Benjamin Blackburn needed something to raise his spirits after living through 9/11 in New York.
He found his true calling instead.
He grew up a fourth generation Cubs fan in Oak Park, Illinois.
Ron Santo. Billy Williams. Ernie Banks. Fergie when Fergie meant Jenkins and not a pop singer. There was never a World Series to celebrate but for Benjamin Blackburn, there was always Wrigley Field.
There was also Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati where as a young fan seeing his first Major League game, he made a sketch of Johnny Bench and was lucky enough to snare a foul ball too. After the game, with the help of a kind usher, he traded his drawing to the Reds’ catcher for Bench’s signature on the ball.
He had a grandfather who spent enough years in the New York Giants organization to collect a group of baseball friends who often came by the family home. Young Ben would sit in the den, soaking up the stories and drawing pictures. Willie Mays even came one day, and got such a kick out of the boy’s image of him that he handed him a ten dollar bill. It was heaven! His first professional art…sold to the great Willie Mays! He kept the bill locked in a fishing tackle box out of sight and hoped he might someday have a chance to draw more baseball players and maybe others would buy them.
Adulthood took him to other places. Art was a hobby, not a living. There was England during his college days. New York City and a job on Wall Street as life became a bit more complicated.
Baseball never leaves a true fan’s blood, though. He even called himself a bit of a Yankee fan. How could you not be interested when you worked in lower Manhattan and the Yankees of Jeter and O’Neill and Williams and Rivera were a few miles away, resurrecting the glory days of New York baseball?
September 11, 2001 changed thousands of lives in thousands of different ways.
Benjamin Blackburn knew people who went into the World Trade Center that morning and never came out. The sadness in the city was overpowering in the days that followed. Everyone knew someone. Union Square Park filled with melting candles and photo tributes to the missing. It was a helpless feeling, but idle hands only increased the misery and so New Yorkers retreated to the things they loved. For some, that meant baseball. But there were no games. It was too soon.
He’d worked with wood before and this seemed like a good time to combine the two hobbies. His first creations were bats. Not the kind you’d swing, though. These were pieces of art. Not stuffy, fancy art museum art. Something you could hold. Something fun.
Just a few days after the attacks, he gave one of his first Yankee-themed bats to a young boy he met whose father had worked in the North Tower. In some small way, it helped. A devastated youngster saw hope. So did the man who created the bat.
He made more bats for more people and the reaction was always the same. His life on Wall Street was over. It was time to go back and follow his true passion.
"I saw the power in baseball in a new way that fall," he recalled.
The Yankees would continue their emotional march to the 2001 World Series and helped the city get its legs back. Blackburn moved back to his home state, setting up shop in the former hometown of noted rail-splitter Abraham Lincoln.
Wonderboy Studios of Springfield, Illinois was born.
Settled now for nearly seven years in a new role as professional artist, he turns a faceless piece of wood–typically mahogany or cedar–into a unique creation; carving, turning, rolling, bending, gouging and smoothing–until the piece comes alive with splashes of color, movement and detail.
They are customized with an artist’s creativity and a baseball fan’s knowledge, intricate sculptures of the game’s iconic players and other unique pieces stunning in quality and depth. It’s difficult and challenging–and there are no erasers nor time-saving shortcuts.
"It all depends on the complexity of what I’m trying to accomplish. A bat I made for the San Francisco Giants Community Fund during the All-Star Game there took around one hundred hours. The bats are usually 50-60 hours each, the flat pieces 100 to 125 hours and the sculpted figurines can take 200-400 hours. Order now for holiday delivery," he joked.
The end result, however, can be spectacular. Blackburn’s 18" carved virgin mahogany statuette of Joe DiMaggio, entitled ‘Fisherman’s Son’, sold in 2007 to a private collector for $20,000. He sold a Ted Williams piece entitled "Hub Kid" for $30,000, then watched the buyer re-sell it at a higher price just days later. The money involved may seem remarkable but in the world of contemporary art Blackburn is highly regarded.
"I love wood and always have. It’s a great material for making art because there is always a mystery to it," Blackburn told SportsCollectorsDaily.com. "I love exotic woods and mahogany is one I like. Cedar has its benefits from a technical point of view. It’s easier on the body because it is softer which is no small thing when you’re a guy with a bad elbow from working with chisels every day. Mahogany has a color that I really love. The veins of color one finds unexpectedly are often majestic and gorgeous. God makes the medium. I just sculpt it."
