By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator, Designer, Be Inkandescent Art Director
I was first introduced to Brian McCall through my friend Andrea Keating, the magazine’s Videography columnist, and the owner of the international film-and-video-crew staffing agency, Crews Control.
Throughout her creatively designed office in Maryland are incredible sculptures that depict the video world. Colorful, comical, and wildly eye-catching, I imagined that these works of art are as fascinating for the artist to create as they are for the viewer to admire.
I began researching McCall’s art, and found that one of my favorite restaurants in Old Town, Alexandria, VA — King Street Blues — is also a fan of his work.
In fact, nearly every wall in the place is covered with McCall originals (including a car coming out from the wall above the table where I recently sat enjoying dinner with my family).
So it is my pleasure to share the Q&A that I recently did with McCall, who went from Major League baseball player to artist. As an artist myself, I’m always interested to learn more about the history, process, and techniques that others use to create their craft.
12 Questions for Sculptor and Caricaturist Brian McCall
1. Michael Gibbs: Can you tell us a little about your background; you were a professional baseball player and then transitioned into the art world. Can you give us a brief time line? Were you trained as an artist?
Brian McCall: In 1964, it was apparent to me that baseball was no longer a viable option for my future. I was 24 years old, but my body was sore, tendons in my shoulder were stretched and torn, and baseball wasn’t fun any longer. I dreamed the future, trying to see myself in different roles, and the only one that made sense to me was “artist.” I sent a portfolio of drawings to California College of Arts and Crafts; got accepted and drove to Oakland to begin a new life and career. I majored in illustration, though the head of the department thought I should look more closely to the fine arts. I thought the two fields were only getting closer and it didn’t matter what you called yourself. You lived or died by what went on the paper or canvas, not the category or title. Now, I think back and have to say he had a good point, though I do believe I have a foot in the fine arts and a couple of toes in the illustration world.
2. Michael Gibbs: I understand you live (and work?) in a converted church. Looking through your artwork on Flickr, I noticed the piece, “Train in Window” [which features a 3-dimensional train bursting through the window of a church]. Since most churches don’t have whimsical art adorning their windows, I’m guessing this is your house? How did you come to buy a church as a house?
Brian McCall: On July 4, 1993, my wife Joanna and I went to a movie at Westmoreland Mall in our hometown of Greensburg, PA. We were visiting her parents and driving back to their house when I got the feeling to take a turn. I voiced the urge, took the turn, and a few blocks later saw an incredible old church. “Our Lady of Grace,” was founded in 1912, we learned when we called the number on the “For Sale” sign in the yard the next day. Joanna said, “It is a money pit, and I’m never moving back to Greensburg.” But two days later, we made an offer. That was 17 years ago.
3. Michael Gibbs: Most of your work seems to fall into two general categories … drawing and sculptural. What mediums and techniques do you use for each?
Brian McCall: I like doing my drawings with a clutch pencil with 5.6mm compressed nero lead and prismacolor pencils and stix. My favorite paper is Arches Hot Press 140 lb. watercolor paper. The sculpture is carved polystyrene with paper glued on top and then painted, pieced together.
4. Michael Gibbs: Your drawings are very loose, expressive, dynamic. They have a real immediacy to them, a very active, dynamic line. (Very nice.) Do you draw these from real life? Work from photos? Work from your imagination? Are these done for your own personal enjoyment, or do you exhibit them and sell them as well?
Brian McCall: The drawings are totally different from the sculpture and I don’t just mean the difference of mediums. I can do anything with the sculpture, very objective choice making, and to my estimation, impersonal. The sketching is like the sculpture, impersonal, objective, and, therefore, unlimited possibility. My big drawings are different. They are pulled from the gut, imagination, and the swirling chaos of the world. I’m at the mercy of mindless emotions helping with the choices. Micheal, I’m probably just full of shit and don’t want to admit it.
5. Michael Gibbs: The sculptural stuff is fantastic. They’re almost like caricatures brought to life. It seems to bring out your humorous, whimsical side. What got you started doing the 3D work? Where do you get your inspiration for these … say, the “screaming mouth in the airplane” (“Fauke-Wolfe”) or the train coming through the window?
Brian McCall: I began sculpting to do animation; clay animation. The only problem with clay is it really gets heavy, and melts under the lights. As my business widened to include doing restaurants, I had to find another medium to do sculpture for that decor. Styrofoam was getting close, polystyrene was cheaper and could be carved with a lot of detail. Inspiration seems to be this word that gets bandied about in the art world, along with imagination. Personally, I like ‘problem solving’… it gets rid of the mysticism of inspiration and puts artists back on earth making the world a little better. I love machinery, gears and wheels, pistons and chrome; thus the airplanes and autos and the powerful beauty of a train. Breaking a wall down is just a clever way to get to the train.
