BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
That James Fiorentino is only 46 years old seems somewhat amazing, when you take a look at his career. The New Jersey-based artist’s work chronicles not only baseball but all of sporting history in such vivid detail that it’s difficult to imagine him not bearing actual witness to his representations, all of which encompass more than a century’s worth of people and events.
His stunning watercolors are like a roadmap, taking sports fans and art enthusiasts alike on a journey that brings them from baseball’s deadball era of Ty Cobb to the modern era, featuring the likes of sluggers such as Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Along the way there are stops that allow for visits with the likes of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, and dozens of other greats who have mesmerized baseball fans.
Though Fiorentino’s primary focus is baseball, don’t ever pigeonhole him as a baseball artist. His paintings of other sports greats such as Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Bobby Orr, Joe Montana, Jerry Bailey, and scores of others, along with dozens of significant non-sports historical figures such as Buzz Aldrin, Desmond Tutu, and John Lewis make him one of the most prominent and prolific American artists over the course of the last 100 years.
Fiorentino’s career has spanned more than three decades, beginning when he was just a young teenager. His accomplishments would take days to list and yet when speaking to Fiorentino, if you didn’t know any better, you’d feel like you’re just talking to a fan, a dad, a husband, and a Star Wars geek. He’s always more than happy to share about his work and help to mentor young artists; but don’t expect him to be the one to bring it up.
He’s been that way since he burst onto the sports art scene as a teenager. Fiorentino’s career took off almost immediately and by the time he was in college he had become a national figure. Yet he was just as concerned with being a typical college student, playing baseball for Drew University, and getting good grades as he was with his art.
That Fiorentino has become someone who many believe to be the preeminent sports artist in the country is more than just a byproduct of his enormous talent. That so many people know his work and yet couldn’t pick him out of a lineup speaks volumes to who and how he is, all of which has contributed to his ability to create the aforementioned roadmap through the history of American sports.
“I love sharing my life and my story but I won’t tell people what I do,” said Fiorentino, who lives with Jessica, his wife of 18 years and his two sons, Tyler, 13, and Dylan, 9, in west central New Jersey.
For those who don’t know or won’t get the chance to ask Fiorentino, his is a story of which Hollywood scriptwriters dream.
GROWING UP IN THE GARDEN STATE
Fiorentino is as passionate about baseball as he is about art – but it was his love of the latter that came first. He remembers drawing at a very young age, and there is an oft-told story with regards to his early artistic prowess that centers around his mother, Jackie, showing his pediatrician his work when he was as young as 3 to gauge whether or not her son was advanced for his age.
“I’ve always loved art and remember doing it at a very young age,” Fiorentino said. “Ever since I was little, I was coloring, drawing, and sketching; but you’re probably hearing that from a lot of artists. My parents weren’t artistic but my grandmother used to paint in oil colors almost in a Grandma Moses style. There was a relative on my father’s side who was also pretty talented, so I certainly believe it was a God-given talent.
“I was successful at it at a young age, even when I was drawing in first, second, or third grade. I knew I was advanced in relation to other kids and was entering local art contests. My parents enrolled me into art lessons and my first teacher was a woman who is a very talented water-color artist. I have gravitated to that medium throughout my life. At the age of 8, I was pretty much in classes with older kids and adults. By that time, I was painting every day whenever I had the opportunity.”
Fiorentino’s love of baseball followed suit. His mother was a huge Yankees fan who loved Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, so he gravitated toward the Yankees. Fiorentino was also very athletic and began playing baseball and other sports at an early age.
It didn’t take long for him to begin combining his love of baseball with his love of art. His mother’s cousin owned a sports card store in a neighboring town, which fueled not only his passion for collecting but his desire to combine art and baseball. Fiorentino began attending card shows at a time that they were relatively new and not the monstrous productions that they have become today.
“I remember going to all those early shows in Atlantic City where they had Mantle and Mays there signing autographs and I was drawing all of them by the time I was 13 or 14,” Fiorentino said. “I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could paint someone and then have that player autograph it?’ Of course, I chose Joe DiMaggio. He was doing this show on the Jersey shore around 1992 when I did this painting of him.
“I remember being in line waiting to see him and some of the guys around me were telling me that he was tough. But when I got up there, he looked at me and looked at the painting and signed the piece.”
What followed was nothing short of amazing. Fiorentino was also sending samples of his work to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown around the time he painted the DiMaggio piece. When he sent an image of Reggie Jackson, the Hall responded, saying they wanted to include his piece as part of a display about the slugger.
THINGS WOULD NEVER BE THE SAME
Fiorentino began to get media attention around the tri-state area following the inclusion of the Jackson piece at Cooperstown. He had also begun to attend card shows not as a fan but as a vendor; and it was at one such show that his career trajectory was set.
Ted Williams, whom many believe to be the greatest hitter in baseball history, had put together his list of the 20 greatest hitters. The curator from The Ted Williams Hitters’ Museum was at a show to promote the museum and Williams’ list.
