L.A.-based artist Gena Milanesi is a fascinating interview subject. Sometimes soft spoken and reserved, she is equally full of compelling stories and facts and not what you expect at all. A passionate Lakers and soccer fan, she teared up at meeting the legendary Jerry West, also known to many NBA fans as “The Logo.”
On her website, http://genamilanesi.com/, under collectors, there are photos of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Ronda Rousey, Manny Pacquio and more. She was selected through a licensing partnership, with JH Design Group, to be the only artist to hand paint exclusive team jackets for both the NBA and MLB. Her jackets sell online on the NBA store website for $2,000 and everyone is one of a kind.
A fan of Leroy Neiman growing up, she has become in her own right one of the hottest and most in-demand sports artists working right now. But when we met up recently it is at the Werkartz Gallery in Downtown L.A., where her current show is running through August 12.
The show, part of Milanesi’s monochromatic period as she calls it, centers on female pioneers who have not been given credit for accomplishments such as inventing the fire escape and The Landlord’s Game, the original version of Monopoly that predated the game we all grew up on by three decades.
Like I said, she has a lot of stories. I spoke with Milanesi about how the ESPY awards led to her art career, working with people like rapper the Game and “lifer” sports fans, as she calls them, and how her subject matters have evolved as her interests grow.
Steve Baltin: This has been a busy time for you as you were telling me
Gena Milanesi: I have back to back shows, I’ve never done that before. The March show was great. I was really proud of that work, then this kind of fell into my lap. I’ve been juggling this with my other work — my commissions, my NBA/MLB stuff. It’s all coming together.
Baltin: This NBA off season has been so crazy. How do the fans you work with get affected by all of the players constantly switching teams?
Milanesi: I get the mega fans, so they’re lifers more or less, which speaks dear to my heart because I am Lakers through and through. I’ve been fortunate with the work I make because I truly get the lifers and that’s very special to me. For instance, I had this one client who is a massive Boston fan. It was fantastic – he and his dad are true Bostonians, which is hilarious as a Lakers fan. He had all this sports paraphernalia from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and he’s like, “Can you make some paintings for me?” I did a Larry Bird one with all these historical cutouts and I collaged them as a backdrop and then I rendered the player as the focal point. Then, I put a smaller sketch of Magic guarding him because it felt like the right call.
Baltin: As a Lakers fan didn’t you meet Jerry West after you painted a portrait of him?
Milanesi: That was a huge career point for me, I cried that day. It was really special. He got choked up. He said, “Gena, I don’t get emotional, but this is beautiful.”
Baltin: How did you get started with the sports stuff?
Milanesi: I graduated college from USC and I was making art on the side, but I thought I wanted to get in the fashion game. I was a buyer for a couple of years and I wasn’t really happy. But I had a great job and I was learning a lot. I was at the point in my career where I’d have to relocate to Arkansas to move up in the company since Dillard’s is based there. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that and this opportunity came up. My friend worked at ESPN and she asked me if I wanted to put my paintings in the gifting suite for the athletes at the ESPYs. I was like, “Yeah.” I was painting whatever I could, friends’ shoes, denim jackets, whatever, just to do it. I gravitated towards sports because I played soccer my whole life and I was surrounded by talented athletes – it was all I knew. Leroy Neiman and Ronnie Wood were inspirational at the time and it was interesting to see how they processed color on a canvas.
Baltin: What year was the ESPYs you did?
Milanesi: This was 2013. It was rad. I had some pieces up and then from that I got a couple of clients. I made the decision to pursue art not long after that.
Baltin: What were the paintings you supplied that year?
Milanesi: That year there was a heavy emphasis on football and boxing. I think I had one Laker in there, Magic [Johnson]. It was the gifting suite, so it was kind of like a “let’s test it and see” kind of thing. It fell into my lap and then I got my first big commission from the rapper, the Game.
Baltin: What did you do for him?
Milanesi: He was moving into his new house at the time and he asked me to do one room. He’s a Lakers fan as well, so we did an evolution of the his favorite players. That was a cool project to do. We did all the eras, we started with Jerry and the Forum behind them, then Magic, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Shaq [O’Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] with Staples behind him. From there, it led to other commissions of athletes and even collaborations with incredible players, like Landon Donovan and Chris Paul.
Baltin: Having done back to back shows for the first time do you have perspective on it? Or you won’t have that until after the shows are over?
Milanesi: You have no clue. I don’t think you do when you’re in the trenches. And that’s one thing painting taught me too, you have to start something without having answers. It’s not until you step back where you know what’s going on and can see that big picture. When I started on monochromatic two years ago, now I’m like, “Whoa, I have a period of work. I didn’t know I’d have a transition like that.” You start finding the confidence to explore unchartered terrain and experiment more. I was doing heavy sports stuff and I was coming away from that and experimenting more and have done this unit now.
Baltin: What led to the transition?
Milanesi: The sports became more of a business thing. I still work with the NBA and MLB of course and do the jackets. And I’ll get amazing commissions from mega-fans like I mentioned, but I’ve come away from it more.
Balrin: Also as anyone gets older their interests broaden and you become curious about more things. This show currently is women pioneers, correct?
Milanesi: During my Bergamot Station show two years ago, I was so broke I couldn’t even afford paint. An opportunity to do a show came about and it was essentially in my backyard in Santa Monica. I had no money, but this was my dream as a kid to have a show there. I was doing research on subject matter and I became captivated with British inventions because of my roots. I was doing the research and found this color, Payne’s Gray. The artist behind it, William Payne was a watercolorist and he invented this pigment to replace black since it was making his paintings look flat. It made them pop all the better. I was experimenting with it and found a comfort in it. And it’s only one color, so I could afford it (laughs). I did British inventions for that show and carried forward that style into the March show with World War II imagery. I was seeing all these stories of these females doing all these random objects like the fire escape and chocolate chip cookies and Monopoly. There are all these stories of these fearless women that were getting their patents taken away and all this controversy during the time and it was fascinating to me. One of the most interesting stories was the Monopoly game. So there was this amazing woman, Elizabeth Magie. She created The Landlord’s Game and it was initially to educate students on the economics going on, at the time. She made this board game and it was well received in universities and played throughout America. Then three decades later this dude [Charles Darrow] comes along and he’s like, “I made this game in my basement called Monopoly.” Exact same rules and everything except the name. He brought it to Parker Brothers and they started selling it. And she came forward saying “Guys, I did this decades ago.” There was controversy and they ended up compensating her with $500. It’s very interesting but in all of these paintings, there is a similar story with these objects and I just couldn’t look away from it. I had to find ways to translate it on canvas.
Credit: Forbes – Steve Baltin