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Rick Telander Is Ready to Make His Debut As an Artist

The legendary sportswriter readies his first public exhibition with the help of artistic mentor Tony Fitzpatrick.

Rick Telander in his home studio.   Photo: Robert Chiarito

The world knows Rick Telander for his sportswriting—after the former Northwestern football star was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in training camp, he shifted to journalism, covering playground basketball in New York. That led to his first book, Heaven Is a Playground, in 1976. By the 1980s, he was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. A job as columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times brought him back to his home state in 1995, where the Peoria native has remained; he’s in the beginning stages of a book on violence in the city, sparked by his recent series on Orr High School’s basketball team.

Telander may be an ex-jock, but he proves that sports writing is not the toy department of journalism. Ask him about Pete Rose, and he’ll back up his opinion with theories based on a recent re-reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And the breadth of his interests includes something that, until now, most of the public and most of his friends have not known: Telander is an artist.

He’s been drawing and painting for most of his life, but recently turned most of his attention to it. The result is a first-ever public show slated for June 1 at Adventureland and hosted by one of his artistic mentors, Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick.

Telander, now 69, lives in Highwood with his wife where he has a large art studio on the second floor of their home. There, he met with a reporter who talked to him about his lifelong love-affair with art.

You’ve always loved to draw?

Yes, always. In school we’d make maps of the United States in 4th, 5th and 6th grade and they’d have things like where corn was grown, and I’d draw little steel mills and things like that. We’d also do term papers in grade school and I’d spend so much time on the covers, painting and drawing.

Most of your artwork is done using what?

Most is acrylic or watercolor. I’ve always painted my own borders but I saw how Tony [Fitzpatrick] would use anything that was colorful. I was particularly captivated by the beauty of cigar boxes. I soak them in warm water for a few hours and then gently peel off the borders, which is like gold leaf.

Telander’s work on his wall Photo: Robert Chiarito

Do you smoke cigars?

Unfortunately, once in awhile.

You used to smoke them on The Sportswriters on TV.

I didn’t, those guys did. It made me sick. They didn’t care, they loved it.

You said you’ve always like to draw and you showed me the first drawing from 1972 when you were in college. But is this something that you’ve been taking more seriously lately?

Oh yeah. I’ve been really serious about it for the last two or three years. I did these three, the swallow-tail butterfly, bumble bee and the luna moth. I’ve always had a great affinity for insects. You have to see this [proceeds to walk over to drawers filled with framed insects that he caught and preserved. Butterflies, cicadas, grasshoppers]

These are all things that you caught?

Yes, I caught them all. [Motions to a frame of monarch butterflies] I caught these on a bike path. I have a big net.

Do your sportswriting friends know that you’re an artist?

I don’t think so, except I used to doodle, especially during NFL games when there is so much time between plays. I remember [reporter] Mike Mulligan sitting next to me, he was our Bears guy. I would draw IRA things, like shamrocks and knee-cappings and pass them over to him. They all knew that I was doing stuff like that but I don’t know if they knew that there was anything remotely serious.

I have an image of you on the football team at Northwestern and then someone who was drafted into the NFL and now I have an image of you with a butterfly net.

Rick Morrissey always makes fun of me, saying ‘There you are with your ballet slippers catching butterflies.’ But I grew up in the woods and fields in Peoria and we would all hunt butterflies. It was a wild adventure that got your adrenaline going. I learned so much about nature and people are still shocked about how much I know. I studied this stuff, I was fascinated by it.

What do you think your Sportswriters on TV chums Gleason, Bentley and Jauss would think of your art?

I brought some of my insects and butterflies in one time and Bentley almost swallowed his cigar. He was terrified of bugs. Jauss would have said, ‘Telander, I knew that’s the type of person you were.’ And Gleason would have sat back and just said, ‘You know Telander, good for you’ and then gone back to whatever he was reading.

Talk about characters, I learned so much from them. Be who the hell you are. Life is short, just do it. Why not? I think that’s one reason why I feel the confidence to paint. I’ve been through everything. No one is going to hurt me anymore. I know what I was, what I’ve been and what I’m not. And I’m completely willing to try things and get shot down or see if they work. Maybe you don’t have that when you’re younger.

It sounds like Tony Fitzpatrick and Mark McMahon were two of your big artistic influences?

Yes, huge. I don’t want to say that I was embarrassed, but I didn’t go to art school. If you asked me to paint a beautiful portrait of someone I couldn’t do it. But I always loved color, loved paints, loved design. What I saw with Tony is that first of all there are no rules to art. If you want to make it part collage, part photograph, whatever you want. You want to use house paint, do it. I’d ask Mark McMahon about a picture of his and he would say, ‘This is all water colors, except here where I used acrylic to make it pop. Here I used pencil,’ etc.

