Capturing a colorful game on canvas

An artist sees both armadillo toughness and tranquillity in a pair of

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Susan Miller-Havens doesn't just watch baseball.

She paints the players.

In her studio in Cambridge, Mass., renderings of two former Boston Red Sox players, catcher Carlton Fisk and pitcher Dennis Eckersley, line the walls, along with another painting showing a catcher's equipment.

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But Ms. Miller-Havens insists she's not a "sports artist."

"I'd like to think of myself as an American artist who uses sports images ... to engage people," says Miller-Havens, sitting in her carriage house studio, which seems more like a old barn, both cozy and well-kept.

As subject matter, the contemplative look and demanding presence of Fisk are irresistible; so is the tall, lanky, yet powerful look of Eckersley; or an anonymous player sliding into a base, stirring up the dirt.

One of her paintings, "On Deck," is on view at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. In it, a batter is the dominating presence as he waits to approach the plate.

Two of her other paintings are on display at a gallery in Cooperstown. And the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington is hoping that the owner of one of her Carlton Fisk paintings will donate it soon.

Baseball "gives me an opportunity to say in paint what I have learned about people," says Miller-Havens, who graduated with honors in 1978 from Wellesley (Mass.) College, where she majored in art history and studio art. "Sports gives you a view on the things we all hope for - everybody wants to hit the ball out of the park."

Miller-Havens grew up in northern New Jersey and spent summers on Cape Cod. Her mother was involved in restoration, and most of her mother's friends were art curators. "I grew up with visual feasts, and my parents couldn't find enough for me to do," she says, laughing. "I went through crayons and coloring books; I took art classes.... I did sculptures...."

Instead of picking up a paintbrush full time after college, however, she pursued a career in psychotherapy. But something was missing.

She recalls asking one of her professors, "How will I know if I should be an artist?"

He replied, "You'll know when you can't not do it. [When] if it's not in your life, it makes you miserable." So Miller-Havens began her art career in 1985.

She stumbled upon baseball as a subject by accident.

"I used to listen to baseball on the radio with my family," she says. "It was in my head somewhere, but I never had a reason to use it. Then it just came forward."

It started with her love for the color white. She was painting a lot of mostly white landscapes. One day one of her classmates brought in a Boston Globe sports section that featured a pitcher in a white uniform.

It fascinated her.

"Here is this pitcher ... and he's filling the whole page with his white uniform," she recalls enthusiastically.

Miller-Havens says it's impossible to predict how many paintings she will sell in a year. She might sell one within six months, then 10 in the next two or three months. Her paintings fetch between $200 and $6,000.

Though her paintings mainly focus on baseball figures, Miller-Havens also dabbles in basketball. Miami Heat coach Pat Riley recently commissioned a work by her.

"I know baseball better, but [deciding to do a painting] has to do with what kind of artistic challenge I am looking for."

She chose Fisk as the subject of many of her paintings for this very reason. Trying to capture his work ethic and personality were part of the attraction, but his catcher's equipment also provided "a fantastic challenge."

"It's this warrior-like stuff, and the texture of the shin guards is like an armadillo['s plates]," she says. "There are also leather straps and buckles. [And catchers'] chest protectors look like overstuffed couches...."

She says Fisk, who played for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox from 1969 to 1993, also represents an old-fashioned time when the catcher was "captain of the ship." He once mentioned to her that some pitchers today are less interested in listening to the catcher's opinion.

Fisk and Eckersley may be the subject of some paintings, but that's where the "name brands" end. Miller-Havens actually prefers not to concentrate on famous faces.

She points to one of her paintings in which a player in a black-and-white uniform is sliding into a base. "I make it so you purposely don't know" who the player is, she says. "It's a moment in time, and you can put [any face] on it you want."

Her use of color is subtle. In one painting, Eckersley is wearing a white uniform with a long-sleeved pea-green shirt underneath and neon-green shoelaces.

"Dennis Eckersley is a real card, and I just felt he needed to have neon shoelaces," she says with a laugh.

In another, Fisk is looking to the outfield, mask pulled up, wearing indigo blue shin guards. They "make me think of a cool, wet summer night," she says. "Fisk is lost in his thoughts, and blue contains a certain tranquillity."

Upstairs in a small studio where she paints, old newspaper clippings are pressed under a sheet of glass on top of a wooden table. Some yellowed clippings feature quotes from former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, as well as a graphic explaining an inside-the-park home run.

"I love baseball. It's one of the most beautiful games on earth," she says. But, she adds firmly, "I'm an artist first."

*Eighth in a Tuesday series. For a look at her paintings, log on to www.millerhavens.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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