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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: June 15, 2024 10:46 pm PDT
BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI

Thousands of card-art collectors should be sending thank you notes to Mike Noren’s observant and thoughtful girlfriend, Beth DeMars, because without her, he may not have become the man behind the insanely popular brand of card creations known as Gummy Arts.

Noren, 49, has been creating his own cards for nearly a decade, employing a simple style that he admits has a childlike quality. He doesn’t mind the comparison because he wants his work to be known as simple and upbeat. Clearly, Noren’s fans don’t mind either because he has created nearly 5,000 cards since he began this journey.

“I drew a lot as a kid but as I grew up and started working, I drifted away from it,” said Noren, who lives in Chicago and is walking distance from Wrigley Field. “So, probably from 1990 to 2015, I rarely drew. My girlfriend knew that I used to draw and that I could draw, occasionally doodling on a birthday card to my niece or nephew.

“I never really practiced it seriously until one year my girlfriend gave me a ‘Doodle-A-Day desk calendar’. There are blank pages and a topic for you to draw. It was a fun idea that forced me to draw something every day. It pulled me back into it and got me thinking about drawing again.”

Noren spent much of his professional career working as a writer/editor in traditional print media. The emphasis on print left him feeling like “a dinosaur”, though, as more and more content moved online. Therefore, he decided to get more comfortable with various digital platforms, including Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

Mike Noren.

“I wasn’t sure what I would put on social media accounts so I thought I would draw old baseball cards,” said Noren, who recently made his 3000th post on Instagram. “That’s how I got started. So, the gist of it is, the calendar got me back into drawing and the desire to be social media literate got me into making stuff and putting it out there.”

Slowly, fans and collectors began to take notice, including the folks at The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. They reached out to Noren and asked if he would like to donate some of his work to a baseball card exhibit entitled Shoebox Treasures, which opened in 2019 and is a permanent exhibit.

“That got me to take things more seriously,” Noren said. “I went to the Hall of Fame and saw my drawings on the wall and that kicked things up a level. I started doing commission work, selling drawings, all that stuff.”

Noren, who says his style of drawing is self-taught, worked as an encyclopedia editor for several years before focusing on solely on his drawing about five years ago. He now works part-time at a whiskey distillery in addition to working on his art.

His work is done entirely freehand with colored pencils and paper. Noren will then take a picture of each card on his phone and brighten it up a bit – the lighting for pictures in his apartment isn’t ideal – before posting. He prefers to work with pencil and paper because of the medium’s simplicity. He worked on a computer for so many years and spends so much time on his phone that he enjoys drawing the old-fashioned way. Noren, unlike so many other card artists, has no immediate plans to make his work digital.

“I try to keep things simple, fun and positive,” Noren said. “With all the jobs I have an all the real-world stuff I am doing, I like having Gummy Arts be as simple, colorful and upbeat as possible.”

Noren generally charges between $55 and $85 for an original card drawing, depending on the piece’s complexity. His creations are standard baseball card size are are printed on a thin card stock. Noren said that every year he will select 100 or so cards and print out small quantities and sell them as packs. He usually puts the first batch out for sale at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“There are a lot of times when I have a day that I don’t like anything I have drawn and I’ll start over and throw those away,” he said. “Those days can be painfully slow. If I’m not messing up like that, it probably takes me an hour to draw a card. Sometimes it’s a little quicker. The little tobacco cards are smaller so they take about 30 minutes but a full card, depending on the degree of complexity, can take up to an hour and a half.”

Noren said one of the favorite pieces he has drawn is the 1980 Topps Homerun Leaders card featuring Dave Kingman and Gorman Thomas. He grew up a Cubs fan and a fan of Kingman [who led the NL with 48 homers as a Cub in 1979].

“That original card is one of my favorites because both sluggers have an awesome pose and the hairstyles of the era,” Noren said. “I like the way mine turned out. I started collecting in 1979 and my brother and I have tons of cards from 1979 to 1990. Kingman, Rick Reuschel, Dennis Lamp, all those Cubs teams. Kingman was the one hitting all those home runs so he was an early favorite.

“I like my cards best as a big collection. I’m mostly happy that I have done so many so I don’t have a single card that I am super proud of. I do enjoy that I have drawn so many over the years.”

Many current and former players appreciate Noren’s work as well. He said Randy Johnson has reached out to him with suggestions.

“I believe he [Johnson] still uses one of my drawings as his Instagram profile picture,” Noren said. “When I got a message from him, my jaw dropped. I didn’t expect that. He was super nice and positive and it was incredible having a Hall-of-Famer noticing and enjoying my drawings. It was a big deal.”

“Dale Murphy followed me on some things, too, so it’s fun when a player acknowledges or notices you. When I visited the Hall-of-Fame card exhibit I had a big meet and greet with Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. I gave a Blyleven to Blyleven and he was classy, cool and appreciative.”

While Noren has gained national attention for his work, he doesn’t know if it is something he would want to make a full-time career because that “might take a lot of the fun away”. He said he likes the balance he has now between work, his personal life and his art.

“I’d be surprised if I go full-time anytime soon, but who knows,” he said. “I didn’t think my decision to start drawing cards was super original or anything. And I didn’t predict how things would go the first time around. It’s been a really strange turn of events. I had absolutely no indication that this would take off or become anything more than fun doodling. It was a career change I didn’t see coming.”

It was one, perhaps, that his girlfriend did.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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