Max Mason considers himself a landscape painter — it’s just that many of those landscapes feature immaculately cut grass and bases arranged in a diamond shape 90 feet apart.
The Philadelphia-area artist will display some of his baseball-themed work in the exhibition “Making the Game,” which opens Sunday at the Butler Institute of American Art.
Most baseball-inspired art focuses on the famous athletes and the in-game action, which probably helps turn sports fans into art buyers. When Mason started painting baseball scenes, the players mostly were unidentifiable and the focus was on the moments before the big hit or the over-the-wall catch.
One of the first people to embrace his approach was Butler Executive Director (and baseball fan) Louis A. Zona, who gave Mason a one-man show in 1990.
“Having a major museum encourage your work is a wonderful stimulant,” he said in a telephone interview from his home.
His latest paintings, part of a series called “The Ballpark Project,” step further away from the action. Instead of presenting an on-the-field perspective, Mason provides a fans-eye view of the ballpark experience, oftentimes a view from the cheap seats.
In one case, it’s a bird’s eye view. His painting of Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark looks down on the stadium from the middle of a flock of birds circling overhead.
“That’s a real departure from the look of the other ones,” Mason said. “You’re actually in a flock of pigeons, and there’s something menacing about the grey birds.”
The ballpark paintings give him a chance to explore the same concepts that first drew him to landscapes — color and composition, shadows and light and how both plays off of the surfaces. And he believes those scenes have a different resonance after a year of games played before no fans or at a limited capacity.
“All types, sizes, shapes, colors, creeds bunched in there, you do forge these kinds of tensions, small tensions and large tensions, that affect your life outside of the stadium. You’re all rooting for the same color laundry, as they say. It’s a great thing for community and humanity.”
For the stadium paintings, Mason usually tries to get to the ballpark early in the day, walk around the exterior and do sketches, taking in the urban setting around it.
“When the gates open, I try to get inside the ballpark as soon as possible, so I can walk around as much as I can, all the way up to the far corners, the upper corners,” he said.
Because of its downtown setting, the majestic bridges and the view of the skyline from the stands, one of his favorite ballparks is Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
Mason, 68, mostly is a traditionalist when it comes to baseball — he hates the designated hitter rule, but he likes the recent rule change where teams start with a runner on second base for extra innings — but he doesn’t romanticize the few remaining historic ballparks.
The St. Louis Cardinals were his first favorite team, thanks to his grandfather, but he grew up in Boston. While Fenway Park has its charms, it was a “pain in the neck” to get in and out of there. When he moved to Philadelphia in 1981, he appreciated the comfort and convenience of the old Veterans Stadium, even if it was one of the multi-purpose cereal-bowl-shaped stadiums that have been replaced over the last few decades.
He’s a big fan of contemporary ballparks like Target Field in Minneapolis and Petco Park in San Diego.
“I love the new ballparks, and as a visitor it’s wonderful to be in those downtown stadiums and stay in a downtown hotel,” he said.
Mason doesn’t do baseball work exclusively. A recent exhibition called “Sky Light” focused on cloud patterns, essentially aerial landscapes. But it’s a subject he keeps returning to, and he said he needs to schedule his next trip to continue the “The Ballpark Project.”
“I didn’t get into it with any kind of sense of it being commercially viable,” he said. “I did it for the pure love of it. People did respond more to my baseball work than my other work, and it became a kind of style or brand early on that kind of bothered me — ‘You’re the baseball painter.’ But seeing styles come and go, artists doing one thing and then changing their style, it’s been a really nice, consistent thing for me. I still love the game. I still play around with my baseball cards.”