For men of a certain age, few childhood memories are as vivid as the ones created on a trip to a big league baseball game. I can remember my first game better than I remember what I had for lunch last Tuesday, even though that game was many decades ago, in a ballpark long since demolished. So a couple of days ago when I saw Jarrett Ferrier's new mural on a building at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Livingston Street in Washington, I was immediately charmed. Ferrier's subject is the nostalgia of an aging man for a time and a team and a ballpark that, along with his youth, have vanished.
In this case, the ballpark is Griffith Stadium, from 1911 to 1960 the home of the reliably mismanaged, perennially woebegone Senators. The Senators were bad enough to cause a wise guy in the press box to coin a saying, "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." They also inspired a novel by a local boy named Douglas Wallop, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," about a scenario in which the Senators beat out New York because a fan sells his soul to the devil. The book begat the Broadway musical and movie "Damn Yankees," which undoubtedly made more money than the ballclub did for its penurious owners before they moved it to Minnesota.
The aging fan is Richard Cohen, whose company owns the building. Fortunately, Cohen has memories happier than the won-lost record of D.C.'s original baseball franchise, and those are the ones he commissioned Ferrier to preserve. Cohen remembers riding the streetcar down Georgia Avenue to the stadium (which was located on the land now occupied by Howard University's hospital). He remembers buying bleacher tickets for fifty cents apiece and hot dogs for a quarter. He remembers the sight and smell of the freshly cut outfield grass and President Truman throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day.
So those, rather than the Senators' actual play on the field, are what Ferrier set out to depict in six panels that run for perhaps twenty-five feet along the southern wall of 5513 Connecticut, adjacent to signs hawking the wares of one of the building's principal tenants, Circle Liquors. (The building is also home to a Korean-owned laundry I patronize, which means that on a single visit I can now get a good bottle of wine, properly cleaned shirts, a chance to appreciate art and baseball nostalgia--a game-winning four-bagger if ever there was one.)
I'm not sure that kids today will ever remember baseball in the soft, bright colors that Ferrier used to render Richard Cohen's memories. Back then, kids listened to baseball on the radio, or they watched fuzzy images on the tiny screen of a black-and-white television set. When a father or a grandfather or an older brother actually took them to a game, the sight of real, emerald-green grass on the field and the snowy uniforms of the home team took a kid's breath away. We were dazzled the way, I guess, that the masterworks painted in the cathedrals of Italy during the Renaissance were meant to dazzle the peasants. Kids today are introduced to baseball via big screen, hi-def television, and I assume they'll be harder to impress when they have the live experience.
Nor are the kids of today likely to recognize some of the faces and places Ferrier painted into the mural at the request of his patron. The kid with the hot dog on the left above is based on an old photo of Richard Cohen. Another panel shows, in the background, a Georgia Avenue store called Dox Liquors, which was owned by the parents of Cohen's wife, Judi. And Cohen was a big Elvis Presley fan. That accounts for the face of the guy selling tickets on the right.
This is what a muralist like Jarrett Ferrier does. He gives the customers what they want while he gives the city what it needs--art and a sense of its own past. It's in the nature of the job. A standard-issue artist can buy canvas and paint whatever he wants. A muralist like Ferrier has to wait until someone who owns a suitable wall approaches him. (This applied as well to fresco artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who gave the owners of the ceilings and walls they painted what the owners wanted.)
Sometimes, Ferrier says, the customer is a restaurant, or a hospital. They might want a scene to soothe patients or make customers feel like ordering another bottle of wine. Sometimes the patron is a parent with a desire to have a circus scene painted in a child's bedroom. Ferrier's done mural work on the side of a little barbecue joint on 37th Street, NW.
And he's got a new work decorating the side of a staircase in that connects the two segments of W Place around Tunlaw Road, NW. It's a mural tribute to Charles C. Glover, a major figure in Washington in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but a man who is now, I suspect, largely forgotten. Glover, the president of what was then Washington's largest bank, was instrumental in the creation of the National Cathedral, Rock Creek Park, the Embassy Row area of Massachusetts Avenue and the National Zoo. Ferrier's home neighborhood in D.C., Glover Park, is named for him. The patron for the Glover mural was the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Ferrier obligingly painted faux stonework into his work to mask the bare concrete walls of the new staircase.
Ferrier actually painted the Glover mural in situ, and it will be subject to the vicissitudes of light and weather. Happily, the Griffith Stadium work will be more durable, or at least easier to restore. Ferrier did the paintings for the work in his studio. They were then scanned and rendered digitally by his wife Jodi, a graphic artist. The digital versions were used to make enlarged versions that were then pasted to the panels on the side of Circle Liquors like wallpaper. (Ferrier's got a time-lapse video of the painting process on his web site, on the blog page.) So if the mural fades, a new version can be printed and installed.
Or, copies can be made and installed elsewhere. There are new buildings being constructed on Half Street SE between the Navy Yard Metro Station and Nats Park. They seem like a natural site for a mural that reminds the new generation of Washington baseball fans of the simple pleasures that an older generation once took from the game.