6. Michael Gibbs: I know these dimensional works are in private collections, including here in the DC area in restaurants including King Street Blues, where your artwork is prominent and gives the restaurant its unique character. The sculptures are quite large, taking up entire walls in some cases. These are presumably commissioned pieces; is most of your sculptural work commissioned? How did the King Street Blues project unfold; in some cases the work is integrated into the building’s structure, such as the train bursting through the wall (the wall itself appears to be shattered) or the outside figures, in which the building’s existing brickwork is painted to match the artwork.
Brian McCall: All of the work is commissioned. The owners usually leave me alone to come up with various themes and then I’ll pass an idea to them with a sketch and they have the final word. If I’m commissioned to do a whole restaurant, with maybe 15 pieces, I’ll by-pass them and just start the work and send pics so they can see how it’s looking. The integration with furniture or outside color is more the purview of the owners and a test of their design faculties. When I get an owner like Ralph Capobianco of King Street Blues, then the best happens because our imaginations feed off each other and weird things can happen.
7. Michael Gibbs: Two great themes populate your work: cars, and musicians. Can you tell us what attracts you to these themes? In viewing your work, you seem to be a car buff and a music buff.
Brian McCall: I like to sculpt cars, but have absolutely no interest in drawing cars. I love to sketch musicians because of the movement and emotion of the music. The drawing begins to rock, too, and I’m swaying and singing while I draw. Lots of fun.
8. Michael Gibbs: I’m curious about your transition from baseball player to artist. It’s not the usual path. Did you always have a creative side? Were you doing art in your baseball days? How did you make the transition from professional athlete into the art world?
Brian McCall: I could always draw. If I needed an A in a class, the surest way was to draw a great report cover … embellishment works. I don’t think there’s a great connection with baseball and art. I’m very goal-oriented. When I start a drawing, I see it as a goal just like beating a pitcher who is trying to fool you with a curve ball. The best part of being an artist is I can work into my nineties and I don’t have to listen to a manager.
9. Michael Gibbs: Just an aside, in 1963 when you played, I was an 8-year old here in the DC area, enthralled with baseball and a Washington Senators fan. I noticed your Chisox finished the ’63 season 38.5 games ahead of my Senators. (No hard feelings; the cellar was pretty familiar territory for the Nats in those days.) You rubbed shoulders with some great ballplayers … Nellie Fox, Hoyt Wilhelm, etc. (And Ron Hansen, whose unassisted triple play a few years later I remember well, and who started the season as a White Sox player, was traded to the Senators, then immediately after the triple play, was traded back to the White Sox. A strange little factoid that’s stuck in my head.) Do you ever go out to a ballgame and sketch players? I would think it would be a natural fit.
Brian McCall: I never go to games and have never sketched at a sporting event. I like Bocce.
10. Michael Gibbs: I also noticed the comment, “You’re seeing me at my worst; the economy is such that I’m having to do sports…” It kind of begs the question … what’s your take on professional sports?
Brian McCall: I basically hate professional sports. It opens doors when I need to go through, great party conversation, but I do not hold professional athletes in very high regard. The fact that they have mastered a skill is laudable, and I admit to a little jealousy over all the money they are paid to hit or throw a good curveball. But, as people, they are generally arrogant, stilted, uncouth young men who have a very high opinion of their place in the world, and it is too bad that society feeds that view. I guess the same could be said for actors or any individuals in the limelight. Fame itself, and our need for heroes, should be scrutinized. I just want some more worthwhile heroes.
11. Michael Gibbs: On your Flickr stream, you explain that you did printmaking in the 1970s, and your Flickr pages contain some nice etchings and woodcuts. I agree with your comment about the etching, “The Majestic Restaurant”; it’s a good piece. Do you still do printmaking?
Brian McCall: No, my last etching was done about 16 years ago. I sometimes think it was my best work, but I can’t look too closely at such a thought ‘cause it might be correct.
12. Michael Gibbs: Final question—is the artwork on your Flickr page for sale? Is artwork how you make a living these days?
Brian McCall: If I still have the piece then it’s for sale. I don’t like having old work around, I might regard it too highly.
Michael Gibbs: Thanks for your time. I’ll also look forward to meeting you the next time you are in Northern Virginia at King Street Blues! Click here to read our review of the restaurant.