Opie Otterstad in the Austin American Statesman
A Field of dreams on Canvas
Opie Otterstad, from his Round Rock house, paints for a sports-minded nation

By Pamela LeBlanc
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Opie Otterstad got drilled in the head with a baseball when he was a kid, instilling, at the time, a healthy fear of a fast-moving pitch.

That hit, though, didn't dissuade him from a career in sports, even if he never wore a professional uniform or slugged his way to fame and fortune. Instead, he picked up a palette knife and paints and set to work freezing the moments that make sports fans salivate.

  Opie Otterstad sitting in his home

Otterstad, 36, works at a near-frantic pace, creating 100 paintings a year, most of them acrylic on canvas. (He doesn't have the patience for oil, he says) He pulls out the paints around 10 a.m. and sometimes keeps at it until well after midnight.

He does much of his work in a well-lit upstairs room of his Round Rock house, where he either stands or sits in front of his easel on a cushy billiards chair. He doesn't just paint at home, either. He paints small canvases while flying on commercial airplanes, riding in moving cars and in hotel rooms. Still, he can barely keep up with the demand for his work.

Otterstad's art hangs in baseball stadiums around the country. It adorns the covers of the Houston Astros' home programs. He's the official artist of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame and just unveiled a series of White Sox paintings in Chicago.

While baseball is the focus of his career, he's also painted Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong, golfer Ben Crenshaw, basketball star Charles Barkley, hockey great Wayne Gretzky and many others. The American Sport Art Museum and Archives recently named him Sport Artist of the Year for 2006.

One of his latest works, a 17-panel, confetti-colored montage of the University of Texas Longhorns' football victory over the University of Southern California, leans against a wall in the hallway of his Round Rock home. It will hang permanently in Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

Budding artist

When he was just 5 days old, Otterstad was adopted into a family of storytellers and Lutheran ministers — six generations of them.

A few years later, he still remembers the slightly terrified feeling he had when his grandfather peered down at him through a pair of thick glasses, quizzing him about religion. His response? "Grandpa, I'm 6. And I like baseball."

  Opie Otterstads Wall

Even then, his father, a practicing minister, understood. Opie says he and his dad have long had a "Field of Dreams" connection.

"Dad was a history guy, and baseball has such a rich history that we connected through that," Otterstad says. "It's woven into the fabric of our life."

Otterstad grew up in Waller, outside Houston, but later moved into the city. There, he lived in the shadow of the Astrodome. When the Astros' third-base coach and his family moved into the same condo complex, they became Otterstad's ticket to roam the dome.

Baseball, in a way, provided a ticket out of pursuing the Otterstad family business of ministering. Otterstad worked briefly as a youth director at his father's church and still volunteers at a summer church camp. But sports became a passion. And as that passion grew, so did another: art.

When Otterstad was 3, he'd crouch over his pew at church, drawing while his father lectured to the congregation. During a sermon once, his mom glanced down and asked what he was drawing. "It's the transfiguration of Christ, Mom," Opie responded, with an isn't-it-obvious attitude. She showed the drawing to her husband. "That looks like what I was talking about," he said.

An artist was born.

Otterstad's grandmother also influenced the budding artist. Opie would sit and watch as she painted in the traditional Norwegian art of rosemaling. Years later, as he grew more skilled, she would sit and watch him paint.

There are other defining moments, too. Like in first grade, when Miss Woods called a painfully shy Opie (a nickname replacing Erick from the time he was 6) to the chalkboard and asked him to draw an owl. The class clown, sitting in the back of the room, snickered as Otterstad sketched on the board. So the teacher asked that boy to come forward and draw his own owl. When both boys were done, the students voted on which was better. Otterstad won.

Ever since, Otterstad thought of himself as an artist. His technique, though, has changed along the way.

Early on, he did photo realism, duplicating photographs with a paintbrush. That changed when a roommate looked at a painting he'd agonized over for weeks. "So what it took that guy 1/500th of a second to do, you took two months to paint?" the roommate said.

Now his paintings are inspired by photography, but not existing photographs. Otterstad pictures a scene in his mind, then pieces together parts of real photos, Frankenstein fashion, to create a model of that image.

"It's like historical fiction," he says.

He earned a degree in studio art and psychology from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and later got a master's degree in psychology from the University of Houston, mostly to appease his parents, who worried about him earning a living as an artist. That never was a problem. He works mostly on commission.

Otterstad uses a palette knife, not a brush, laying on paint in thick strokes. Call the technique fallout from a discussion he had with his college art professor. Annoyed with Otterstad's lack of passion, the instructor banned him from using a paintbrush all semester and threatened to fail him if he spotted any brush strokes. "Those brushes reach all the way to the ground, just like crutches," the professor told him. The teacher didn't specify that he use palette knives, but just wanted him to stretch his boundaries.

