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Blake McFarland’s Path From Minor League Pitcher to Skilled Artist

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As Blake McFarland got here bounding through the doors of Gallery 85, Patrick Powell figured he was taking a look at yet one more football player hoping to make a connection along with his boss. In a way, he was right.

It was 2015, and Powell was managing the art gallery on behalf of his client Vernon Davis, an N.F.L. tight end who was fidgeting with San Francisco on the time. While their predominant clientele was art buyers, greater than a couple of former college football and N.F.L. practice squad players would pop in hoping that Davis could help them get one other shot on the league. McFarland, at 6-foot-5 and 230 kilos with a granite jaw line and muscles testing the structural integrity of his T-shirt, looked the part.

But while McFarland had played football in highschool, and was an expert athlete, he was in search of something entirely different. Having just finished his fifth season pitching within the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league system, McFarland drove to the gallery on Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., in hopes of showing off his artwork: a panther he had constructed from recycled bicycle tires.

Powell was impressed with the piece and told McFarland he could be willing to place it within the gallery as long as Davis approved. But when Davis saw it, he got here up with a special plan: He bought it from McFarland on the spot and asked for 2 more sculptures to indicate on the gallery floor.

“Blake was just doing this as a hobby,” Powell said. “He didn’t even know what price to ask for. Then he sold that first piece to Vernon throughout the hour, and he sold several additional pieces with us. He had essentially the most successful pieces in our gallery by far.”

For McFarland, those first commissions and sales were validation. They gave him the arrogance to make a wildly unorthodox profession transition from skilled baseball player to skilled artist.

“Going from baseball to art was fun,” McFarland said. “It was also scary. I used to be just occurring a whim, hoping my work would sell. I remember the night that first piece sold. My wife and I opened a bottle of champagne to rejoice.”

McFarland can remember tinkering with tools for many of his life. His father was a hardwood flooring contractor who could fix anything, but McFarland was more fascinated by making things from scratch. At home, he would shape wood into bows and arrows. At college, he’d fill his notebooks with sketches of his two passions: baseballs and ocean scenes.

“At first,” he said, “I didn’t really consider it as art.”

By the point he got to highschool, McFarland’s predominant focus was baseball. He was a star pitcher at San Jose’s Leigh High School but didn’t get any college scholarship offers. After a couple of years at junior colleges, he transferred to San Jose State, where he began 30 games, completing six of them. He went undrafted in 2011 and commenced his pro profession with the Vancouver Canadians of the low Class A Northwest League.

And not using a large bonus to hold him through his minor league years, McFarland knew he would want to search out work through the off-season. And he knew he didn’t want that work to involve baseball. Although many minor leaguers spend their off-seasons coaching, McFarland needed a break.

He turned to art, which at that time involved scouring Craigslist for broken surfboards, repairing them and painting murals on them — after which reselling them on Craigslist.

“The margins weren’t that great,” he said, laughing. “I purchased the boards for $100 to $200 and I sold them for $400 to $600, and I could only finish about 10 through the off-season. But I learned lots. The predominant lesson was: It’s harder to be an expert painter than a serious league pitcher. I actually consider that.”

He got the thought to work with tires after seeing a serpent made out of tractor tires on display as a public piece of art at a park near his home. He sourced automobile and motorcycle tires from local auto body shops but learned a tough lesson: Those forms of tires are too thick to chop, and so they are illegal to throw away.

Finding and manipulating bicycle tires proved to be more manageable, even when it made a multitude within the apartment he shared along with his girlfriend, Jessica.

“I remember searching at him on our balcony in winter and seeing him covered in tire grease and foam mold and pondering, ‘I’m never going to have a clean home,’” said Jessica McFarland, a physician, whom Blake married in 2012. “At the identical time, I used to be grateful that he had this outlet and this plan for his life after baseball. Sometimes when guys retire, they’re overwhelmed with what they’ll do next. Blake was capable of let go of baseball more easily.”

In November 2015, the Blue Jays put McFarland on their 40-man roster — a vote of confidence that protected him from being chosen by one other team within the Rule 5 draft. But during spring training he injured his shoulder and wasn’t capable of throw in any respect. He underwent surgery, worked his way through two years of rehab and tried stem cell therapy, but nothing worked.

“I actually have little question that Blake would have been a serious league pitcher if he hadn’t gotten injured,” said Taylor Cole, a pitcher who played and rehabbed with McFarland within the Blue Jays system for several years. “He threw like 94 miles per hour, but he had this ball that was invisible. He threw it at the highest of the zone and guys couldn’t hit it. What he could do then is much more wanted by teams today.”

Throughout the two off-seasons when he was attempting to get his shoulder right, McFarland managed to attain the most important commissions of his art profession: creating custom tire sculptures for the Cotton Bowl. For the January 2017 game, his first working with the Cotton Bowl, he built a life-size Bronco for Western Michigan and an enormous Bucky the Badger for Wisconsin.

Will Clanfield, an executive at a public relations firm hired by Goodyear, which sponsored the bowl games, discovered McFarland’s website a couple of pages deep on Google search results for tire sculptors and was struck by how perfectly McFarland’s personal history fit with the project. “You’re talking a few guy who was within the minors, had an arm of a lifetime before an injury ended up cutting his profession short,” Clanfield said. “He didn’t let that completely sink him. As a substitute, he took that drive that made him an expert pitcher and made himself successful in a completely different field.”

With the Goodyear contracts and his independent commissions, McFarland was making more cash sculpting than he was pitching; and along with his shoulder still not cooperating, he retired from baseball in 2017. He was only 29.

“Baseball taught me the habits and the discipline which have helped me succeed up to now within the art world,” McFarland said. “I didn’t get big scholarship offers, and I didn’t get drafted, and so I needed to work harder than everyone else in baseball. I feel the identical way about my art.”

He added: “I attempt to learn from every mistake and refine every technique until it’s the very best I actually have the flexibility to make it.”

Although he still works with tires, he has received more commissions recently for his work with wood and epoxy. He developed a way for cooling epoxy that permits him to pour thick layers without it cracking or breaking, which he has used to create whales, rhinos and horses.

“I get bored very easily,” he said. “I don’t need to keep doing the identical thing over and all over again. I don’t need to be referred to as just the tire sculptures guy or simply the epoxy guy.”

As for that first sale, the panther tire sculpture: Davis took it with him when he moved from San Francisco to Denver and nevertheless when he returned home to Washington to complete his football profession. Davis, who has transitioned into acting, recently asked McFarland to create a custom sculpture commemorating his N.F.L. profession — a request from one athlete and artist to a different.

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