AN INVESTMENT IN ART
By BRANDON HURLEY
Kevin Richards’ mesmerizing artistic talents have generated unlikely relationships with some of the world’s most famous athletes.
The Greene County elementary and middle school art teacher has parlayed his authentic pencil drawings into adventures that rival even some of the zaniest sports fanatics.
There’s the time Shaquille O’Neal personally invited him onto the Orlando Magic team bus. Or when Ernie Banks, while simultaneously asking for some of Randy Bunkers’ donuts, also requested Richards draw a personal portrait of the hall of fame Chicago Cub.
Georges Niang gave the art teacher a personal tour of the ISU practice facility and Monte Morris signed prints on his sticky, off-campus apartment counter in Ames.
He’s met Ken Griffey, Jr. and the legendary Cal Ripken, Jr. He’s been turned down by the world’s most renowned athletes and struck up friendships with the unlikeliest of champions.
Richards can even call on favors from former national champion and Nebraska athletic director, Tom Osborne. The work the local artist has created over the last 28 years has taken him along avenues he could only dream of achieving.
The breathtaking process is as fascinating as the drawings are remarkable, and it all grew out of a simple curiosity and passion.
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Nearly three decades full of work is scattered throughout Richards’ Jefferson basement. In closets, spare rooms, in a file cabinet, and most prominently, along the walls of this makeshift art gallery.
Pictures of his interaction with hundreds of famous athletes also line the walls and table tops.
Richards’ drawings take roughly 80 hours to produce, spanning several months. He’ll spend 2-5 hours working at a time drawing, surrounded by memorabilia, framed pictures and hundreds of his creations.
He’s sketched the likes of Michael Jordan, Kurt Warner, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Fred Hoiberg. He’s also drawn Mark McGwire, Kris Bryant, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Name an athlete and Richards has most likely sketched him or her, multiple copies of said athlete as well.
There’s no real formula to who or what he draws, the teacher often goes off preference or requests, from athletes themselves or organizations.
“A lot of the guys were just because I liked them,” Richards said.
The Greene County faculty member graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in art education in 1989. Shortly thereafter, he took a position at what was then, Jefferson-Scranton High School. He’s taught art to the students ever since, for 28 years.
Once he took up drawing as more than just a hobby, Richards gravitated toward what came naturally to him, baseball and pencil sketches.
He picked Don Mattingly, a former New York Yankee and his favorite player, as his first test subject.
The finished piece hangs on the nearside wall of his studio to this day. He even met Mattingly personally in an Indiana cafe. It was a cold, blustery night in which Richards gambled and drove out east, hoping the former first baseman would make an appearance at his Evansville restaurant.
“It’s still my favorite drawing,” Richards said. “I heard he was there at times, and took a chance and he was there. He signed it.
“He looked like a Yankee. With the mustache and the way he played,” Richards added. “He was a great player.”
There’s a little more to the drawing process than pure passion, though. Richards takes his time, pushing himself to make each creation as authentic as possible.
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If Barry Manilow, James Taylor or even the Carpenters are gently flowing through the basement speakers, Richards is in his creative zone.
He has a heavy rotation of music he plays while drawing, a collection that also includes Bon Jovi, Boston and Earth Wind and Fire.
The simplicity and purity of pencil drawing pulled Richards into the medium.
“I’ve always liked straight pencil art,” he said. “I admire the painters, but there’s just something about drawing with pencil.”
The detail Richards achieves with a pencil sets the technique apart.
“You can get the photo-realistic quality out of it, the black and white photography style,” Richards said. “That’s why I like black and white photography too, because it reminds me of pencil.”
The art form is a bit more forgiving than painting or drawing with colors. Richards, while exceptionally detail-orientated, doesn’t have to be as precise with every line or shade since colors aren’t in play and he can shade easier.
“I make mistakes all the time, but I’ll draw over them so you can’t notice it,” he said. The key is taking his time.
“I work slow so it’s easier to fix,” the art teacher said.
Each painting is a collage of images, hand-picked by Richards. He decides which poses will fit and what he wants in the background.
Choosing the right photos has become tedious over the years. When he first commissioned the drawings in 1990 pre-internet, it was a struggle at times to find images, but the pool of available images was much smaller. He mainly used magazines and newspaper photos. Now, thousands of images of any given athlete are at his disposal.
Similar to a writer, Richards goes through periods of struggle. A chair sits idly by near his work space if he needs to watch some baseball during a mental break, which happens often.
He’ll often let the blank canvas marinate while he zones in on the perfect images, in search of motivation. It’s not just the right image, but Richards’ must contemplate how they will all fit together.
