler director and curator] Lou Zona was there and he left a note with the gallery owner that asked me to call him. I had heard of The Butler and I called him right away.”
Zona himself is a lifelong baseball fan devoted to the Pirates. He speaks highly of Mason’s artistry, calling him “a masterful draughtsman who can lay down paint in the manner of the Old Masters. In a museum filled with exquisite paintings, the works of Max Mason more than hold their own.”
Mason is appreciative of Zona for recognizing the value of all American art.
“He values it,” Mason says. “The rest of the art world – I’m saying that with a capital “A” – feels that anything sport-related is not serious enough [to be considered] high culture.”
The Butler, 524 Wick Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is free.
Pictured: Max Mason stands next to his “Spring Training Batter” in The Butler’s Donnell Sports Gallery in 2017.