Graydon Gordian is the author of 48 Minutes of Hell and a contributing writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. His HustleJunkie column runs every week here at HP. This week, an interview with an artist with flair for the NBA.
I first came across the artwork of Joel Kimmel during this most recent NBA season when Lang Whitaker started linking to his work at SLAM Online. I liked it so much I even bought some prints. I eventually asked if I could interview him for Hardwood Paroxysm, a request he kindly granted. You can check out his work here, and purchase limited edition prints of his work here. Also keep your eyes peeled for a book of his artwork that will be published in the coming months. Your humble author may even make a surprise appearance. Enjoy the interview. I know I did.
Graydon Gordian: You are from Ottawa originally. Not exactly hoops country. How did you first get into basketball?
Joel Kimmel: My dad was a basketball player and coach, having played and coached at the collegiate level in Western Canada.
I first started playing basketball at school with friends when I was 10 years old and started playing in a house league in Ottawa that same year.
Ottawa definitely isn't hoops country, but there's a great basketball fan base and a good crop of talented players.
GG: Are you a sports fan in general, or are you just a basketball guy?
JK: I'm just a basketball guy, actually. I enjoy playing some other sports on occasion and I've tried watching other sports but I just can't get into anything but basketball. Thankfully my hockey-loving Canadian friends seem okay with that!
GG: You've addressed several subjects in your artwork, but basketball seems to be the most prevalent topic. What do you find so fruitful about the subject?
JK: It's something that I really enjoy painting. Basketball is something that I love and something that I know. There are so many different aspects of the game and the players that can be portrayed with an illustration. I enjoy showing the players in a way we don't normally see them, as people rather than just players, and in different environments.
GG: Many of your non-basketball related pieces are about nature (sketches of birds, for example). These undeniably cross over into your basketball portraits (Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith). What do you find useful or expressive about fusing these two subject matters?
JK: I really enjoy painting birds and animals, and I find that there are interesting ways to incorporate them with paintings of basketball players to help tell their stories. I also like to place the players in nature because it's a place where you rarely see them, especially if they're interacting with the animals.
GG: Do you have any artists whom you look to for inspiration? And if so, are there any concrete ways in which they have affected your work?
JK: There are a few artists whose books I turn to most regularly. I have a couple books compiling the works of N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth. N.C. was mostly a book illustrator, painting cowboys and pirates in dramatic, colorful scenes during the early 1900s.
His paintings inspire me to create dramatic scenes with great storytelling, voluminous clouds and beautiful colors.
His son, Andrew, expertly painted barns and landscapes, as well as amazing portraits with mysterious effects.
My Norman Rockwell books are always inspiring to find thoughtful settings and another favorite of mine is Rien Poortvliet, the illustrator of the popular Gnomes books. His animal and landscape illustrations are definitely inspirational.
An illustrator I recently came across is Frank Mullins, who illustrated a number of Sports Illustrated covers in the 60s. His work really encouraged me to try different approaches in my basketball portraits.
GG: Many of your portraits explicitly utilize the tropes of historical artistic styles (I'm thinking of the Caron Butler and Baron Davis pieces, but there are other examples). What first led you to so distinctly draw upon different artistic traditions, and what benefits have you found from using that approach?
JK: I think I first worked that approach into some of my paintings a couple years ago after I bought a book about the history of poster design. I eventually found that I could maintain my style of painting but use it in a different format to help tell the story of the player. This is visible in the pieces you mentioned, as well as my Yao Ming Chinese propaganda style painting, the Josh Smith Audubon style illustration and also the Dwyane Wade comic book cover, among others. This approach is helpful to me in creating an illustration because it's almost like I already have a template to work around.
GG: What considerations do you make when conceptualizing how you will portray a player?
JK: Sometimes I know right away how I'm going to portray someone, but it usually requires a bit of research. I like to read about the player as much as I can. Wikipedia entries only have so much information, and they really don't tell you who the player really is.
Sometimes I work around a nickname, a team's mascot or how the player is seen by the fans and media. A couple times I've even worked an illustration around the player's tattoos.
GG: What future projects do you have in mind? You've mentioned how you'd like to follow a team for a season and track its evolution. Any particular team you'd like to chronicle?
JK: I would love to follow a team for a season, preferably the Knicks or the Nets so the home games bring me closer to my actual home. The illustrator Frank Mullins once followed teams for Sports Illustrated and provided illustrations for them. I imagine being a basketball correspondent and reporting my observations with sketches, drawings and notes, eventually developing the sketches into paintings.
I'm currently working on a book that compiles about 30 of my basketball paintings. I'm going to continue painting portraits of players when I can, and if I get a chance I'd like to work on a few basketball action poses that really stress the physicality convincingly.
I mentioned N.C. Wyeth earlier and he once wrote, about painting a body in action:
"When I paint a figure on horseback, a man plowing or a woman buffeted by the wind, I have an acute sense of the muscle strain, the feel of the hickory handle, or the protective bend of head and squint of eye that each pose involved."
I'm hoping that my basketball playing can help me get across the body in action within a painting.
I have a few other basketball projects in mind, and even some non-basketball related paintings, too.
GG: If I asked you to do a portrait of Manu Ginobili for me, would you?
