Art and Athletics

James Fiorentino’s Passion for Both Leads to an Amazing Career

By Justin Feil | Photography by Charles R. Plohn

James Fiorentino intertwines art and athletics in strokes of water-color genius. At an early age he was best known for his athletic prowess, but he already was showing promise as an artist. He rose quickly and prominently to national attention when he began combining his two passions as a teenager, and remains one of the most decorated sports watercolorists in the country.

The Flemington house that the 44-year-old Fiorentino shares with his wife, Jessica, a social worker in the Princeton Public Schools system, and their 12- and 8-year-old boys, is a collage of more than 30 years of colors and collections. A small room just inside the front door is overflowing with collector items and autographed works, an ode to how Fiorentino’s passions for painting and sports first united. A table buried under side-by-side piles of Fiorentino’s recent paintings and giclees primed to be sent to buyers, galleries, and shows sits just outside his studio room. A small TV hangs in one corner of his studio, looking down on the surprisingly neat art table where he paints every day. One wall features a mix of art and books while Fiorentino’s paintings adorn the three other walls from floor to ceiling.

Through the studio and down a set of stairs are more pieces brightening the basement level. Fiorentino’s other works adorn museums, galleries, companies, and private collector’s homes around the country and even internationally. His realistic watercolors and illustrations of sports figures and celebrities, as well as wildlife and landscapes, are highly sought. Art and athletics have been passions he first balanced as a boy, and then later combined when art became a profession.

“I think the art came first, but not by much,” said Fiorentino. “My whole life I’ve been playing sports and painting. So from when I was a little kid, I’ve been drawing and painting and went to private lessons.”

His first painting lessons came from Carol Gadek Skapinetz when he was just 8. She agreed to teach him because of a sports connection. “He was the youngest private student I ever took,” said Skapinetz. “I knew his family through Little League in Middlesex.”

Fiorentino grew up a fan of Yankee great Don Mattingly, and admired shortstops like Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, and Alex Rodriguez. He went on to star in their mold as a power hitting, smooth fielding first-team All-State shortstop for Middlesex High School, which will induct him into their Hall of Fame next year. He also started for four years at shortstop at Drew University, where he majored in fine art — though already he had been painting professionally for years.

“When he arrived at Drew, he was probably the only student who was paying his own way,” said Drew Professor Michael Peglau. “He was paying for his whole package with painting.”

Fiorentino’s interest in trading cards and memorabilia spawned his early sports work. He painted Joe DiMaggio at 14 and brought the piece to a show to try to get an autograph from the Hall of Famer. It worked, and soon clients were coming to him. His art was winning contests and a year later, when he was 15, he became the youngest artist displayed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for his rendering of Reggie Jackson. It added to the thrill of a return trip to the Hall of Fame with his American Legion baseball team.

“We would travel to Cooperstown every summer,” he said. “Hitting a homer at Doubleday Field was exciting because I was the kid who had the painting in the Hall of Fame and then I hit a home run there.”

Fiorentino was commissioned at 17 by Ted Williams to paint the 20 greatest hitters of all time and asked to be official artist to Cal Ripken Jr.’s 2131 project, and he then began to see a professional future in artwork.

“I don’t think a lot of guys and girls knew that they were going to do something specific at such an early age,” said Fiorentino. “All through school I was working, but I was also learning all different sorts of art. I had already established clients at that point when I was 15, 16, 17 years old and working with all these players throughout Drew.”

Hall of Fame athletes were calling Fiorentino’s dorm room to commission his evocative watercolors. He worked with Topps on a collection for the first time in 1999 when he was still in college. That came five years after he was the youngest to ever win Beckett Magazine’s annual sports art competition. Fiorentino was passed out of Drawing 1 at Drew, a nod to his ability as an illustrator that is a key to being an accomplished watercolorist.

In 1998, he became the youngest artist inducted into the New York Society of Illustrators. Peglau taught Fiorentino in Drawing 2, two painting classes, and an independent study and served as his adviser. Peglau, a former player himself, would often talk baseball as much as art with Fiorentino.

“He was very, very hard working,” said Peglau. “He really listened. He was extremely easy to work with. A lot of athletes that get far enough along, they have to put in an endless amount of work.”

Peglau believes Fiorentino’s athletic background and experience resonate in his artwork, citing his painting of a glistening with sweat Whitey Ford that bared the hard nature of being a pitcher. Skapinetz says Fiorentino was blessed with an incredible eye. It helped give him a strong starting point as he honed his art skills.

“There’s no doubt it’s God given,” said Fiorentino. “I just wanted to color and draw all the time.”

He focused on watercolor in part because of the influence of Skapinetz and Sonja Weir, the private teacher he went to later during his early teens. Skapinetz lost touch when she moved out of state, but recently found Fiorentino’s work. “When I started seeing what he was doing, it blew me away,” she said. “But it didn’t surprise me. He’s taken it to another level.”

