By Tom Bartsch
For Michael Kupka, the answer to the age-old question of “What are you going to do with your life?” was always sports or art. Seems like an odd pairing for professional aspirations, but when you see Kupka’s artwork now, the influence from sports is overwhelming.
Kupka has been producing artwork since he was a kid, and played sports through his 30s. “I always thought if it wasn’t sports, it was going to be art,” he said. Life’s direction led him to the duCret School of Art in Plainfield, N.J., and then a freelance career in artwork. After seeing some example of his pieces, you can definitely say he made a good career choice.
Throwing himself into sports, Kupka built up a portfolio thanks largely to one client who couldn’t get enough of his work. In his early 20s, he was doing work of Pittsburgh Steelers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, among others, and really broke through with a signing with Mike Richter.
And then sports became an afterthought and Kupka entered a “dark” period in life. Don’t worry, it’s not what you think.
Kupka dabbled in entertainment figures and had done a piece featuring Ozzy Osbourne. At an art show, the Ozzy piece caught the eye of someone at Disney, who immediately thought of “villains” when he saw Kupka’s work. For the next eight years, Kupka drew characters not on Santa’s nice list for the entertainment giant, and also dabbled in some work for Lucas Films.
But sports continued to gnaw at him. He wanted back in the game and began doing one-man shows and co-illustrator shows along the East Coast to get his work back in front of the masses. The subject matter was easy. Kupka is a lifelong New York Yankees fan, idolizing Thurman Munson growing up. Much of his available work these days surrounds the Yankees franchise.
“With being on the East Coast, I’m going to go with what interests me, and I know galleries around me can move this,” Kupka said about the Munson and Derek Jeter works he currently has available. “To start off my company and get Thurman Munson’s people approval means a lot to me. It was nice to start the company off with that.”
While Munson is a name known to readers of SCD like Lincoln and Kennedy are known to the masses, Kupka is finding that isn’t the case in certain social media markets. When plugging his Munson and Jeter works on Facebook, many fans were clueless as to Munson, but couldn’t get enough Jeter.
Kupka chalked it up to “the age bracket difference that is Facebook.” However, even in that arena, everyone enjoyed his work.
“I like to do Hall of Famers and retirees,” he said. “I think that’s where the thinking is going to be with my company just because of the history of baseball.” Kupka said he does a lot of research with his paintings, and he is continually amazed at how the game has changed over time.
He’s also found that painting historical players is far different that creating fictional characters. The painting process is similar; it’s the behind-the-scenes paperwork that can muck everything up. Even with a Major League Baseball license in his back pocket, there are limitations as to what he can create and market, a process that has been taxing and ever-evolving as he learns the ropes, correct contact people and approval procedures. A Yankees Captains piece featuring 49 players is on the horizon if he can make it work.
For now in sports, Kupka is offering a Derek Jeter limited-edition giclee in various formats (ranging in price from $220 on paper to $600 on canvas), and a Munson giclee priced slightly cheaper. You can view all of his works at www.mikekupka.com.
Down the road, Kupka said he would love to do a Lou Gehrig piece. Currently, he’s working on original works featuring MLB logos in a vintage style that will have to be seen rather than trying to described in the printed word. He also takes submissions.
The one thing you won’t find with Kupka’s work is a lot of it – meaning there won’t be 500 or 1,000 pieces available for each format and subject. Kupka is interested in making his work a special item in a person’s collection.
“People don’t want anything out of 500 any more, or out of 50,” he said. “Everybody’s ‘wants’ as a collector are getting more sophisticated. They want that 1-of-1 or they want that sketch. If they do buy a print, they want you to embellish it or do a drawing on the back. They want something touched by the artist. They want something more exclusive. I want to do something more personal for collectors.”
To learn more about Michael Kupka and his work, call (908) 337-2321, visit his M4 Studios homepage at www.mikekupka.com or check him out on Facebook. The latter shows an example of his work with MLB logos.