"When I retired, it was like I had no other option. I never made a résumé in my life. I just was passionate about art," said Johnson. "So I said, 'Let's go.'"
Published: 2020-11-18 06:00 am
How MLB player-turned-artist Micah Johnson is celebrating Black boyhood

If one thing defined Micah Johnson's early years, it was his obsession with baseball.

"From literally 3 years old — which is when I first started playing baseball — until I retired, baseball was my focus," Johnson said. "I didn't care about anything else."

That dedication paid off. He was drafted by the Chicago White Sox after two seasons on Indiana University's baseball team and eventually played for several major-league teams, including the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Johnson's singular focus on sports was part of the reason he was as surprised as anyone else when he discovered a talent for fine art in his 20s.

Micah Johnson works on a painting called "Enlightened."Victoria Phillips

"Even in my high school, I had no idea where the art classes were," he said. It wasn't until a team-building exercise led by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts during spring training in 2016 that he both began to seriously explore his interest in art and to let his teammates know about his artistic side.

"He had this routine where he'd ask people to introduce themselves and say what they like to do, and then he'd make them do it," said Johnson, who happened to have taken his first painting class just a few months before. While he also had experience playing the piano, "I didn't want to play piano in front of the whole team, so I said 'painting.'" After he finished his first painting — of Hall of Famer Maury Wills — he started to become known on the team and throughout baseball as an artist.

Soon after, Johnson began taking commissions and exhibiting his art, including debuting an installation at the W Hotel in Atlanta in 2018 and creating a mural featuring a portrait of Jackie Robinson that was displayed at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2017. He also began occasionally creating works for his fellow baseball players, most notably a portrait of Ken Griffey Jr. for Rays pitcher Blake Snell and a tattoo design for Milwaukee second baseman Jace Peterson.

Johnson's burgeoning art career was also instrumental in helping him make the transition into post-baseball life following his retirement in 2018. While many professional athletes struggle to adjust shortly after retirement, Johnson said knowing that he had the skills to start painting and creating professionally made the jump easier.

"When I retired, it was like I had no other option. I never made a résumé in my life. I never had an interview. I don't have a college degree. I just was passionate about art," said Johnson, who turns 30 in December. "So I said, 'Let's go.'"

Perhaps surprising to some, Johnson's post-baseball art rarely focuses on sports. Instead, he regularly explores themes that center Black children and social issues. After one of his young nephews wondered aloud whether there were Black astronauts, Johnson was struck by the lack of representation of Black Americans in visualizations about science and space.

The mixed media art piece follows two real-life young brothers named Jacque, 7, and Rayden, 8.Micah Johnson / Micah Johnson

Astronauts are also a major part of Johnson's latest major work, sä-v(ə-)rən-tē (pronounced "sovereignty"), which was created in collaboration with the blockchain-based art platform Async Art. The mixed media art piece follows two real-life young brothers named Jacque, 7, and Rayden, 8.

Sä-v(ə-)rən-tē is an interactive art installation using photography. The image will evolve to tell the story of Jacque's and Rayden's coming of age over the next 11 years.

The boys are depicted in a field standing before what Johnson describes as a "door of opportunity" that has a friendly-looking astronaut standing on the other side. The door will slowly open up every year on each child's birthday until eventually the children are face to face with the astronaut, who serves as a visual representation of their dreams.

One of the elements that makes the work unique is that viewers will be able to make Bitcoin donations to college funds for each child on their birthdays, as the display also changes on those days to reveal what they want to be when they grow up, along with a QR code connected to a Bitcoin wallet. Each child will then be able to access his college fund when he turns 18.

Jacque's and Rayden's 18th birthdays are also when each will disappear from the image, as their journey to adulthood will then be complete. Sä-v(ə-)rən-tē recently sold at auction to a private collector for $120,000. Because the art is programmable, its new owner can also control whether or not the astronaut is revealed to the public.

Visitors to Los Angeles will be able to view the work from Dec. 7 through Jan. 10, when it will be displayed on a billboard outside the Courtyard Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Johnson said creating something that incorporated blockchain seemed like a natural fit. "Bitcoin is that alternative to a financial system that historically has been oppressive against the Black community. Bitcoin is owned by nobody," he said. "You don't have to go ask for permission to do anything. You're in control."

As Johnson continues to promote sä-v(ə-)rən-tē and his other art, the attention on his second act has not been lost on his former teammates.

"I have plenty of teammates that are like 'hey, I want a painting,' and they first asked me a while back," he said. When he explains how much his work costs now, "they're like 'I had no idea.' They're like 'I should have got you in spring training.'"

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