Watercolor is unforgiving — the hardest of all painting media. Make a mistake and it can’t be painted over. Watercolorists need to work quickly, a part of the process that Fiorentino enjoys along with the challenges of making his portraits and sports paintings as realistic and accurate as possible.

“Watercolor sets me apart,” said Fiorentino. “I’m still learning and challenging myself. I love being able to show that to people and they say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s watercolor, how are you doing that?’”

Fiorentino begins by sketching out the piece. He paints in his studio often with the TV or music on in the background, mixed with the chaotic sounds of family life, something that he is used to from painting in his family living room while growing up. He can finish a painting in a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on its size. There is a distinctive style to his work, fashioned once he grasped the painting process in those early private lessons. He experiments with new ways to put his watercolors on the thick smooth paper that he uses, often using household materials for certain techniques that he has developed.

“That’s all self-taught,” said Fiorentino. “That’s just 20-something years of doing it, and every day you’re sort of figuring out things. That’s why everybody has their own style.”

Sports subjects seemed a natural pursuit, though Fiorentino is also lauded for his wildlife and landscape work that is inspired by his support of conservationist efforts. He is a trustee of the Raptor Trust of New Jersey and of D&R Greenway Land Trust and does work with Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, which recently relocated to Princeton.

“In the private lessons I was doing wildlife and landscapes and things like that, which I did love, but I loved painting baseball players and football players,” said Fiorentino. “I remember a juror saying, you should stick with the landscapes and don’t paint sports. I tell people, ‘I stayed true to the way I felt.’ I still am today. I’m influenced by certain things. I love painting everyday life, I love doing landscapes and nature, but I still love painting sports so that’s always been a thing for me.”

Fiorentino always had a strong interest in the history of sports, particularly baseball, and he gravitated toward painting former rather than current players. He built a friendship with the late Yogi Berra after meeting him as a teenager and talked baseball with Williams. Fiorentino often talks baseball with his clients, many of whom have become friends, and he finds his own athletic experience a helpful backdrop.

“I think that has an influence on how you set up a painting, certain shots, and how you want to depict an athlete,” said Fiorentino. “The passion for knowing how great a player is and knowing how good they have to be, that gets you excited.”

Art opened the door for Fiorentino to meet legendary athletes like Muhammed Ali and Mickey Mantle, political figures such as President Joe Biden, and historic figures like Buzz Aldrin and Desmond Tutu. He has painted trading cards for Topps, Upper Deck, and Kellogg’s; had work featured on the covers of Sports Market Report and Beckett magazines; and done an impressive collection of horse racing-related art for charity in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His painting of Roberto Clemente is kept in the Hall of Fame’s permanent collection. The late Congressman John Lewis hung Fiorentino’s painting of him in his Washington, D.C. office. This spring, he contributed locally to Mercer County College’s inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The breadth of his work is exhaustive.

“This is literally all I’ve done,” said Fiorentino. “To make a living for 20-some years and a successful living being an artist and illustrator and being known for sports has been a dream.”

What continues to interest and drive Fiorentino now are chances to paint new and emerging athletes and history-changing subjects, to continue to see his own work evolve, and to develop new projects. Card collecting and memorabilia made a sharp uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his collection “There Is Only One: The Most Iconic Trading Cards of All Time” will debut at the Philly Show from September 24-26 at Valley Forge Casino outside Philadelphia before it travels the country on display. The paintings are large 22×30-inch replicas of trading cards, which he has never done at this scale. It follows last spring’s release of his paintings at the other end of the scale, “The Topps 2021 Transcendent Collection Hall of Fame Edition,” which consisted of 50 boxes, priced at $23,000 each, that included one trading-card sized painting apiece from Fiorentino along with 46 other cards autographed by Hall of Fame baseball players. Unlike the 1999 Topps collection in which his 11×14 paintings were shrunk down, he painted the 2021 collection on their original card size.

“The hard part was drawing them,” said Fiorentino. “You’re drawing so small, there’s not a lot of room for error. When you draw or paint larger, there’s a lot more room to be off a little and still look good. The challenge with those bigger trading cards I’m doing is all the detail and the writing.”

Fiorentino regularly makes appearances for charity work and shows his art around the country. His “Baseball in Black and White: The Watercolors” is on display November 17-December 31 at Studio 7 Fine Art Gallery in Bernardsville.

Fiorentino’s experience makes him an elder statesman among sports artists, but he isn’t slowing down in his fourth decade of painting. Coming out of the pandemic, he has found himself as busy as ever with more than a year of work lined up. He ambitiously is building his own brand, Fiorentino Elite, in which he will paint the most legendary athletes of all time on a larger scale and higher end than he ever has done to kick off the next step of a career built on his passion for art and athletics.

“Maybe I’ll be doing other forms of pieces,” said Fiorentino. “There are a lot more everyday portraits of people I’d like to do, expanding on the sports art, which I never would have thought I’d say, but pushing myself to the front. Even though people may consider me at the front, I still want to push to be the best sports artist ever, which is a nice goal to have.”