It all began so simply for Cortney Wall-Crawford.
The Florida-based artist just wanted to create a present for her father. Barron Wall is a Yankees fan and what better way to celebrate her dad and his love of baseball than by fashioning something unique, a gift that he would cherish as only a father could.
So, the then 15-year-old Wall-Crawford, who had only begun painting two years prior and had already been considering a career in the art world, painted a chair. It wasn’t something akin to Jackson Pollock painting a chair green and watching it sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rather, she depicted what she and her dad knew best – baseball. Crawford-Wall painted a homage to Mickey Mantle, one of her father’s favorite players, on the seat.
“Art was always something that I wanted to pursue in some capacity,” she said. “When I was 15, it was around that time that I really started to question if I could make a career out of it. I had gotten into painting furniture through art class in high school so I painted Mickey Mantle on the seat of a chair. It was a still life of his glove, his bat and his jersey.
“My dad was so thrilled that he took it to his office, where he asked people how much they thought he had paid for it. A lot of people were saying in the thousands but he said no, my daughter made it for me.”
A career had been born. What started out as a gift for her dad has blossomed into a gift to the world of sports art. Wall-Crawford, 37, has spent the better part of the last two-plus decades creating a unique brand of art that has placed her among the industries most celebrated artists. She is one of the few female sports artists in the country and has worked with some of the sport’s most notable athletes and organizations, including the New York Yankees, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum [NLBM], the USTA and at various Super Bowl events.
“That’s what I love about abstraction; sometimes it’s like striking gold.”
Barron Wall went to the 2002 All-Star Game at Milwaukee’s Miller Park and happened to be staying in the same hotel as O’Neil. He went downstairs for breakfast one morning and happened to see O’Neil sitting by himself. Barron Wall is a big fan of O’Neil’s and decided to take a chance and asked if he could sit and share breakfast with the legendary player.
“He is a huge fan and told O’Neil that he has a picture of him hanging in his office,” Wall-Crawford said. “They were sitting at a big table when three other men came and sat down. One of them was the curator for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, one was a friend of the museum and the other one was Bob Kendrick, the president of the museum. They said that they were planning an exhibition a few months down the road.
“This was the summer after I gave my dad the chair and he told them I was a sports artist but he didn’t tell them how old I was. He said he’d love to show them some of my work and asked if I would be able to submit something. They were planning a group show featuring nationally renowned artists whose works would be an interpretation of the experiences of Negro Leagues ballplayers.”
The exhibit was called “Shades of Greatness” and Wall-Crawford decided that she would return to what worked so effectively with her father’s gift. She painted a pair of chairs, one depicting Ty Cobb and the other Jackie Robinson. Each rendition featured the player sliding in similar action shots. Wall-Crawford painted each in black and white and wrapped the backs of the chairs in leather to look like baseball gloves. The Ty Cobb chair was wrapped in black and white leather while the Jackie Robinson chair was wrapped in brown and tan leather, symbolizing his breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
“The title of the piece is “The Same Game” because I wanted to create a piece that showed what segregation in baseball looked like,” she said. “When they [those who ran the museum] unveiled the artwork in private, they were totally floored. I had depicted an important aspect that revealed what they were looking for. It was like a one-two punch from a shock value perspective. I was able to bring into context what a lot of other pieces did not – the aspect of segregation.
“The level of seriousness and emotions it evoked was on a different level to what the viewer’s experience was with the other pieces. ‘The Same Game’ ended up being selected for the traveling exhibition and has now been traveling the country for 20 years, going to various ballparks, All-Star Games, universities, wherever they get booked. I wanted to make an impact with my artwork with the Negro Leagues Museum and I received so much positive encouragement [afterwards].”
That experience and the resulting encouragement, not to mention the friendship she had forged with the museum hierarchy, helped Wall-Crawford come to a big decision in her life. She was now certain she would pursue art. Initially, Wall-Crawford was headed to Wheaton College in Massachusetts to play softball – which she loved – but transferred to the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, where she would hone her skills on her path to becoming a professional artist.
It was during her time at Parsons that Wall-Crawford got her second big break. This time, it came closer to home and involved the team she loved – the Yankees. The organization had become familiar with her through her work at the NLBM and reached out to her to see if she wanted to create some pieces for the club.
