Sunday, June 22, 2003

Family delivers in clutch for Bats Incredible!

Artist-mother needed help to meet deadline for 'An Amazing Club' tribute

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Thirty-seven bats are wired together in Collins' salute to the wire-to-wire world champion Cincinnati Reds of 1990.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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Jan Collins is staring at 37 Louisville Sluggers rolling around the cold concrete of her basement floor and asking herself, "What have I gotten myself into?"

Bats Incredible!, that's what she got herself into on this frigid February afternoon. The 47-year-old Ohio Township artist - she's also an advertising artist, wife and mother of two baseball-crazed teenage boys - had just accepted delivery of the bats for "An Amazing Club," her entry in this summer's Bats Incredible! art project.

"An Amazing Club," standing in the Cincinnatian Hotel, is dedicated to the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, the team that went wire to wire in first place.

The elaborate piece consists of 37 cartoon-style portraits, one per bat, of the team's 37-player roster. All are in full Reds uniforms, complete with ball caps a friend made out of the fenders of wrecked cars.

[IMAGE] Collins did the faces toward the end, in mid-March. Supplies were spread in the basement of her Clermont County home for more than a month.
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It's a strange media for an artist to work in, but Collins has painted on unusual surfaces before. She once went through a period where she accepted commissions to paint on casts. She paints faces. She dresses dogs and cats for pictures - like the two Yorkies in tux and bridal gown.

Anyway, her head's clearing now on this winter day and she understands what she's gotten herself into - a lot of work in a short period of time. Better come up with a plan.

"Honestly, at this point I was thinking, 'Why couldn't this have come up when I was only working part time at the Art Museum?' With a full-time job, I knew I'd be working on it early morning, late nights and weekends."

She did that often, with her family in bed and only her three cats and two dogs to keep her company. She also volunteers at the League For Animal Welfare and is a sucker for those pleading looks only animals know how to give.

Prime research time

Her plan emerges as a series of steps, with No. 1 taking place over the project's first weekend. Because the bats are unfinished, they will need a primer coat, something that can't be done while the bats are lying flat. An uneven coat of primer simply won't do.

So she and a gaggle of family and friends drill holes in the tips of each one for hooks so the bats can hang from an overhead bar while being sprayed. Her brother does the spraying for her.

Then the work comes to a standstill for drying time. Bats hang motionless, untouched by human hands, for two days while Collins impatiently waits them out.

Might as well use the time productively, though. Even a baseball fan as devoted as Collins - she has tapes of old Reds games, keeps team records on her computer, used to play softball for the Famous Recipe Chicklets, even spends vacations with the family visiting ballparks in other cities - can't possibly remember what all 37 players looked like.

"At that point I raided (sons) Kris and Nick's scrapbooks of photos and baseball cards."

A day later and she has a cork board full of smiling ball players propped against the basement wall. A few feet away, primed and sanded bats lie in a row, ready for step two, the start of the paint job.

Quarters here are cramped. It's an average-sized basement already crowded with her sons' home gym and a fully functional batting cage. Thirty-seven bats, a large cork board and no telling how many cans of paint add to the confusion.

"Everyone had a different opinion on what paint to use, so I went to Sherwin-Williams and talked to the district office. They suggested a sheer acrylic because of the color retention and durability. At the time, I didn't know if it would be outdoors or in, so I settled on that."

Feeling wired

She also needed advice on how to mount 37 bats that had to stand upright - a horizontal ball club doesn't work - but couldn't stand on their own. That solution came from her welder friend, who designed a round steel platform with slots the bat knobs could slip into. It would be mounted on three posts designed to look like feet.

Then the whole thing would be wired together in a large circle.

"That was the hardest part of the project - holding up the 37 bats all at once so we could measure for the wire. It's a juggling act."

Facing facts

Oh, and the basement's colder now because of the fans she has set up to speed drying of the white pants she has just painted onto the shaft of 37 bats.

So it's paint pants and wait. Oops, they need two more coats. Paint and wait. Paint red shoes and wait. Paint red shirts and wait. No, the red shirts need another coat. And another. Four in all to get the color right.

By now it's mid-March, a month into the project, and "I'm ready to start on faces. They're going to be cartoon-style, not caricatures, but they still have to be recognizable. It's going to be exacting work."

Right. Squint at board, squint at bat, dab on paint and do it fast. She's supposed to finish by the end of March - 13 days away - so it can be installed in the Visitor Center on Fountain Square (it was later moved to the Cincinnatian).

"I sometimes find myself down here at 5:30 in the morning, I'm so determined to be finished on time. But I think I'll make it."

She did, even leaving herself a couple of days for the final steps - stenciling on players' numbers and Reds logo, then mounting on the steel plate.

"There's no way I could have done this without help. And I mean everyone helped - friends, family, (husband) Kevin, the kids. The whole project was such a joy because it was a full family affair, but also because it combines the two of the loves of my life - art and baseball."

Bats Incredible! is Cincinnati's sequel to the Big Pig Gig and Flower Power. It's more than 200 sculptures and paintings made from bats and located on the streets of downtown Cincinnati, Newport and Covington. They'll be there until the World Series, then auctioned off for an assortment of charities.

For information or to view all the bats and their locations, go to Web site.


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