The day before he presented a painting to Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, artist Opie Otterstad described the hundreds of celebrities he’s befriended over the years. He laboriously studies his subjects, going to their houses or calling organizations they’ve been affiliated with to ask for paraphernalia. He even goes so far as to mix dirt from a person’s home state into the paint he plans to use. His efforts pay off: He has brought athletes to tears with his work.
The 39-year-old official artist of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame has hundreds of patrons—including three presidents—whom he calls friends. He finds fellow Texans everywhere, even at a Philadelphia Phillies game for opening day, with a simple question, “Where y’all from?” We chatted with Otterstad about how he got started and why he considers himself a true Texan.
Tell us about the painting you will present at Yankee Stadium.
It’s in my nature to make things more complicated than they need to be, and I had twelve working days before its delivery. I went through 12,000 photographs looking for specific information on the gloves, bats, and special things the catcher and umpire had on [when Derek Jeter broke former New York Yankees player Lou Gehrig’s hits record]. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, I go to the athletes themselves. I got the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Louisville Slugger involved and ordered specially made bats to incorporate into the painting. I mixed the sawdust of a piece of Lou Gehrig’s bat and dirt from the old and new Yankee stadiums into the paint. This adds to the story of the painting and gives it part of a soul.
Have you ever thought of painting without doing any research?
I don’t want the painting just to tell a story. I want the painting to be a story. I want one of my pieces of art to stand alone as a beautiful painting, and I want you to stand in front of the piece of art and tell a story about the artist, about the things you see and the things you don’t see. If I’m painting someone from California, I want the wood to be from California and to mix in some dirt from California. I pick up stuff wherever I go. I have dirt from every stadium I’ve ever been in—all labeled—in case I want to make the painting into more of a story.
You really enjoy this.
I’m like a professional year-round Santa Claus. I sit in front of the canvas for a living and do whatever I want to do. There are no bounds to creativity. I’m like Dr. Frankenstein in Photoshop. If I don’t have an arm in the right place, I’ll light it just right and put my arm and leg in that. I get some wild, crazy, hair-brained ideas to show something in a very unique way, and that’s the patron base I’ve established. They expect me to come up with something that’s going to bring their wife to tears. Working in sports has given me these wonderful, amazing opportunities. I also did a piece on George H. W. Bush in his 1948 baseball uniform.
How did you get started?
I went to St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Northfield, Minnesota, and majored in studio art and psychology. During the summer I would sit at the front desk doodling and drawing at the Baylor College of Medicine in