Fiorentino was also there showcasing his own work and made a pretty bold move for a high school junior, going to introduce himself to the curator and showing him some of his work. The impressed curator offered him the opportunity paint the 20 greatest hitters to be showcased as part of a celebratory event at the museum.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Fiorentino said. “I was very aggressive but I don’t know if that’s the right word. I just happened to be at that show. I showed the curator some work and he said, ‘this is incredible, would you like to do this project?’ I said ‘yes,’ and the summer I was 17, I did that. Right place, right time. I’m sure all of it came from having the Hall of Fame story when I was 15.
“Ted came up with the idea of the 20 greatest hitters and it was legendary stuff. My table at the event was next to Mays, Mantle, and Ted Williams. For a person who is a baseball nut, I don’t think you can top that. A lot of people who have never met me or don’t know my story can’t believe it. They ask how did you meet Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams? That really propelled me.”
There was no turning back. Fiorentino had established himself as a bona fide artist. He had quickly gained a reputation for not only the quality of his work, but for his understanding and appreciation of baseball history. Offers and opportunities began to mount and he kept up with the demand even as he became one of the most prominent prep school baseball players in New Jersey.
Fiorentino was among the leaders in the state as a senior, hitting close to .500. While he admits he wasn’t a Division I, or even Division II prospect, he wanted to keep playing. So, he attended Division III Drew University, where he served as the starting shortstop for four years. The university president at the time was former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, and knowing him led to more doors opening for Fiorentino.
“Again, it was the right place, right time,” Fiorentino said. “For me, the timeline was DiMaggio, getting the painting of Jackson in the Hall of Fame at 15 which led to Ted Williams which led to me becoming Cal Ripken’s official artist during his [consecutive games] streak. I never got drafted [for baseball] though. I played well enough with kids who were but I wasn’t big enough and strong enough.
“So, I played Division III and had a great time playing ball where I didn’t have to concentrate on it like I would at a Division I school. I was paying my own way through college, too. Then I started painting cards for [the] Topps [Gallery Heritage Set] in 1999 when I was a junior and I was literally doing it in my dorm room. I had guys like Whitey Ford calling me in my dorm room. It’s some really great memories of the guys I was involved with when I was in college. It was an extremely exciting time.”
Through it all Fiorentino was also running his own business with a great deal of assistance from his mother. It was an age before emails and cell phones had taken over the world so it was making phone calls and writing letters and Jackie Fiorentino handled all of it.
THE STAR CONTINUES TO SHINE BRIGHTLY
That was nearly 30 years ago. Now, in addition to such prestigious museums like the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Ted Williams Museum, Fiorentino’s work has been featured in The United States Sports Academy Museum, the National Basketball Hall of Fame, The National Museum of Art & Sport, Drew University’s Hall of Fame, Missouri University’s Football Hall of Fame, President George Bush’s Presidential Library, the Cycling Hall of Fame, The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, The Roberto Clemente Museum, The San Diego Museum of Natural History, The Muhammad Ali Learning Center, and the Negro Leagues Museum.
While he has met and worked with presidents and statesmen, astronauts and athletes, one person that stands out for Fiorentino is the late Pepper Paire Davis, who was one of the inspirations for the Penny Marshall film “A League of Their Own”, which chronicles the beginnings of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The character played by Geena Davis in the film was loosely based on Pepper Davis.
“She was like a grandmother to me and that’s another incredible story,” Fiorentino said. “She was on the set for the movie and she was the one who wrote the song for the movie. I met Pepper at the national sports convention and I showed her my work. She was so into it and asked me to do a painting, a collage of her life.”
“We became close friends and I’d talk to her all the time. She’d had [Hall of Famer] Jimmy Foxx as a manager [Tom Hanks’ character in the film]. Jim Thorpe was her softball coach and she went to high school with Norma Jean [Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe] and she worked at Howard Hughes Aircraft Company. I have a signed jersey from her at my house and did the artwork for her book. I kept the original for the book. I can’t even tell you the amount of stories I heard from here. It really was priceless.”
Fiorentino’s personal stories are no less intriguing. He is currently working on a coffee table book in which he will share in detail never before told stories of his work and experiences. His next showcase will open May 5 and run through July 8 at Studio 7 Fine Art Gallery in Bernardsville, N.J.
“It’s one of the bigger shows they’ve had,” Fiorentino said. “I’ll have my new Elite paintings, trading cards I have worked on and some natural landscapes so it should be a really fun show. That’s where the public can meet me. I love talking about techniques and watercolors with them, so it will be a nice opening.”
There should be plenty more openings to come, though. Fiorentino has no plans to slow down and wants to continue working until the time comes when he is no longer able to hold a brush.
“I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a really talented watercolor artist who enjoyed painting and helping others,” he said. “I want to be remembered as a good person. While I paint in a way that people may have never seen or is very unique, to be a good person is very important, too.”