JK: I'll paint Manu Ginobili, or any of the Spurs as long as it's not Bruce Bowen! I do personal commissions on occasion. Anyone interested in an original commission can email me with their inquiry and I'd be happy to discuss everything with them.
GG: Which of your pieces is your favorite/ are you most proud of? Why?
JK: A few of my favorite pieces are probably Josh Smith, Caron Butler and Stephon Marbury. I like the Josh Smith piece because it turned out just as I had hoped for it to and I had a great time painting it. That painting moved me in a slightly new direction with my art, mostly with the technique I used.
I like the Butler and Marbury pieces as well because of the stories behind them.
GG: Have you ever talked to Rudy Gay about throwing down the Dirty Jersey? How'd you come up with that?
JK: I've never talked to him myself about it, but the writer Michael Tillery asked him about it before All-Star weekend. Rudy didn't seem to think it was possible! I think it is, but it would be extremely difficult.
I thought up the dunk last year after the dunk contest. I could never quite dunk myself, but I always like to think of new dunks for capable players to perform.
GG: Practically none of your portraits show the players playing basketball. They are almost exclusively in other settings, although oftentimes still in their uniforms. Why have you chosen not to draw/paint the games themselves or the players in action?
JK: Most of my basketball paintings in my most recent series concentrate on the portrait, some of them straight on, staring right at the viewer.
In this series of portraits I wanted to be able to show the player's face as the most important part of the painting, and I found that action poses often reduced the face size I had to work with. It also usually restricted me to having to paint an angry or aggressive expression.
Basketball players are most frequently portrayed in photographs in action poses, so I set out to illustrate them in a way that a photograph couldn't quite capture.
GG: As an artist, what do you think the aesthetic merits of basketball are, i.e. do you believe basketball is in and of itself a mode of self-expression?
JK: I think it can be a mode of self-expression, although that is evident in some players more than others.
Basketball is aesthetically pleasing to watch, more so than other sports I find. I think the reason for this is the ability for players to perform individually and together.
Basketball is also, more than any other sports, a 3-dimensional sport. You're not just running back and forth, you're moving amongst each other, diving, shuffling and then jumping. An offensive player will soar to the hoop to be met mid-flight by a defender; it breaks the plane and brings the game to another level.
The comparison of basketball to an art form always reminds me of an NBA video imposing images of ballerinas and dancers between video clips. A simple Charles Barkley eyebrow fake raised three defenders in the air at once. Replayed in slow motion the play was compared to three ballerinas jumping in the air.
GG: Basketball is necessarily more teleological than art: The purpose of playing is to win, while art does not require such directedness. How do you conceive of the difference between the "creative" capacity of basketball, and the creative capacity of painting/drawing, given that one is more goal-oriented than the other?
JK: That's a great question. I think that the major difference in the creative capacity between basketball and painting is that with basketball you see the whole process through 4 quarters of effort. You see the offense and defense, the patience required, the play-calling and emotions and you see the game develop. With basketball the goal is to win, but the creativity comes during the game. With a painting the only thing you ever see is the final result. The sketches, drawing and layers of paint aren't visible in the final piece. There's no box score or highlight reel for a painting.
GG: Do you have a conception of a broader artistic project you are undertaking, or are you just exploring subjects as they arise?
JK: I've been so busy with the basketball player portraits that it's been a while since I thought of anything else!
With the completion of my NBA portrait book approaching, I have started to think about some other projects that are not basketball related.
I see interesting people and things every day walking around Brooklyn that I would love to portray in my work. I used to have a problem thinking of things to paint, but I seem to have a good list of things to keep me busy for the next little while. I think the important thing is to just paint what I'm interested in and I'll always have a painting to work on.
GG: Who are your favorite players/teams, and why?
JK: I've been a Bulls fan since the mid-90s but I've been a Phoenix fan for about just as long, just not as loyal. I also always hope for the best for the Raptors.
I'm a big fan of Steve Nash's game. I can't think of many other players who make me laugh when they make a great play. He just surprises me a lot with his game and that's exciting.
I love Garnett's energy, Gilbert's flair for the dramatic and LeBron's dominance. There are a lot more players I look forward to seeing more of, such as Chris Paul, Monta Ellis, Brandon Roy and Chris Bosh to name a few.
I'm also a big fan of the guys who are drafted late, sit on the bench for a couple of years and then prove themselves.
GG: Where do you get your sports news? Do you read blogs or are you more likely to check major media outlets like ESPN?
JK: I've been moving more towards blogs lately, but I still check in with ESPN and Sports Illustrated and other major sports websites. I have a long list of basketball blogs that I subscribe to. I prefer to get my news from them, but when the season starts I'm on nba.com everyday to check the highlights and study the box scores. I love basketball statistics.
GG: Do you have any favorite sportswriters/bloggers? Have they influenced your artwork in anyway?
JK: I've been a reader of Lang Whitaker's Links on SLAMonline.com since he started writing it years ago. He gave me the opportunity to showcase my basketball portraits every Friday for 30 weeks on the Links this season.
My illustration of Caron Butler was greatly influenced by a Washington Post story about Butler called The Great Escape written by Michael Lee.
I can also remember a great story I read in Sports Illustrated in 1995 about Michael Jordan's double-nickel game in NY. It was written by Alexander Wolff and had some really beautiful watercolors by the illustrator Stanley. I would love to help tell the story of a great game with my paintings.