You start to understand the freedom of it, that whatever you want to make, just do it. You need to know techniques which is what I wanted to learn. I learned in books about shading. Everything in painting is light. It was always fascinating to me to walk up to a painting and it looks like all blobs, but walk back twenty feet and it’s like, ‘Holy cow. That’s a landscape or that’s a building with farm houses.’ It was kind of a mind thing, like ok, you can do this. If people don’t like them, so what, throw them away, give them away.

Then Tony Fitzpatrick, I’d known Tony. I’d see him occasionally and I just loved his spirit. He’s a true rebel. He is what he is. He’s an iconoclast. He’s a poet. He’s a guy who is going to do what he has to do, come hell or high water. I’ve always liked that. It went back to when I was in college, I was an English literature major. All the books we were reading were written by people who dropped out of college or were bad guys or outcasts in some way. I wondered why are we in this formal study situation, analyzing people who would have been thrown out of this class. It didn’t make sense but you have to realize that you have to be a little out there to do anything. So, if this is out there, I really enjoy it.

I learned from Tony about centering things. If you look at his work, there’s two levels to them. They are beautiful to look at and they have meaning. I love beauty, I love things that are pretty and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Telander shows his sketchbook. Photo: Robert Chiarito

Do you view it as another way to say something as well?

I think so. I’d like to say that I’m getting there. I like to put a little humor in it too. I was really influenced by Mad Magazine as a little kid. The magazine’s artists would always have little details, like a guy down in the corner of the page hidden away saying something. So, I really like details.

You said you’ve been working on your art more over the last two or three years. Is that because you have more time?

Yes. When I was in the thick of it, raising the kids, doing 4 columns a week, traveling, doing radio shows, writing 9 books, it was hard. The last of my four kids left the house a year and a half ago. I have six grandkids but I’m not fully responsible for them, so yes, time expanded.

It’s not that you started painting, it’s that you’ve had more time to do what you’ve always done, correct?

Exactly. I’ve never stopped painting. I started drawing as a kid and I’ve never stopped.

How did the show develop, was it Tony’s suggestion?

That’s Tony. I would be down at his studio, just leaning on him. I hope I wasn’t being a pest but I’d call and ask if he was going to be at his studio. There’s always people coming in and out and you hate to bug the guy but I didn’t care because I was learning so much, it was unbelievable.

Just by hanging around?

Yes, by hanging around. He’d be painting and say, ‘Rick, take that stool over there’ and I’d start working on things. I kept bringing my stuff to show him and when I first started he wanted to see if I was was serious. He’d say, ‘I want you to draw with pencil. Make these forms and little shapes.’ I did it for two hours and I think it was like a test to see if I wouldn’t do it or say that I wanted to start painting right away. Then I started using black ink. [Shows some examples]

You can see the progression.

He wanted to see if I was serious.

So you obviously passed his test. That was all in the last couple of years?

Yeah. So, it’s new but it’s not new for me. It just took those people to inspire me. When I brought enough stuff in, Tony said, ‘Rick, you have to have a show.’

Did it take you awhile to feel confident enough to have a show for the public?

Oh yeah, absolutely. If somebody had said to me, ‘This stuff sucks,” I wouldn’t want to do it. But I’ve already had people who want to buy my stuff. Art is in the eye of the beholder and it becomes very philosophical. What is beauty? What is art? I think one thing I can say that makes me feel good about it is that this is not a joke for me. I’ll sit up here in my studio for ten hours straight sometimes. I’m lost in a zone. To see something created that didn’t exist before is just a beautiful thing. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, that’s why I’m a writer. This is a way to tell a story, a beautiful story I think.

What does painting give you that writing doesn’t?

It gives me almost the same thing. I’ve always seen the English language as a palate. Going from primary yellow to red, blue and everything in between. When you’re painting it’s literally true and when you’re writing you are trying to find that right color and the right form. When I write something I quite often feel the same satisfaction but never quite the same way as a painting because when I’m done with a painting I feel like, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly what I want or the best I could possibly do.’ When I write, there’s always this feeling that I could have done better. Always.

Really, even after all these years?

I’ve never been truly satisfied with anything I’ve written, ever. I just haven’t. There’s always something I could have touched up. When I do a painting, they are complete. That’s maybe what the difference for me, but otherwise they are two sides to the same coin.

The art of Rick Telander will be displayed at Adventureland, 1513 N. Western Avenue. The opening reception is June 1 from 7 to 10 p.m. Telander’s work will be displayed through the month of June.

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