The narrative has always been important to Matthew Lee Rosen. So, when he creates a piece of art, there’s always a story behind it.
Rosen, 45, burst onto the sports art scene in 2019 just before the pandemic hit, and the overall narrative on which he focuses is the baseball card. The more specific narrative[s], however, have featured ideas that focus on specific cards, industry themes that were prominent during his childhood, iconic images, and gum.
Yes, bubble gum.
The stale, powdery, hard, band-aid sized pieces of gum that were staples of baseball card collecting for more than a half century have served as a primary inspiration for Rosen, who lives in Rogers Park, an artist-friendly neighborhood just a few miles north of Wrigley Field. Rosen not only creates three-foot replicas of the rectangular sticks of gum that were the ruination of many cards for decades, but he also paints on the small pieces of vintage gum itself, reimagining the flaws those chalky pink wonders once imprinted on millions of cards.
While the memory of that gum remains a pleasurable one for a certain generation of collectors, it’s also sparked interest in a younger crowd who never once uttered a groan when their favorite rookie card was stained after being compressed alongside a stick of barely edible gum. The result has placed Rosen in the position of being one of the most talked about baseball artists in the industry.
Matthew Lee Rosen. (Photo via baseballcard.art)
And, while you’re thinking about chewing on the gum, chew on this as well – Rosen’s work also focuses on iconic images such as the infamous and airbrushed 1976 Topps Oscar Gamble traded card, the legendary T206 Honus Wagner, and a whole host of cards from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s when the baseball card market exploded then imploded during the Junk Wax Era.
“The narrative is always important,” said Rosen, who has been creating art in one form or another for much of his life. “I don’t like to just decorate something. I prefer to tell a story. It’s always narrative driven. Like the bubble gum. When you were a kid, you’d open the pack of cards and get the stick of gum. It often got stuck to the back of a card and it was hard as a rock. So, I just started learning about the history of the industry and why they packaged gum with cards. Topps started making Bazooka Bubble Gum right after World War II.”
Topps’ decision to include gum in its baseball cards in the 1950s was purely a business decision. The company was hoping to increase sales of both the gum and the cards by combining the two, likely never realizing how valuable those early cards would someday become. Now, Rosen has made it so that the gum is valuable as well.
“They started packaging pieces of history and I tell that narrative with the art I am making,” Rosen added. “They had a purpose behind it and I saw that it can be valued as a piece of art. I don’t think every creator starts out that way. But I place emphasis on it [the gum] and I find that to be the value. I’ve reimagined the gum in the wax packs that often get stuck to the last card in the pack.
“So, when I make gum art, I always rotate it nine degrees for the nine guys on the diamond. Little details like that help complete the narrative.”
“But what if the card got stuck to the gum instead, so that the image was on the gum [akin to Silly Putty]. I buy old wax packs now. Fans also send me pieces of gum and I’ve amassed a vintage gum collection. The gum that came in those packs was never perfectly positioned. It was always loose and on an angle. So, when I make gum art, I always rotate it nine degrees for the nine guys on the diamond. Little details like that help complete the narrative.”
Rosen has also been able to make his larger three-foot pieces look exactly like a real stick of wax-pack gum by creating a powdery faux finish and rounding the edges. His creations that involve the actual gum can range in price from $36 to close to $200. He says they are packaged in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and offer a nice, affordable alternative to the three-footers, which can go for as much as $1,375.
It takes two or three days to create one of the bigger pieces, which Rosen begins by designing it on the computer before physically executing it. Rosen also uses a desktop vinyl cutting machine to create stencils, allowing him to “get sharp, perfect lines”.
One of his favorite subjects, for several reasons, is the 1986 Topps Bo Jackson 50T. Rosen says the iconic photo of Jackson’s thick neck captures the incredible physique of the two-sport athlete. Images from that same photoshoot were also selected for rookie cards by Donruss and Sportflics. Additionally, the bold and colorful Napoli Serial font used on that particular set of cards is easily recognizable to collectors of that time period.
“It’s an interesting piece of card history and of Bo Jackson history,” said Rosen, who also uses his creativity in the corporate world designing elements and graphics for executives when they speak at conferences around the country.
As for the Gamble card, the image on that crudely airbrushed card of the outfielder in a Yankee uniform with the cap perched precariously atop his afro is emblematic of card collecting for thousands of people who grew up in the 1970s. The card itself remains iconic and in many ways has become part of pop culture.
The card is so closely associated with Gamble that Baseball Reference uses it as his head shot on Gamble’s BR Bullpen biography page. Rosen has added to that allure, incorporating the card into much of the work he’s done, donating some of the proceeds from the sale of the Gamble pieces to The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“When a player got traded they would airbrush right onto an old photo and that often-produced crude results,” Rosen said. “That’s what makes that card a favorite. That card is a relevant piece of baseball and social history. [Legendary Negro Leagues star] Buck O’Neil was scouting and recommended him to the Cubs in 1968-69. The Cubs brought him in and lost patience with him. There were rumors at the time that Gamble was dating white women and the people at the top of the Cubs didn’t like that, so they dealt him to Philly. Similar things happened there, so he was traded to Cleveland and then began to blossom.”
“He had that huge afro and the Yankees had rules about appearance so he was forced to cut it. He represented his people very well, though, with the style of the era and everything that was going on with segregation. His appearance was symbolic of the fight for civil rights and when he got to New York, they made him cut the ‘fro. He was dealing with racism all the time and that subject matter and that card are important subject matters to me. So, I continue doing things with it.”
Another famous airbrushed card from that era was Rudy May’s 1975 Topps card, which featured the pitcher in an airbrushed Yankee uniform that included a hat with a very crudely fashioned NY logo. Rosen decided to make a hat that looked like the one in the card and shared it on social media. It immediately drew commentary and retweets from other artists such as the Graig Kreindler and Todd Radom as well as broadcaster Keith Olbermann.
Another of Rosen’s unique pieces is a replica of a cigarette made from a five-foot piece of PVC pipe. The cigarette features Rosen’s painting of Wagner’s famous and valuable T206 card.
“The Honus Wagner is the holy grail of baseball cards,” Rosen said. “He didn’t even want to be on the card. He didn’t want to be affiliated with a tobacco company. So, after the first run, he said don’t make any more. So, I am telling that narrative by making the cigarette.”
Rosen’s journey has certainly been interesting, especially when considering he hasn’t been focusing on card-related art for very long. A trip to his parent’s home for Thanksgiving in 2018 helped set him on the path on which he currently finds himself when his mother asked him to get all of his childhood baseball cards out of the house.
He took the cards home and began creating. He hasn’t stopped since.
“[Artist] Tim Carroll was sort of an inspiration for me wanting to make stuff with baseball cards,” Rosen said. “I didn’t know him; I just came across his work and started following him. I went home that one Thanksgiving and had the cards and thought ‘I bet I could make something with these’.”
Rosen has done much more than make something of his old card collection. He’s been able to use them as the foundation for the narrative that is his life’s work.