“Sometimes, my drawing will sit on the table for a long time because I don’t know what to do next,” Richards said. “I’ll be watching TV and then I’ll look over at the drawing and have an idea.”
Richards draws on a strict 16-by-20-inch canvas, using only pencil – which surprisingly, he says he’ll only need three for an entire piece.
Richards didn’t draw faces until he graduated from college. He didn’t want to screw it up and didn’t have the desire to dedicate all that time to those details. His early drawings lacked precision.
That anxiety led him astray of any life drawing classes in college – his expertise blossomed on the fly.
“I’ve learned the anatomy of the face just from practice,” Richards said. “Drawing small is hard.”
The subject matter was easy though, he just tapped into a life-long hobby.
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Richards exudes a true passion for sports, baseball in particular. But he’s not just a fan. He’s become a historian, striking up friendships with an array of great athletes. Richards’ friendship with Iowa State basketball legend Gary Thompson grew from his honorary ambassador role with ISU. Richards drew a collage of the first ISU Hall of Fame class in 1997. Thompson was intrigued and the guys hit it off, staying in touch with regularity.
Richards latched onto the Yankees when he played for the local Yankees in his Babe Ruth Youth League. The Major League players and the uniforms attracted Richards to the Bronx Bombers and that love has never wavered.
“I liked the old Yankees, Thurman Munson and those guys,” Richards said. “I liked the colors of the team. Which may sound weird, but being an art teacher, I like colors. The black and the gray and the dark blue. And I like the history, too.”
It’s fitting then, the final touch for each Richards’ painting is an authentic autograph. Every fanatic’s Holy Grail of memorabilia.
Naturally, there’s a story behind each one and the lengths he went to to obtain it. He seeks out the athlete, in person. Following them to games, guest appearances and even at their respective restaurants.
Richards openly calls himself an autograph hound, but without the various John Hancock’s, the authenticity wouldn’t be as captivating. He’s spent hours waiting for the opportune time to pounce.
Of course, with the reputation of an autograph hound comes his fare share of rejections.
Tom Brady asked for $2,000 and Derek Jeter refused to sign. Alex Rodriquez wanted several hundred as well. Sammy Sosa signed on the second request but wouldn’t take a picture.
The nicest athletes Richards has met were Cal Ripken, Jr., Ernie Banks and Gael Sayers.
His encounter with Shaq was in Minneapolis, Minnesota on a brutally cold winter night in the 1990s. The seven-foot tall future Hall-of-Famer came out of the locker room with, what Richards said, the biggest fur coat he’d ever seen.
Richards followed him to the bus and stood outside his window, holding out his print of O’Neal. Suddenly, a man inside the bus pointed at him to come inside.
Richards climbed aboard the bus and showed him the drawing.
“He thought it was cool,” Richards said. “He signed it and wanted me to draw one for him,”
Richards has hundreds more stories just like that, chance encounters, picking the right moments, taking risks, and often traveling long distances.
He’s been to hundreds of professional games, traveled to card shows, signings, seminars and fanfests.
Autographs in the 90s before the increased terrorist threats came much easier. He’d often wait for an athlete to leave the stadium or arena or snoop around their hotel. Today, security teams make chance autographs nearly impossible.
Richards will do favors for organizations and sell his prints at the Iowa State Fair as well as arts and craft shows.
His Greene County students are aware of the spectacular pieces Richards creates on the side, and he’ll teach the kids the same drawing tactic he uses for the collages, the grid method, in which a grid is sketched over the image for reference, then it’s mirrored match for scale onto the blank canvas.
“I have a short time with the students in class, so we don’t spend a whole lot on drawing but it is the foundation of art,” Richards said.
He’ll often give away some of his prints to students for good behavior.
“Since I’m an art teacher, I am supposed to draw,” he said.
The next step for Richards is perhaps moving on to retired athletes or those who have passed away. Athletes today often change teams thanks to free agency and trades and new sponsorships, it’s stirred up a few frustrations with Richards. He might draw the line sooner than later.
He’s currently working on a collage of the late Johnny Orr, who coached the ISU men’s basketball program for many years. Richards is also in the early stages of a Chicago Cubs World Series tribute, in which he’ll depict 12 athletes, one of his most ambitious projects ever. He’s on pace to complete five new drawings this year, “unprecedented,” for him, Richards said.
The Naz Mitrou-Long and Monte Morris drawings are his most recent creations. They were essentially spur of the moment pieces.
“I wasn’t even going to [draw them], but they are so popular and they are so well liked,” Richards said. “So I said, I’ll do a less involved drawing of each. It took about 50 hours each.”
Time will only tell, but who will Richards draw next?