You hear “baseball player tries his hand at art,” and you’re skeptical. And you’re right to be; the list of athletes who’ve achieved anything beyond minimal competence in the arts is a short one. For every Bernie Williams, the ex-Yankee who’s a proficient classical guitarist, there are ten Shaquille O’Neals, stomping through hip-hop like they’re dragging cinderblocks across the beats.
But Micah Johnson isn’t just a baseball player who dabbles in art. He’s on a track to be an artist who happens to play a little ball.
Johnson, a veteran outfielder of several teams and a newly-signed member of the San Francisco Giants, recently wrapped his first solo exhibition at Atlanta’s famed Woodruff Arts Center. Yes, really. There was a wine-and-cheese reception and everything. And with exhibitions already on the books in the coming months for Miami Beach’s Art Basel and New York Fashion Week, he’s well on the way to carving out a second career in the art world.
“He has a passion for this to be his mission,” says Matt Jarrard, senior director of corporate philanthropy at Woodruff. “It’s what he tells kids. ‘You don’t have to be just an athlete, you don’t have to be just an artist.’ It’s something we [were] proud to feature it here at the Arts Center.”
A collection of creations both realist and abstract, Johnson’s work ranges from photographic enhancements of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat to expressionist realism like “Beautiful Explosion,” a splatter-paint butterfly beside a harsh-edged black-and-white grenade. Johnson’s other career gets a nod, too, in “Baseball,” a view of a ball’s stitching so tight that the ball looks like a desolate, eroded boulder on the edge of a gray ocean.
So how did Johnson, a ballplayer at Indiana drafted in 2012 by the White Sox, become proficient enough with a canvas to see his paintings on the wall of a gallery?
“I’ll be honest with you, just work,” he says. “Just work, and not being afraid to fail. I was never afraid to fail at baseball, and I’m not afraid to fail at art.”
After years of practice, Johnson began showing the world his work at a January 2017 show at Dodger Stadium. Teammates including Justin Turner and Joc Pederson showed up to offer support, and the entire experience galvanized Johnson, even though, deep inside, he knew his art was drawing attention because of his day job.
Early on, he struggled with that idea, the fact he was getting praise simply because he was a ballplayer working in a field not normally associated with the ballpark. But he learned to steer into the bias, drawing on the praise while disregarding the implicit patronizing.
“I knew I had a lot of work to do [with his art], but people were still telling me ‘this is really cool,’” he says. “Were people saying good things to me because I’m a baseball player? Whatever the reason they told me, I don’t care. It got me to where I am today. Sometimes false confidence works.”
“Athletes get the bad rap of being one-dimensional sometimes,” Jarrard says, “and Micah definitely breaks that mold. In addition to being a top-caliber athlete, his art speaks for itself. He’s one of a kind, both on the field and off.”
Jarrard knew of Johnson from their shared Indiana background, and, wanting to connect Woodruff with Johnson’s art, reached out once the Braves signed Johnson in January. Jarrard wasn’t sure what form their partnership would take, but during spring training, the two soon settled on the idea of a solo exhibition. Around that time, Johnson dove for a ball off the bat of the Phillies’ Pedro Florimon. He caught the ball, but the fingers of his glove caught the turf, bending backward and fracturing his wrist. He would be out for months, robbing the Braves of needed outfield depth.
“I had a lot more time [because of the injury], but the show became the reason for doing [artwork],” Johnson says. “Baseball is always going to be my first love, but I loved working on the art too. Probably working too much—I forgot about myself, working till 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.”
“When he gets focused on his art, he’s gone,” laughs Victoria Ramos, Johnson’s girlfriend. “But every time he finishes something, it’s just so impressive.”
On the plus side, Johnson’s injury allowed him to create an entire eight-piece exhibition that went on display at the Woodruff Arts Center in October. He offered all the pieces for sale, as well as prints of the original works, at the exhibition as well as on his website. The exhibition featured both an opening reception as well as a watch-the-artist-work session one Sunday afternoon.
“It was so amazing to see,” Ramos says. “Kids, older people, everyone was coming up to him and telling him how much they loved his art.”
“He’s obviously owning baseball as his subject matter, but what was interesting was how he was inspired by his time here in Atlanta,” Jarrard says. “The new pieces referenced the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King. It was pretty cool to see him draw inspiration from the city of Atlanta and the arts scene and civil rights history we have here.”
Johnson has blended politics and baseball in one of his more remarkable works, a portrait of Jackie Robinson done on dozens of baseballs. It’s his current favorite, in part because it sneaks up on you.
“If you’re up close to it, you can’t tell what it is,” he says. “I’ve had friends come over and look at it, and say, ‘That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.’ I tell them to step back and pull out their phones, and then they freak out. They can see it with perfect clarity.”
Borderline impossible piece. But I'm determined to make this trippy piece perfect. pic.twitter.com/0boEd4PqaT
— Micah Johnson (@Micah_Johnson3) October 23, 2017
On the field, Johnson’s a testament to endurance and dedication. Next season will be his fourth in the majors, and he’ll take the field in his fourth uniform. He broke in with the White Sox in 2015, grabbed a seven-game cup of coffee with the Dodgers in 2016, spent half of 2017 on the DL with the fractured wrist and the other half with the Braves, and got picked up off waivers by the Giants the day before Halloween.
These days, Johnson spends his early-morning hours working out, training and taking cuts in the cage to prepare for the 2018 season, then picking up the paintbrush … along with sneaking in a few holes of golf now and then, of course. “Doing art, playing baseball. It’s tough,” he says, “but it’s all about aligning your time.”
“He’ll come back from a workout and say, ‘I’m going to hit 30 homers and steal 60 bases!'” Ramos laughs. “And then he’ll complete a work of art, and it will look incredible, and he’ll say, ‘I have no idea how I did that.'”
“I’m excited to see what his work will be like in a year or two,” Jarrard says. “To see the growth of work at the show he did with the Dodgers a year or two ago to now, it represents a pretty significant leap in his abilities, both in subject matter and the quality of the work.”
Next up for Johnson: an exhibit at Miami Beach’s Art Basel in early December and another at New York Fashion Week in February. Beyond that, opportunity stretches wide open, a basepath running right out of the ballpark.
“I want to be known in the art world like I’m known in the baseball world,” Johnson says. “I don’t want my art to be cool just because I’m a baseball player. I used that to get my name established, but at this point I want to create art that people like. I want to have an impact.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.