“When I got a call to come in for an interview, I was on a train commuting from Manhattan to New Jersey and I thought it was a joke,” she said. “They asked me if I wanted to come in for an interview and I truly thought it was a friend of the family pranking me. When I found out it wasn’t I apologized. It was like a dream come true for me because I grew up a big Yankee fan. Now, I had the opportunity to go to the stadium not as a fan but to use my skills as an artist.”
Wall-Crawford was commissioned to paint portraits of the players that would be used on the Jumbotron screen as each player stepped to the plate. She worked on that project during the 2007 and ’08 seasons before the Yankees hired her for a second piece – creating a portrait of CC Sabathia that would be presented to him on field. The New York Yankees filmed her creating the painting side by side with [former Major League pitcher] Brett Tomko, who was also a painter. That video was then shared with Yankee fans during batting practice.
“I really loved this project and it made me realize that I wanted to make a bigger impact so I started reaching out to different athlete’s charities with a plan as to how live painting and artwork could benefit them. That kind of led me to David Cone’s 20th Anniversary Party of his perfect game, David Wells’ 20th Anniversary Party, Derek Jeter’s Turn2 Foundation and multiple events with Bernie Williams and his All-Star Band. It started to snowball a little bit and that’s how I got started.”
While it was her early work that caught the attention of the Yankees, it is what she has accomplished for the better part of the last decade that has vaulted Wall-Crawford into a different stratosphere. Wall-Crawford uses sports equipment such as bats and baseballs to create the background of much of her work. So, if she is doing a baseball portrait, she will create a background by dipping a ball and or a bat in paint and rolling it across the canvas, creating a unique look with which her work is now associated.
The technique allows for the creations of different textures and color combinations while providing her work with what Wall-Crawford calls “an energetic and authentic approach”. She said she gets much of the equipment from Fanatics because she is partnered with them and does much work for the sports paraphernalia/memorabilia giant.
“That’s what I love about abstraction; sometimes it’s like striking gold,” she said. “It’s funny when you really think about it. It comes down to experimentation and the desire to free yourself of expectations. The idea of using sports equipment came to me while I was painting live at Madison Square Garden when the USTA asked me to paint courtside. I was hired to capture all the athletes [Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini] on canvas and I only had an hour and a half to do it.
“As the clock was winding down, I grabbed a tennis ball from my bag and dipped it in paint. It was serendipitous and I fell in love with what was happening right before my eyes. I also heard people in the audience saying ‘Look, she’s using a tennis ball’ which encouraged me to complete the painting using this new tool. This experience made me eager to go back to the studio and create more work using sports equipment. And that’s how my new style was born, sort of on a whim. For any artist, it is important to keep exploring and experimenting because you can find a style that you love which can in turn totally create your career. I’m enjoying what I am doing on a whole other level beyond the paint brush.”
Wall-Crawford estimate that she has done thousands of paintings though not everyone she does features the sports equipment technique. She said the most comfortable size she creates is on a 36X48 canvas and it usually takes between one and three weeks to finish, depending on the intricacy of the portrait. She is currently working on a limited-edition Aaron Judge series with Fanatics that will come out in late September. Additionally, she is also working on a Rocky series with Fanatics.
What also sets her apart, aside from her technique, is the fact that she hides a tiny baseball character in many of her baseball paintings. This “Where’s Waldo” effect has folks scouring her work in an effort to find the little caricature.
Her favorite baseball painting is the Satchel Paige piece she created in 2012 as part of a legacy series. It was featured in the NLBM as part of an exhibit comparing a Negro League player with his MLB counterpart in an All-Star Game. Paige’s counterpart was CC Sabathia.
“The Satchel Paige piece was one of the first paintings I used the ball and bat to create,” Wall-Crawford said. “At the time it was not something I was doing confidently; I was just experimenting.”
Her favorite non-baseball pieces are the series of murals she did for Hackensack University Medical Center.
“That was one of the most meaningful projects I was part of,” she said. “I was more than honored to do it and it was a beautiful collaboration that came together effortlessly.”
Wall-Crawford, who has also been featured on MLB Network several times, also does live painting at charitable events. She begins the painting in her studio, about 30 percent of it, and finishes the rest live at a charitable event where it will be sold to raise money for the cause du jour.
If it seems like she can’t be pigeon-holed into one form or another, that’s only because she can’t. Wall-Crawford has set herself apart as a trailblazer in the world of sports art and is always seeking to make a bigger impact with her work.