|Working in the Dark Brings Flemington Artist Into the Light
James Fiorentino works in the dark – surprising, since his art has seen so much light.
“That’s the way I was taught,” said the 37-year-old artist, at his home studio in Flemington. “I keep the room as dark as I can, so I can see shadows on the paper.”
But when the work is done, it is so lifelike and luminous, you can count the whiskers on a tiger in one of Fiorentino’s wildlife paintings, or see the perpetual five o’clock shadow on Joe Torre’s face in a portrait of the former Yankee manager.
For more than 20 years, Fiorentino has been a nationally recognized sports portrait artist. A rendition of Reggie Jackson, one of Fiorentino’s first sports subjects, was displayed at the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was just 15 years old.
At 19, he was the youngest person to be accepted into the New York Society of Illustrators where he mounted one-man shows.
Since then, Fiorentino has met and painted presidents (George H.W. Bush, the 41st, and Bill Clinton), Nobel peace prize winners (Mikhail Gorbachev, Bishop Desmond Tutu), actors (Michael J. Fox and Richard Gere) and historic figures (Buzz Aldrin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia).
His painting of John Ford Point in Monument Valley (Ariz.) is stunning. It looks like a still from a classic Western." David Wagner, curator.
He has met Babe Ruth’s granddaughter and Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson after completing portraits of their famous relatives, as well as famous athletes and sports hall of famers by the dozens.
On the staircase leading down to his studio is the portrait that got it all started: Joe DiMaggio, drawn by Fiorentino when he was 14.
He brought it to an autograph show for DiMaggio to sign and the normally crusty Yankee great said, “ ‘Did you do this? This is pretty good,’ ’’ Fiorentino recalled. “We took a picture of him signing it.
“A guy in the line looked at me and said, ‘Do you realize what just happened?’ and I really didn’t. But there was Joe DiMaggio complimenting my work, and the guy offered me a couple of thousand (dollars) for it on the spot. I didn’t sell it and I’m glad I didn’t, for what it represents.”
What it represents is a boyhood dream not only coming true, but exceeding expectations. While still working only in watercolors, he has branched out from portraits, viewed critically as illustration, to fine art scenes of wildlife and landscapes.
David Wagner, whose company organizes and curates traveling art exhibits, has featured Fiorentino’s work in national shows. Some of Fiorentino’s wildlife art is now on display at Studio 7 in Bernardsville through the end of January.
“His painting of John Ford Point in Monument Valley (Ariz.) is stunning. It looks like a still from a classic Western,” Wagner said, from his home in Milwaukee. “He has a great feel for perspective and composition.”
On Fiorentino’s website is a picture of him taken at age 7, posing next to his painting of a swooping owl, with a blue ribbon stuck to the frame. In the picture, Fiorentino is wearing a Yankee jacket. Those elements reflected a window into his future.
He’s done commissioned portraits of Yankee greats, from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter. He’s won countless awards and now, he’s back to his first love: wildlife art.
Fiorentino is a member of the Society of Animal Artists and in recent years has exhibited in its annual national shows at the San Diego Natural History Museum and Bennington Museum, among others.
“I think seeing my work accepted in the fine arts this way is amazing,” he said.
Despite his success, Fiorentino still says “amazing” a lot and has a “pinch me, I’m dreaming” way about him when he speaks of the company he keeps.
“Amazing” was how he felt when his art was shown 15 years ago at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Rockwell is one of his art idols and, in Fiorentino’s studio, is a montage of Rockwell drawings – as well as a collection of brushes the great illustrator once used.
“This was a traveling exhibit and my work was hanging up there with people like Norman Rockwell and Charles Schulz,” he said. “It was amazing, and I think that was the first time I really felt I belonged in that kind of company. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m as good as Norman Rockwell …”
But, even as a prodigy, he has always been in demand. “I’ve never not had work,” Fiorentino said. “I always have a painting, or more than one, due.”
He estimates he has painted between “500 and 700 portraits,” which he contracts for “mostly between $3,000 and $5,000.”
When Fiorentino was 17, Ted Williams commissioned a portrait of himself surrounded by 19 of the other greatest hitters in baseball for a limited edition lithograph sale. Fiorentino sold the original painting 10 years ago “for five figures.”
Shortly after the Williams deal, Cal Ripken Jr. hired him to commemorate his consecutive game streak.
It’s gone on and on. His in-home gallery is like an all-sports hall of fame: Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali. The 1964 Cleveland Browns.Some of his sports art will be on exhibit this weekend at the Complete Athlete Expo at the New Jersey Convention and Expo Center in Edison.
But one of his greatest thrills was meeting Lewis and visiting the congressman’s office in the Capitol.
“I love history, and I’m in there with a person who was a part of Civil Rights history, who marched with Martin Luther King, and there were pictures of him with MLK and Lyndon Johnson. It was amazing.”
Wagner, the art curator, compares Fiorentino to the late LeRoy Nieman – not in style, but in his wide range of subject choices.
“LeRoy Nieman had this huge arc of work; sports, wildlife, landscape. I think James is just as prolific and he’s still young. Essentially, he’s just getting started.”
(Mark Di Ionno: firstname.lastname@example.org)