Life as a Can of Corn
Ron Russell paints baseball’s edible glossary
Published: October 24, 2012
Our national pastime—that swell American game in which a clock does not dictate when the lights go out—is a passion that breeds eccentrics.
Box-score nerds, bobble-head nuts, statistical savants.
And in East Baltimore, near the sandlots of Patterson Park, there lives a gentle house painter who creates portraits of ballplayers in action based on baseball metaphors inspired by food.
A dying quail.
And two types of no-utensils-needed sandwiches: a hero, when we think of Cal Ripken, and a hot dog, when we conjure up hatred for the pin-striped mercenaries north of Jersey.
Ron Russell is the man at the easel with the Orioles game tuned in on 1090 AM.
“My baseball work is limited to specific food terms,” says Russell, a 1970 (a year in which the Orioles won the World Series) graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who uses house paint to create his signature works. Though specific players may inspire a painting—the dying quail piece came after Randy Johnson inadvertently killed an errant pigeon with a fastball—generally there are no recognizable players in Russell’s work.
“I don’t use specific teams. I don’t get into personalities,” Russell, a 66-year-old native of Salisbury, says. “My work is the spirit of baseball.”
The spirit of baseball in Baltimore this year was one of exuberance, a 93-win season that banished 15 years of pitiful losing that had come to be known as “the suffering,” a delightful and unexpected stanching of aortas that bleed orange.
Kelly Lane, Russell’s longtime friend, baseball disciple, and fellow artist, got tired of being told by cynics not to get too excited, not to let the team’s April victories go to her head or those in July or, unbelievably, the ones in autumn. “I told everybody, ‘I’m going to get excited.’”
And Russell and his fellow Feathersby did get excited, until the Birds were eliminated by the Yankees on Oct. 12.
For a time during middle school, Russell lived in northern Louisiana when his insurance salesman father opened a dry goods store. This was the early 1960s, long before Atlanta got a major league team and most of the South rooted for the New York Yankees.
“I could never figure out how they could give me a hard time about being a ‘damn Yankee’ [from the north] but root for the New York Yankees,” said Russell, who abided his love for the Orioles through newspapers and his father’s short wave radio.
These days. Russell’s the guy painting the clapboards on your house with a radio hanging from his ladder with a hook normally used to hold a gallon of paint.
He has sipped many a beer at his neighborhood tavern—Roman’s Place on South Decker Avenue, known in the 1950s as a sour beef-and-dumplings joint called Hess’—through Orioles seasons of pain and humiliation since the last winning campaign, in 1997.
During those years, aside from a Ripken here and a Hoiles there, Russell could have painted many a picture of a goat roasting over a bed of coals at Camden Yards. This would be art that Nick Markakis—always a hero, never a goat—could appreciate from the fork and knife side of home plate.
Dying quail refers to a hard-hit fly ball that seems sure to leave the ballpark, the kind of blast of which Orioles announcer Joe Angel would say, “Wave that baby bye-bye.” However, like a quail shot in flight, the ball suddenly dies. A pickle is what a base runner gets himself into during a rundown. If the infielders let him escape, it’s a busted pickle. Baseball food metaphors, says Russell, are the “vocabulary” of his paintings.
“Goat” comes from “scapegoat,” a player whose lapse in performance causes his team to lose, usually in an important game. It is one of 7,000 entries in Paul Dickson’s “Dictionary of Baseball,” which Russell uses as reference.
The players in Russell’s artwork often sport handlebar mustaches and are typically shown in uniforms from the late 19th and early 20th century.
“Old-fashioned, yeah, that’s me,” said Russell. “In my baseball art, every player is wearing knickers. I can’t stand the long pants they wear [now]. They look like pajamas.”
Butterfingers and fork ball are self-explanatory.
But a can of corn?
A high-fly, easy-peasy catch, likely derived from the image of a long-gone grocer using a pole to tip a can of corn from the top shelf into his apron.
At Roman’s, where you can sometimes get a large spoonful of canned Shoepeg corn to complement your homemade lima bean soup, Russell sits three stools in from the door. He’s been there almost 30 years, having discovered the throwback gin mill after he bought a house on East Baltimore Street. He then befriended the Kuzmiw family that owns it.
“I’m in charge of the walls at Roman’s,” said Russell, which means he has turned the tiny saloon’s small dining room into exhibit space.
Often there are images of baseball on the walls, but now a Halloween show is up. It features the work of 12 artists, including Russell as well as photographer Jim Burger and Kelly Lane, founders of the annual Foodscape exhibit, which launched Ron’s baseball and cuisine project.
Russell’s contribution to the Halloween show is a photograph of his face on a paper skeleton that he spray-painted and posed in the wilds of Green Mount Cemetery.
But you want to know what Halloween really means to him?
That it’s only a little more than three months before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
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