That same teacher also suggested that Otterstad look to sports for inspiration. Soon after Otterstad graduated, a sports psychologist at Baylor University saw his work, and helped him land his first commission, a painting of boxer Evander Holyfield. Now Otterstad's original works command between $2,000 and $20,000. He counts among his collectors presidents George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.

His art represents the convergence of two diverse worlds — sports fans and art enthusiasts — and he's battled hard to bring those camps together.

"I pull people into the collection with the basic stuff and move them into more theoretical, interesting ideas that aren't straightforward," he says.

Leaning on the easel this day is a nearly complete painting of two boys running toward a white clapboard home where their mom is hanging laundry outside. The boys are carrying baseball equipment; America's favorite pastime is obviously their favorite activity. It's part of a nostalgic series of work inspired by artists Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer.

For Otterstad, the best part of a baseball game isn't when runs are scored or batters are struck out, it's the anticipation that thickens the air even before the first pitch.

"Everything to me at a baseball game happens before the game starts," he says. Sometimes he leaves a game before score-keeping begins. "During the game is reality, but before is fantasy — that thought in every player's mind that maybe today is my day."

Otterstad counts many Major League Baseball players, including Houston Astros' first baseman Lance Berkman, among his friends. Berkman knew Otterstad as the artist who hung around the Astros clubhouse while researching paintings. It wasn't until they got into a theological conversation one evening that their relationship deepened.

"A lot of my beliefs are championed better than I can say them by C.S. Lewis. He's one of my favorite authors," Berkman says. "I was quoting Lewis, and Opie knew who I was talking about."

Berkman's wife commissioned a portrait of the author from Otterstad as a gift to her husband. For the portrait, the artist typed out a section from a Lewis book, using the paper as the backdrop for the painting, which hangs in Berkman's study.

"You can know somebody from saying hello, but when you start talking about how they view Christianity and things on a more personal, spiritual level, it brings a depth to the relationship that wasn't there before. That conversation marked a deepening of our relationship, and because of that, the painting means a lot to me," Berkman says.

Conversations aside, Berkman says Otterstad's talent amazes him. "When I look at a painting, I can tell immediately it's his. There's a warmth to it — it's real nostalgic and has very rich style. Whether he's doing a piece for UT or a portrait of some player's children making a diving catch in the backyard, when you see the painting, you feel like it's been there 100 years."

A collector's paradise

You could spend hours picking your way through Otterstad's home, inspecting the apothecary bottles filled with dirt from Major League pitching mounds, the pair of red stadium seats from the original Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and paintings made by pitchers slinging baseballs loaded with paint at a canvas. In the stairwell hang dozens of baseball bats signed by players who have commissioned artwork from Otterstad, including one signed by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile two weeks before his death in 2002. It says: "To Opie: Thanks for capturing my career, family and loves."

"I don't care about the autographs, I care about the memory of my friends," Otterstad says.

If you think the Otterstad home is just a shrine to baseball, though, think again. You can disappear into a different kind of fantasy in the "Toy Story" room, where hundreds of items from the animated movie, many of them still in their original baby blue and red packaging, line the walls: windup Woody and Buzz Lightyear toys and lip balm, ice cream tins and a telephone. Elsewhere in the house are other fascinating distractions — the steel cross cut by a friend with a torch from the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the old-fashioned tin ceiling tiles installed by Otterstad, the collection of original art, the antiques . . .

"It's our own little bohemia right here in suburbia," Otterstad, wearing a retro-looking green-and-black plaid jacket and short-brimmed fedora, says of the home he shares with his wife, Buffy, and their 2-year-old son, Tristram (named after Tristram E. Speaker, the first Hall of Fame baseball player from Texas).

It seems like an oddball collection at first, but if you spend anytime with Otterstad, it makes a kind of manic sense. Anything with an interesting story behind it, with some sense of history, fits in here. "If it doesn't have a story, why would you have it?" Otterstad says. "When I'm done with life, I want it to be a good yarn."

That sense of fun spills over all parts of Otterstad's life. He's painted on a canvas made of golf tees, and incorporated himself into drawings he does for charity fund-raisers. He sometimes dresses up in turn-of-the-century clothes to model scenes in his paintings.

Sometimes, just for fun, Otterstad adopts a British accent and pretends to be someone he's not — say, someone from West London or Yorkshire. "Left alone too long I get into mischief," he says.

He describes himself as apolitical; he doesn't read the newspaper or watch television news and purposely avoids hearing about great tragedy or loss. A huge soccer fan, he's easily persuaded to drop his afternoon's work to buzz down to Fado Irish Pub in downtown Austin to watch his favorite English Premier League team.

But in the end, it always comes back to baseball. Even though Otterstad picked Central Texas as his home, he spends a lot of time hanging out in the Houston clubhouse with his Astros buddies, and re-creating the images he dreams up there onto canvas. He's turned his love of the sport into a successful art career. But it's more than that.

"Even though I'm not a player, I get to be a part of the history."


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