That Noah Stokes’ rise as an artist coincided with the Atlanta Braves’ rise to prominence in the 1990s isn’t a coincidence. The Georgia native has been a lifelong Braves fan so when the team took a turn for the better three decades ago, he decided to try something.
Stokes always leaned towards the arts and his career at the time Atlanta began its impressive post-season run focused on creating package designs for a plastics manufacturer. Like Benjamin Braddock, however, Stokes’ future would not be in plastics. His future would be tied to baseball and art in a way that he never imagined could be possible while growing up in rural southern Georgia.
“The Braves became very popular due largely to their exposure on the Superstation because they weren’t very good,” Stokes, 61, said. “But suddenly they went to the World Series in 1991 against the Twins and the next year they had four or five guys selected to the All-Star team. I did a charcoal sketch of those guys, kind of a collage, and had them printed locally. I could see people were interested.
“It was enough of an idea that I asked my dad to help me publish a few more. College football was a big thing in the south and I was painting that, too. I just started traveling around to bigger cities with my portfolio of prints and calling on frame shops. I’d walk into frame shops and ask for the owner and if I could show them some art. The reaction was almost always positive. I did that for a good little while.”
The Big Red Machine.
When Stokes realized that his work was selling, he decided to leave his job and focus solely on his art. His decision also coincided with his employer shifting the company’s focus to medical packaging that didn’t require printing, effectively ending the need for Stokes’ position.
“They paid me for another year and it allowed me to freelance,” Stokes said. “When I started out on my own, I knew it was a two-edged sword – with freedom comes responsibility, right? I had to have self-discipline to make it work. When I first started online, I had a blog and I acted like everyone was watching. I would do forced discipline things like countdowns with jersey numbers or the number of days before the season, stuff like that. That was how my online presence got started.
“One time I did a “30 for 30” a la ESPN, using baseball strictly by the numbers. It was 30 days until Opening Day so I did guys like Nolan Ryan and John Smoltz to start all the way to Derek Jeter and Ozzie Smith. I was producing content and hopefully giving people a reason to tune in the following day to see what was next.”
He says he likes to think of what he does as “painting heroes”.
The Braves, since that 1991 World Series appearance, have remained a model of consistency, reaching the post-season 21 times in the last three decades. Stokes has had just as impressive a run. His caricatures of baseball players, both modern and from decades past, are unique and distinctly his. So, when you see the exaggerated arm length of Warren Spahn’s windup, the extended neck on Satchel Paige or the larger than they should be ears on Joe Jackson, you’ll know you’re viewing one of Stokes’ pieces.
Stokes says the exaggerations in his drawings make the association with the subject matter deeper.
“The thing about caricature and using exaggeration is we all have two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said. “There are just millimeters of difference in how they are arranged that makes each face unique. That is intriguing to me. We all recognize to be true whatever is true about the face we see. That truth allows us to instantly recognize a friend from a stranger. That’s why caricature works; you are simply emphasizing the things that we already know to be true.
“And the reason for the likeness in a caricature can often be stronger than a portrait. In sports, the way we move, the way the bat is held, the way the ball leaves someone’s hand, it’s all unique and presents an opportunity to ‘expose’ the truth. The fun for me is finding that truth and using exaggeration as a tool to hopefully make that connection stronger.”
That connection is so strong that Stokes’ has done work for The Negro Leagues Hall of Fame, The National Pastime Museum, The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, and at the University of Georgia. Former NFL, USFL and Georgia great Herschel Walker owns one of Stokes’ pieces as does former Florida football coach Steve Spurrier. The late Bobby Bowden, who coached for more than three decades at Florida State, also had Stokes’ work in his personal collection.
The smallest print Stokes puts out is usually 11X14. A large oil painting can take days, even weeks. He always has several paintings going and may move between them or stick with one start to finish, “it just depends.” However, he said he learned long ago it pays to be productive.
That Stokes is so prolific is interesting simply because his career path wasn’t so defined while he was growing up. His path to an art career wasn’t very well-defined for him as a youngster.
“I am from a small town, neither of my parents were artists, there was no one around who understood art or was able to give any kind of direction,” he said. “I was more interested in sports growing up. Art class in high school was just not that interesting. It was very crafts oriented – and not fun,” he said. “School in general was a struggle. It felt to me like – the teacher tells you what you are supposed to learn and you tell it back to them. And about 10 minutes of that and – I’m staring out the window.
“But I wasn’t a terrible student and I certainly wasn’t a troublemaker, I just didn’t take any challenging classes and didn’t see the need really. Somehow I didn’t understand that things would go much smoother if I could take the same effort, attitude, and determination and apply it to my studies.”
Stokes took a drafting class in high school and thought, ‘Architects make a lot of money, let’s do that’. However, once he went to junior college, it didn’t take him long to figure out that he wasn’t going to be an architect.
“Once at college, I basically did everything but go to class, not very proud of that, by the way,” he said. “After a couple of years my dad told me he wasn’t paying for any more schooling until I decided what I wanted to do. After one summer of working at the paper mill I continued punching the clock while all my friends went back to school. Immaturity was a big part of my struggles – “A brook would lose its song if God removed the rocks.” So, things worked out the way they were supposed to.”
It wasn’t until Stokes’ aunt suggested that he attend the Art Institute in Atlanta that things started to click. He said the idea made sense to him and that type schooling had both a practical and commercial application. So, he earned a degree in visual communications and ultimately landed the position as a package designer for a plastics manufacturer, which Stokes said was both challenging and fun. He would stay there for 10 years before embarking on what has been a remarkable career as an artist.
“It felt natural to get back into art and of course baseball has a big spot in my heart,” said Stokes, who has three adult children – Leah, Jake and Sarah. “The internet has allowed me to meet people that let me do what I like to do. Now, I can broadcast to the world what I do and I feel fortunate to have that road available.
“When I left the design world and starting painting and peddling my sports art my kids were young and I was able to travel [to various frame shops around the region]. And a local school asked me to coach, teach physical education and teach art. I felt like I could do that and continue doing what I was doing.”
Stokes taught and coached baseball at the Christian Heritage School until his son, who played baseball there, graduated. Then he left and returned to his art full-time and it was then that he began the more exaggerated style for which he has become known. Stokes took a class to learn how to work with a stylus in an effort to become familiar with advancements in the field. But he still begins every project on paper, going from the sketch to canvas before painting in oils or acrylic. Or the sketches get scanned into his computer and painted there.
He says he likes to think of what he does as “painting heroes”. His “hero” and favorite player remains Hank Aaron though he also has an affinity for Brooks Robinson and the Pirates of the late Seventies with Willie Stargell. He also favors Willie McCovey and his era of the Giants. Later, there was Dale Murphy but, overall, it was Aaron.
“Aaron stands above the rest,” Stokes said. “As a little leaguer I would to jog like him, have that little pre-pitch bat flick when I hit; he was the hero.”
The Braves were Stokes’ first baseball love and Aaron was king. He simply took that affection for the sport and the team through adulthood and now continues to bring the heroes of others to life on canvas.