There is shortage of subjects. Blackburn knows the game’s history and the backgrounds of the players. He takes some creative license but he also knows fans and collectors expect the work to capture the essence of the player or subject.
"Everyone knows exactly what DiMaggio looked like so it has to be dead-on. That’s pretty challenging. The engineering is somewhat difficult because I’m turning an image or picture into a 3D object. That requires a different talent because, again, it has to be dead-on, for me to be satisfied with it. Nothing leaves my studio that isn’t excellent. I think this is part of why my clients seem to enjoy working with me. I try to make art that is highly exacting and drop-dead gorgeous. Most of the time I get lucky and it comes out that way."
He made a Bob Feller bat complete with smokestacks to represent Feller’s service at sea during World War II and another highlighting the 1940s pitching speed test in which Feller was timed against a motorcycle. Blackburn has since come to know Feller and some of his artwork is displayed in the Hall of Famer’s home as well as in the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter, Iowa. Those pieces got noticed by others and now works from Wonderboy Studios can be found in the collections of other well known players including Stan Musial, George Kell and Wade Boggs.
Since the fall of 2001, Blackburn has created 113 pieces of baseball art. His subjects have included Ted Williams (‘Hub Kid’), Sandy Koufax (‘Sandy’) and even Moe Berg (‘Spy-Catcher’) as well as a reproduction of the famed T206 Honus Wagner baseball card and the 33-cent Jackie Robinson stamp. His current project, nearing completion, is a sculpted piece featuring Yankees’ reliever Mariano Rivera.
Blackburn sometimes has his pieces signed by the featured players. He created a few 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers commemorative bats, taking a few to an event where Hall of Famer Duke Snider was to appear, hoping to have the Duke of Flatbush autograph a few of them. As part of the bat’s design, Blackburn painstakingly re-created a 1955 World Series ring, raised from the wood in ornate fashion.
"So here’s Duke Snider, just as great a guy as you’d ever want to meet, telling me how much he liked my work," Blackburn recalled. "He really studied the pieces carefully as we talked about the game. It was with some pride that I pointed out the ring I’d carved into the bat and said something like, ‘what do you think about that?’ He didn’t miss a beat. He raised his hand, thrust it out at me so that all I could see was this diamond ring– the real thing– and said ‘What do you think about this?’ I about fell on the floor laughing because he was right. I liked his better."
The fundraising that comes with some of his creations has been rewarding. He took several trips to watch the nearby Peoria Chiefs play under new manager Ryne Sandberg last year, creating a sketch that was used to help one of Sandberg’s favorite causes, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Hall of Famer as humble and as kind as Sandberg. He is one of those rare people you just feel good being around. He’s a class act and has been really generous with his time since the first time I met him."
Blackburn’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries and even handed out as awards to players on teams with which Blackburn has forged relationships. Oakland A’s pitcher Joe Blanton received a Blackburn customized original for being named American League Pitcher of the Month last season.
Once the Rivera piece is finished, Blackburn will turn his attention to another commission featuring New York baseball– a special piece to be displayed in the Yankees’ offices when the club relocates to its new stadium in 2009. "I don’t know what it will be just yet," he admitted. "But I’m excited to see it become part of the new Stadium."
Blackburn’s pieces can be found in the homes of a wide variety of clients, ranging from construction executives to doctors and lawyers and even a popular comedian.
Connecticut attorney David Erdos owns several Wonderboy Studios pieces, including a signed Musial bat he calls ‘simply fabulous’.
"It’s not my intention to sell it but I’m sure that its value has increased even over the few years that I have owned it. Its real value for me grows every time I see it. It immediately attracts almost everyone who enters my home office and usually generates comments on its beauty and uniqueness. It is a treasure to me."
"I love my clients because they come from all walks of life," Blackburn said. "One thing ties them all together, though. They love baseball and can see its inherent beauty and brilliance in the game and in its art."
Ben Blackburn’s art will be on display at "Big Apple Baseball", an exhibit opening in April at the National Jewish Hall of Fame in Commack, New York.