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Art: Newly reopened museum celebrates baseball history
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Art: Newly reopened museum celebrates baseball history

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The weeks have been long without many of our favorite activities – concerts, sporting events, social gatherings, and most of all for many of us, visits to our favorite museums. Much to our delight on June 9, the art museum experience returned.

Beginning last week and running through Aug. 30, The Susquehanna Art Museum at the Marty and Tom Philips Art Center (SAM at the Marty) will generously share their art galleries with the public for 72 days with no admission fee, reflecting the same number of days the museum was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, there are designated special hours, from 10 a.m. to noonn Tuesdays through Fridays and from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesdays for “by appointment only/socially-distanced visits.” These visits are offered in consideration of visitors who might wish to avoid coming into close contact with others for whatever reason at this time. Reservations may be made for one to 10 guests during these specifically noted hours.

Further, the museum has put into place some new ways of visiting. Masks will be worn by all and at all times. Staff and volunteers will follow strict hand-washing procedures with temperatures taken each time they enter the building. Staff will also sanitize high-touch public areas regularly throughout each day.

The museum has always had a weekly professional sanitizing cleaning on Mondays and will continue with that weekly. All of these protocols have been put into place to assure the health and safety of visitors, staff and volunteers alike.

Yet while the museum experience has returned, “America’s pastime” has not. With the indefinite delay of the major and minor league baseball in 2020, fans looking for a substitute for action on the field can luckily find it represented at the reopened Susquehanna Art Museum with the institution’s exhibition “Separate and Unequaled: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Negro League.”

On Feb. 13, 1920, former baseball player and manager Andrew “Rube” Foster gathered eight other independent African-American team owners to form the official Negro National Baseball League. Rival leagues then formed in Eastern and Southern states. This brought teams to major urban centers and rural towns in the U.S., Canada and Latin America. The leagues set a high level of professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many African-American communities, including Harrisburg.

Until 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Negro Leagues were the only options for African-American and Latino baseball players. Many players on Negro League teams are remembered by baseball historians as equally talented as those playing in the all-white major leagues. While Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers marked the beginning of the end of segregation in baseball, it was another 15 years before all major league teams had even a single black player.

Artists Phillip Dewey, Graig Kreindler, Paul Kuhrman and Dane Tilghman bring great artistic talent and a remarkable understanding of the rich history of the Negro League to this show. It is a creative and aesthetic celebration of this remarkable legacy.

Dewey’s “The Detroit Diesel: Norman ‘Turkey’ Stearnes” finds the player in his familiar spot in center field at Hamtramck Stadium during a warm-up. This oil on canvas captures the strength and dignity of this outstanding player within an elaborate frame made of woodwork and found objects. Subtle details such as Stearnes’ lifetime batting average on a freight train behind the grandstand and an industrial foundry depicted on the mantle above complete the story.

Found objects also play an important role in Dewey’s work, “Big Luke: Luke Easter.” Within this oil on canvas painting depicting Easter slugging away, there are several cigar boxes containing playing cards and painted Easter style eggs that celebrate his memorable home runs throughout his playing career both in the Negro and major leagues.

Kreindler’s “Quiet Confidence” oil on linen has Josh Gibson crouched in his catcher’s stance. The conviction one sees in the subject of this portrait points to Gibson’s status as the second Negro League player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Indeed, Gibson’s feats, including a 580-foot home run at Yankee Stadium, led him to be called “the black Babe Ruth.”

Tilghman’s “Play at Third” captures the excitement and action on the field. This acrylic on paper has the look and feel of a comic book illustration or caricature. The elongated, exaggerated figure also exudes modernist energy with its cropping and unusual perspective.

Tilghman also celebrates the lesser-known, but equally important Larry Doby. Depicted realistically in both his Newark Eagles and Cleveland Indians’ uniforms, Doby broke the color barrier along with Robinson, and despite many indignities, proved his worth and skill in the game, including being the first African American to hit a home run in World Series play.

An allusion to art history can be found in Kuhrman’s “The Three Graces of Indianapolis: Mamie Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan.” Based on the early 14th century masterpiece by Renaissance painter Raphael, the work pays homage to both the delicate grace of the original and to some of the first professional female baseball players.

The 100th anniversary of the formation of the Negro National Baseball League is especially important to Harrisburg thanks to the proud history of the Harrisburg Giants. The Giants joined the Eastern Colored League in 1924 with Hall of Fame center fielder Oscar Charleston as a playing manager. They played with the Eastern League through 1927.

Dewey celebrates this special legacy with “Rap Dixon.” Dixon, who both started his career in and retired to nearby Steelton, gained fame playing with the Harrisburg Giants and later played memorably for several teams in the Negro Leagues including the Baltimore Black Sox, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. The subdued tones of this oil on canvas painting remind one of a vintage photograph.

“Separate and Unequaled” appeals to the art lover, the historian, as well as the baseball fan. Its remembrance of the Negro League stars gives an important understanding of an era in sports history that needs to be both celebrated for its greatness and examined as part of a darker chapter in American history. The relevance of this exhibition has only grown timelier since its initial installation as the need to educate the broader community on the contributions of African Americans to sports as well as American history is more important than ever.

“Separate and Unequaled: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Negro League” will be on display at the Susquehanna Art Museum through Oct. 18, 2020.

SAM at the Marty is open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays; from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays; and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The museum will limit the total number of guests to 25 at any one time during these open hours. Visitors may book a “socially-distanced appointment” at 717-233-8668. For more information on visiting the museum, visit susquehannaartmuseum.org.

Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent over 30 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the local art scene for seven years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.

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