Master Of His Craft

Like a great boxer — patient, strong, disciplined in the ring — or a quarterback, calm in the chaos of falling bodies, scanning the field for a receiver — the renowned portrait artist Stephen Holland prepares his paints, cranks up the volume on the stereo and eyeballs the five-foot-high canvas outlined with the figure of New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle.

Over the past 20 years or so, Holland has repeated this routine thousands of times. Along the way, he’s captured the essence of some of the most mythical figures in all of sports.

stephen holland in the daily soundA number of his favorites line the walls of his Santa Barbara home. One is a portrait of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. It’s signed by the artist and his subject.

“Hey Stephen, thanks for the great art, pal,” Namath wrote.
When former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis’ wife wanted a portrait of her burley husband running over a Chicago Bears defender, they called Holland.

In the world of sports art, Holland’s name is at the top of the list. He’s the Jordan, Gretzky, Montana, Ruth, and yes, he’s painted them all.

His realistic, wild and gritty action portraits hang in the corridors of stadiums throughout the country, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Stephen Holland in art StudioHolland’s studio is located in his garage. The paint-stained concrete floors are lined with cracks. The work bench is crowded with magazine clippings, pictures of his wife J’Nelle and their children. In one corner, canvases waiting for Holland’s attention line the walls. His fleet of paints and brushes rest on a World War II era gurney that his wife bought from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital years ago.

By all counts, the Holland’s keep a low profile. Holland fell into painting sports figures by accident. In the late 70s, he had trouble finding the kind of real-life action he wanted to depict, so he began painting boxers and football players from their pictures in magazines.“I wasn’t a sports fan or anything,” he said. “I was really taken by the shapes and forms of the uniforms, the arms and all this stuff.”

He had been an artist most of his life, but well into his 30s, had failed to find a niche. That's when the athletes he' d been drawing turned into teachers.

“I started reading [about] the amount of work the athletes did to be successful and I said holy shit, I’ve been out in lala land. I thought, oh, I’ll just do this and everybody will come and say you’re a great artist,” he said. “So I started disciplining myself and training myself to work harder and harder. I was really inspired by what I had read.”

Artist Stephen Holand in his art studioHolland bounced from job to job, all the while painting. But things didn’t take off until he met J’Nelle. The two married and eventually began a publishing company, where they managed to navigate the complicated world of sports licensing. When it came time to select an athlete for the first piece, Holland knew who he wanted.

“I said let’s start at the top,” he recalled telling his wife. “Let’s try and do Muhammad Ali and work our way down if we can’t do that.”

Holland was able to arrange a deal with Ali’s agent, and the painting was done. But it didn’t end there. Turns out, the boxing great was preparing to have a 50th birthday bash at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.

Ali’s wife liked Holland’s painting so much she turned the image into 6-foot tall posters that were draped in the windows around the theater. “She said at the time it was the best portrait of him ever done,” Holland said.

By this time, in the early 90s, few people were doing what Holland could do. There were sports artists, but none quite like him It didn’t take long for people to notice. One person who did take a keen interest was Ali’s agent, who worked at Limelight Agency, which represents some of the biggest names in sports.

Stephen and j'nell Holland in StudioPlacement Services (sister agency to Limelight Agency), which represents some of the biggest names in sports.

It didn’t take long for people to notice. One person who did take a keen interest was Ali’s agent, who worked at Sports Holland said the agency asked if it could represent him, and he jumped at the opportunity.

The rest, really, is history. Holland is now able to paint pretty much anyone he wants, though most of his work is commissioned.

He was named the official artist for the 50th anniversary of the Los Angeles Dodgers in LA, and painted among others, Dodgers greats like Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax.

Last week, he was in New York painting an 8-foot tall Statue of Liberty that will be mounted to the street in SoHo on the weekend of July 15 for the Major League Baseball All-Star game, which will be held at Yankee Stadium.

In all, 42 small Statues of Liberty will be placed throughout the city, most of which will bear the colors of Major League teams. Only one was painted by an artist: that honor was reserved for Holland.

“They made one extra specifically for me to paint,” he said, explaining he didn’t realize this until he was in the warehouse searching through crates of statues for his. “All the rest were painted in China according to their graphic designer. Then they had one for me to just go crazy on.”

As Holland told stories and talked about his life Wednesday in his studio, behind him was a half-finished painting of Mickey Mantle, which will also be used for the All-Star game. He explained to a Daily Sound photographer how Mantle had a tendency of dropping his elbows as he finished his swing. It was a unique habit that Holland said he spent hours trying to capture.

In most cases, Holland said it takes a couple of weeks to complete a painting. Half of that is finding the right pose in a picture, and manipulating the background on Photoshop -- he rarely uses models.

Once he’s ready to put brush to canvas, the 66-year-old paints the background first, and then paints the figure of the athlete over it.

The result, most recently, has been a sort of mixed-media. Some of his recent paintings have a bright background that in some cases spell out the last name of the athlete. Then there’s the athlete, dominating the space, with their sweating face and rugged looks.

Holland said he doesn’t have a favorite athlete to paint, but prefers watching football. He also enjoys painting boxers because of the roughness and the bodies.

Originally from the Bronx, Holland said he grew up fighting in the streets, and so could easily relate to the two sports and their characters.

“I love a good fight,” he said in his still-thick New York accent. “Cause I love the tough guy kind of feeling.”

That’s not to say Holland still fights. He doesn’t. In fact, most nights, and days for that matter, he’s busy painting. His wife said he’ll paint sometimes into the early morning.

Holland could likely have a studio anywhere he wanted. But he prefers to work from home, with J’Nelle nearby, which he said is his favorite thing about what he does. “I love being able to work around my wife,” he said.

Though Holland primarily paints sports figures, he’s also been given free reign to paint anyone who’s ever been nominated for a Grammy Award. Each year he said he paints a musician and a portion of the proceeds from the sale go to charity. Paintings of Bob Dylan and John Lennon can also be seen around his home.

With decades of formal art schooling under his belt, and a profound appreciation for most genres, Holland can easily talk about other artists as much as he does himself.

His favorite artist at the moment, he said, is Phillip Guston, who was most famous for his abstract expressionism. As Holland flipped through an art book filled with Guston prints, he seemed particularly interested in the paintings he did at the latter part of his life. Some were almost cartoon-like shapes. They are bold and beautiful, Holland said, full of passion.

After a two-hour interview, it was clear Holland, whether about art, his personal life, the music he listens to, or politics, is filled with passion -- a trait his wife particularly enjoys.

“He always amazes me because he’s so from the heart,” she said. “He just speaks from the heart.”

As Holland attempted to describe how he paints, he began talking about the singer song writer, Leonard Cohen. Holland tried to recall the lyrics from a song titled “Anthem.” When he couldn’t, J’Nelle began searching for them on the Web.

A half-hour later, she’d found them, and Holland asked her to read them aloud. “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” she read.

Holland got slightly choked up, and said the verse brings tears to his eyes.

“It’s like my work comes from here,” he said, pointing with both hands to his torso. “Down in there somewhere and I like it to show that. No matter what other ideas I have or anything, I like to show that.”