by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
Artist Pete Sack, 37, has always been drawn to photographs of the human face. Strangers in yearbooks speak to him; archival snapshots of orphans, schoolchildren, and athletes hold unusual sway. One particular brunette from a 1967 yearbook recurs repeatedly in his work, but he can’t tell you why. “She had a nice smile,” he says, as if considering it for the first time. Painting is “my way of communicating to people,” he says.
Lately, Sack has been painting baseball players. It’s a return to his roots: He taught himself to paint – with help from his father, also an artist – when he was in middle school by copying photographs of baseball players. Today, he’s using baseball cards as inspiration, old ones: Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Kofax, Babe Ruth. They’re straightforward portraits, but rendered with creative use of color and shadow and a clear love of the subject.
Baseball Card Paintings, an exhibition of these works, recently went up at the new Wake County Justice Center, and more hang in his studio at Artspace on East Davie Street. Sack is proud of them and happy they’ve found a receptive audience – he’s painted several on commission and plans to do more – but says it’s his less obvious works that mean the most. Inspired by snippets of song lyrics, overheard conversation, passing glimpses, and again, photographs, they have in common a sense of yearning, of hope, and of grappling with something incomplete.
“I do need to do this for some reason,” he says, of the compulsion to paint. He does other things, too: He has a day job at Oxford University Press and plays shortstop for the company “beer league” team but says he’s one of the few fellow art students from his class at East Carolina University still making art. “You have to want to do it.”
These more intimate works, by and large, are small. Dozens of them, several no bigger than a postcard, paper one wall in his Artspace studio. They are similar in subject – most are faces; a few are cityscapes – and similar in hue. Many warm, reddish hues, ranging from crimson to orange, and a contrasting, cooler blue. Their moody feeling is emphasized by their titles, written in Sack’s architect-precise, all-caps handwriting: It’s Easier to Say Goodnight than Goodbye is one. A painting of a pair of women’s legs is called I Used to Have an All Access Pass; a tilted, blue-toned woman’s head has the title I Just Want to Fly (Is That Too Much to Ask?).
“Sometimes I hear a lyric, and I think, how would it look if I painted it?” he says.
They’re all affixed to the magnetic paint-covered wall with small square magnets. Whether they are meant to be considered as one work of art or as individual works is not clear. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he says.
His technique with these is the same as when he paints a Mickey Mantle rookie-year baseball card: He does a pencil drawing first, paints watercolor on top of that (which he dries quickly with a hairdryer), then seals that watercolor with a clear plastic coating. Then come the oils, which he layers on and sometimes rubs partially off. He can play with the oils, because they can’t disturb the sealed watercolor underneath.
With both his baseball paintings and his other works, Sack likes to find inspiration in photographs. He says that he’s found that working from a photograph is paradoxically freeing: It comes not only with an established subject, but a structure as well. The rest is up to him. “It’s weird that having constraints is very liberating,” he says.
Not any photograph will work. Today’s baseball cards, for instance, don’t do it for him. There’s something missing, but he can’t tell you what that might be. “The newer cards just don’t have any feeling to them.” And even though Sack no longer has his own childhood baseball-card collection, he can access anything he wants: “I’ll Google 1967 Topps, and they’ll all be there,” he says. He also uses books like The Ultimate Baseball Book by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, which spans the history of the sport starting in the late 1870s. The book showcases several of the old Negro League players, like the one he’s painting on this day: Josh Gibson, often described as “the Babe Ruth of the Negro Leagues.” (Others have called Babe Ruth “the white Josh Gibson.”)
It’s a painting Sack started during a recent First Friday open studio event. “I didn’t know what to do with my hands,” he says, “so I said, I’ll start painting.”
Pete Sack’s paintings will be on display on the second floor of the Justice Center until Sept. 24. His work can also be seen at the Mahler Fine Art Gallery at Artspace, and on his website, www.petesack.com.