When Blake McFarland entered through the doors of Gallery 85, Patrick Powell thought he was looking at another football player hoping to connect with his boss. In a way, he was right.
It was 2015, and Powell was running the art gallery on behalf of his client Vernon Davis, an NFL team that was playing for San Francisco at the time. While their primary clients were art buyers, more than a few former college football players and NFL players hoped Davis would help them land another shot at the league. McFarland, who is 6-foot-5, 230 pounds with a granite jawline and muscles testing the structural integrity of his jersey, looked the part.
But while MacFarland played high school football and was a professional athlete, he was looking for something completely different. Having just finished his fifth season in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system, MacFarland drove to the gallery on Santana Row in San Jose, California, hoping to showcase his artwork: a tiger he built from recycled bicycle tires.
Powell was impressed with the piece and told MacFarland that he was willing to put it on show as long as Davis agreed. But when Davis saw her, he came up with a different plan: He bought them from MacFarland on the spot and ordered two more sculptures to display on the gallery floor.
“Blake was doing it as a hobby,” Powell said. “He didn’t even know what price to ask. Then he sold that first piece to Vernon within an hour, and he sold several more pieces with us. He had the most successful pieces in our gallery to date.”
For McFarland, those first commissions and sales were a validation. They gave him the confidence to make a highly unconventional career transition from professional baseball player to me professional artist.
“The transition from baseball to art was fun,” MacFarland said. “It was also scary. I was just on a whim, hoping to sell my business. I remember the night my first lot was sold. My wife and I opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
MacFarland can remember fiddling with instruments for most of his life. His father was a hardwood flooring contractor who could fix anything, but McFarland was more interested in making things from scratch. At home, he would shape wood into bows and arrows. At school, he would fill his notebooks with a sketch of his passions: baseballs and ocean scenes.
He said, “At first, I didn’t think of it as art.”
By the time he reached high school, McFarland’s primary focus was baseball. He was a star at Lee High School in San Jose but never received any college scholarship offers. After a few years in college prep, he moved to San Jose State, where he started 30 games, completing six of them. He went without drafting in 2011 and began his career with the Vancouver Canadians in the Northwest Division I.
Without a huge bonus to carry through his high school league years, MacFarland knew he’d need to find work during the downturn. And he knew he didn’t want this business to include baseball. Although many of the young players take their training off seasons, McFarland needed a break.
He turned to art, which at that point involved searching Craigslist for broken surfboards, repairing them and painting murals on them — then reselling them on Craigslist.
“The margins weren’t great,” he said with a laugh. “I bought the panels for $100 to $200 and sold them for $400 to $600, and I could only finish about 10 during the slump. But I learned a lot. The main lesson was: Being a professional painter is harder than being a major league player. I I really believe in that.”
The idea for working with tires came to him after he saw a snake made of tractor tires displayed as a public piece of art in a park near his home. He got car and motorcycle tires from local auto body stores, but he learned a hard lesson: These types of tires are too thick to cut, and it’s illegal to throw them away.
Finding and fiddling with bicycle tires proved more manageable, even if it caused a mess in the apartment he was sharing with his girlfriend, Jessica.
“I remember looking at him on our porch in the winter and seeing him covered in tire grease and foam mold and thinking I wouldn’t have a clean house,” said Jessica MacFarland, a physician who was married to Blake. 2012. “At the same time, I was grateful that he had this outlet and this plan for his life after baseball. Sometimes when guys retire, they are overwhelmed with what they are going to do next. Blake was able to give up baseball more easily.”
In November 2015, the Blue Jays put MacFarland Their list of 40 men – A vote of confidence protects him from being selected by another team in Draft Article 5. But during spring training he injured his shoulder and was unable to throw at all. He underwent surgery, made his way through two years of rehab and tried stem cell therapy, but nothing worked.
He said: “I have no doubt that Blake would have been a key player in the league had he not been injured.” Taylor Cole, a bowler who played and rehabilitated with McFarland in the Blue Jays system for several years. “He threw at 94mph, but he had this ball that was invisible. He threw it over the top of the area and the guys couldn’t hit it. What he can do next is what the teams are looking for more today.”
During the two seasons he was trying to raise his shoulder to the right, MacFarland managed to score the biggest commission of his career: creating custom Cotton Bowl tire sculptures. In the January 2017 game, his first job with the Cotton Bowl, he built a life-size Bronco for Western Michigan and giant bucky badger for Wisconsin.
Will Clanfield, an executive at a PR firm hired by Goodyear that sponsored the bowl games, discovered McFarland’s website a few pages away from Google search results for tire sculptors, and was struck by how well McFarland’s personal history fit into the project. “You’re talking about a guy who was in the palace, who had an arm his whole life before the injury ended his career interruption,” Clanfield said. “He didn’t let that completely drown him out. Instead, he took that impulse that made him a professional bowler and succeeded in a completely different field.”
Through Goodyear contracts and his independent commissions, McFarland was making more money in sculpting than he was promoting; With his shoulder not cooperating, he retired from baseball in 2017. He was only 29 years old.
“Baseball taught me the habits and discipline that have helped me succeed so far in the art world,” MacFarland said. “I didn’t get big scholarship offers, I wasn’t recruited, and so I had to work harder than anyone else in baseball. I feel the same way about my art.”
“I try to learn from every mistake and hone every technique until it is the best I have the ability to do,” he added.
Although he still works with tires, he’s been getting more commissions lately for his work in wood and epoxy. He developed a method for cooling epoxy that would allow him to pour thick layers without cracking or breaking, which is what he used to make it. whalesAnd the Rhino And the horses.
“I get bored very easily,” he said. “I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again. I don’t want to be just a tire carving guy or just an epoxy guy.”
For that first sale, the Tiger Tire Statue: Davis took it with him when he moved from San Francisco to Denver and then again when he came home in Washington to finish his football career. Davis, who has moved into acting, recently asked McFarland to create a statue dedicated to commemorating his NFL career—a request from one athlete and artist to another.