Desmond Mason

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ART & ATHLETICS – PAINTING EMOTION

Desmond Mason keeps on pushing the limits with art, creativity in Oklahoma City

By Heide Brandes

The floors are covered in thick swirls of paint splatter, but the walls are a horizon of emotion.

Desmond Mason, former NBA basketball player and artist, blends into the riot of color and shapes and drawings and sketches and graffiti that make up his Oklahoma City Midtown studio. He pulls up a chair and invites me to sit by him.

I’d been chasing Mason for weeks for an interview about his art passion. He’s a hard man to catch, and for good reason. In the next year, he’s booked at art shows from the Bahamas to Los Angeles to Chicago and to the renowned Art Basel in Miami. His paintings, some of which are works in progress in Oklahoma City, are in high demand throughout the world; in fact, he’s more in demand now than when he was slam-dunking for the Seattle SuperSonics or the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball teams.

He also takes up space in the studio, which is nestled in the same shopping area as McNellies, Prairie Thunder Bakery and Irma’s Burger Shack. When I walk in, his presence is undeniable. It’s not just that he’s amazingly tall (and I’m short); it’s just that he radiates big personality.

Besides spending 10 years in professional basketball, Mason is a career artist. While violence and drugs waged around him in his childhood neighborhood in Waxahachie, Texas, little Desmond was drawing. He drew on skateboards, on books, on folders and with friends. He doesn’t know where the urge to create art came from. His parents weren’t artists, but his friends were.

Now, Mason has finished hundreds of pieces that have been purchased by fans around the world, is featured in art shows throughout the country and is the newest member of the Oklahoma Arts Council Board. Art started him; art now completes him.

BUDDING TALENT

“I don’t know where I got it from,” Mason says, lounging back on the scruffy chair in his studio. “My parents didn’t have an art background, so I guess I picked it up from school and from my friends.”

From an early age, Mason drew on anything he could find. He and his friends decorated their own skateboards.

“I just picked up skateboarding again. People think I’m insane, but I couldn’t do it when I was in the NBA because it was too dangerous,” he said. “I drew around my friends, and they all drew. I started taking art classes in school when I was 12. Then I moved on to ceramics, pottery and sculpting.”

At the time, young Mason showed proficiency with his hands. In ceramics, those big hands molded bowls and pots, and Mason found ceramics and sculpture to be an easy medium for him.

“Through high school, I made a huge jump in art technique,” he said. “I was good at ceramics. What made me change was that a buddy of mine made little mini-sculptures, but he sketched them out beforehand. So, I took up sketching – mostly GI Joes and He-Man. We drew shoes and shoe logos and all that.”

High school also unveiled Mason’s natural athletic ability. He played every sport in high school, but found that the creative release of creating art complimented his physical skill. He found an escape from the pressures of sports and the violence and drugs of his neighborhood through artwork.

After graduating, Mason was accepted to Oklahoma State University, and he moved to Oklahoma.

SPLIT DECISION

“I wanted to be an accountant,” says the 6’5” Mason. “I was good with numbers. They made sense to me. I could see it in my head, figure it all out. But once I started taking classes, it was too boring.”

Being different has always been Mason’s big secret. Even in high school, he joined the punked out long-haired kids in art class while wearing his sports jerseys. His friends today are more artists than former basketball teammates.

Finding no challenge in accounting, Mason switched his major to Studio Art with the goal of becoming an art teacher.

“Those four years turned my art around,” Mason said. “I was exposed to different styles of art, to architecture from around the world and to art history and theory. But, in college, all the art projects were still life and group projects. I did learn about shading, color theory and art history too.”

Mason’s hardest project to this day was an exercise at OSU. A professor placed a wadded, crinkled up piece of paper on a box and shined a light on it. The shadows, creases and light play on that ball of simple paper remains the hardest thing Mason has ever had to portray in art yet.

But basketball was a part of his life as well. In his senior year, Mason developed as a player, and when he graduated, he signed up with an agent. Halfway through that summer, he knew he would be drafted.

In 2000, Mason was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics. In 2001, he proved himself by becoming the first Seattle player in that franchise’s history to win the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

He also found his true passion in art while proving himself on the courts.

PLAY TIME ART WORK

While Mason was drafted for the NBA right out of college, his art took a back seat to the demands of the court. He was already falling out of the realism style he was taught, and moving to Seattle to play for the SuperSonics opened his eyes to a new art world.

“For half of that first season, I couldn’t produce anything that was legit,” he said. “But the it was also the first time I decided my work would change, that I would paint emotion.”

Mason’s wife had enrolled in a art history class, and she was required to watch a film about legendary artist Jackson Pollock. Mason watched it with her, and his life transformed.

“It was like someone hit a light switch. I was gone,” he said. “I wanted to paint like that. We got rolls of canvas and started slinging paint, and that was it for me. His style was so erratic. It was everything I wanted, except without the alcoholism, the mistresses and the car wrecks.”

Switching to an abstract style was a challenge for Mason. He’d been trained in realism, so learning to paint with emotion was a new journey.

“People think it’s easy to do abstract, but it’s hard to get rid of the techniques you’ve learned,” he said. “But there is a process to it too. I listen to music, drink a glass of wine, sit and think. I look at the piece, walk away, go back to it.”

Even as his basketball career advanced, Mason was an artsy guy. His friends were all artsy people. Many of his current friends are artsy. However, he’s quick to point out that many athletes have great artistic talent – but they may not know it yet.

AFTER BASKETBALL

Mason spent 10 years in the NBA before he chose Oklahoma City as his home and the place where his art would bloom. He and his wife reached the decision while living in Sacramento.

He played for the Seattle SuperSonics, the New Orleans Hornets, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Sacramento Kings. Oklahoma City seemed like the place to be.

“Oklahoma City fit for us. We had friends here and it was a place where we felt our business would thrive,” Mason said. “We wanted someplace that had values and morals in the forefront. So we took a road trip from Sacramento to Portland, made calls, loaded up everything we could and made a roadtrip from Portland to Oklahoma City.”

Mason and his wife opened Barre 3, a fitness business, on Classen Curve in Oklahoma City right away. Meanwhile, Mason was looking for studio space to paint in. A friend told him about a contest for free storefront space in Oklahoma City’s budding Midtown District.

“In Oklahoma City, there were no open studios, so I presented what I wanted to do, which was have an open studio that nursed creativity,” said Mason. “They loved the idea, and I won the contest. I remember yelling ‘I got a studio!’”

Mason’s studio in Midtown was only a big open space with large front windows. It’s a working studio, so visitation is by appointment only. Still, people walk by all the time and rap on the glass as he works.

“I can work in a fishbowl,” he said. “I keep the door locked, but people knock on the windows all the time. But, you learn to focus while in a fishbowl. I did that playing in the NBA all the time. You think all the noise and cheering in the stands are distracting, but it’s not. You never even hear it. You’re that focused.”

In 2004, he founded the Desmond Mason Art Show, which supports a variety of charitable organizations. In Oklahoma City, more than 900 people attended last year’s event.

“Right now, I want to continue to grow my work, to push to be different,” he said. “Everything is starting to take off, and people who are coming to my shows want me to be free too.”

The future remains brightly colored for the artist. Not only does he have shows booked from the Bahamas to Miami, but he is also considering such growth as a T-shirt design company and a possible skateboard design company. Putting art on clothing fascinates him.

“Push, push, push,” Mason said. “You have to keep on pushing it.”

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