Michael Vitez: Painter Max Mason finds the art of the ballpark

Max Mason's mural "Rounding First Base at Citizens Bank Park" hangs in Harry the K's restaurant at the Phillies' stadium. He's also painted stadiums in San Diego, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.
Max Mason's mural "Rounding First Base at Citizens Bank Park" hangs in Harry the K's restaurant at the Phillies' stadium. He's also painted stadiums in San Diego, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 20, 2012

Max Mason, 59, of Wynnewood, has a romantic view of baseball. His love extends far beyond players, and depends little on wins and losses.

He is a painter, and sees baseball as a world of lines and planes, color and light, art and architecture. He can rhapsodize about the foul pole.

His oil paintings hang in offices all through Citizens Bank Park, with three outdoor murals in Harry the K's restaurant.

"One day I was painting during construction," he said. "There was this huge yellow thing that came in. They were putting in the foul pole."

To say he had a revelation would be too strong. But seeing the foul pole was an important moment for him. "That is the field. That is in play. That's a fair ball. That's a home run. Even the color had this monumental visual significance."

He added: "It's a symbol of what I want the paintings to have, some kind of hierarchy. You treat everything equally and yet when you process it mentally, certain things assume a huge symbolic meaning. The foul pole, for me, is one of those things. It's a line. It's a color. But it's also the field, the boundary, the edge of fair and foul."

Max loves the geometry of baseball. He talks about "the linear and the planer." Lines are fast balls, line drives, base lines and foul poles, and the plane is the expanse of field.

"I remember Roger Angell writing about all this tight control between pitcher and catcher," Max said, "and all of a sudden the ball is set free. The possibilities just multiply geometrically at that point. There's a release. An openness. The world opens up in front of you."

His paintings display warmth and innocence. His views are from a fan's perspective, usually in the upper deck. He has little interest in individual players, who come and go, but rather celebrates the game, the ballpark, the fans, the light. He loves to watch the shadows from the light towers creep across the pitcher's mound. He can talk about patterns in the grass for even longer than he can talk about foul poles.

"I'm big into mow strips," he says.

"I want my paintings to exude a sense of enthusiasm and pleasure," he said, "but there's a rigor involved with the design and architecture. I don't want it to be mechanical looking. I consciously don't use a ruler."

He aspires for a "painted realism."

"We love Max's stuff," said Joe Giles, director of ballpark enterprises. "To me, it provides a unique perspective on the game you don't see from anybody else. He's a fan up in the stands."

Max played high school baseball in Massachusetts and loved the game, and not just hitting and fielding. He'd put his pants on inside out at first, just so he could adjust the sock and pantleg to get the perfect line. Then he'd pull the pants up correctly.

All players in his paintings wear baseball socks in the style of 1968. And he says it's no wonder that the 1950s and 1960s are considered the golden era of baseball. Photography from that period is gorgeous, lush and vivid, he says, because so many important games were played in the golden light of autumn afternoons.

Max majored in geology, but his first job, looking though a microscope trying to find rock patterns that would suggest oil reserves, taught him he loved science in theory more than practice. His father had been a weekend painter, and Max decided to live out his father's dream.

He was enrolled in 1981 in a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania and painted a centerfielder, alone, bathed in light. A prominent sociology professor raved about it - "He saw it as iconic, the state of man," Max said - and bought it. That same professor commissioned two more baseball paintings, and Max was on his way as a commercial artist with an emphasis on ballparks. He is married with a family, and his wife has a more traditional job, which has helped make his non-traditional life possible. His garage is his studio.

In 2009, a local friend whose company is based in San Diego commissioned a painting of Petco Park from Max. It turned out so well that Max decided to launch something he calls the "Ballpark Project." His goal is to paint every major-league ballpark, and blog as he goes. So far he's done Petco, Yankee Stadium in New York, Nationals Park in Washington, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Camden Yards in Baltimore, and Target Field in Minneapolis. (See them all at www.maxmasonartist.com.)

His prints cost $200 or $225, and his Ballpark Project paintings are $9,500. His other baseball paintings range from $800 to several thousand dollars, depending on size.

Max's three murals in Harry the K's are of Connie Mack Stadium, Veterans Stadium, and Citzens Bank Park.

"There were a lot of good things about the Vet that people don't talk about now because it's not in style," Max said. "There's a purity to it. Not a lot of visual clutter. I used to love it visually, because it was bright. I'd like to rejuvenate its reputation."

Max's favorite time at a ballgame is in the late innings, on his second beer, relaxed, enjoying the community that is created in the stands, as well as his beloved angles and light and lines.

First place or last, for Max a night at the ballpark is always a good night.

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-313-3518 or mvitez@phillynews.com. Follow @michaelvitez on Twitter.

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