Early Work, Self-Portrait 1977

The very day I decided to be an artist

Newberry, self portrait, 1977, ink, Frankfurt
Newberry, self portrait, 1977, ink, Frankfurt

This work recently came back into my possession. I was 20 and holed up in a hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany contemplating my future. I was torn between two really good career options: to continue being a pro-tennis player (I was beating guys top 100 in the world) or give everything I had to my art. The week involved a tremendous amount of self-assessment, a ruthless look at my skill sets, my strengths, weaknesses in both fields. Tennis had to be decided upon quickly, I was the age to commit, a pro-career is generally from then to 32. With my art, on the other hand, I was still a student, and normally great artists mature around their late 20s to early 30s. But the rub there is that artists have to put in between 10-20,000 hours before their art starts to jell.

One suggestive indication that I already choose, was that instead of tennis training that week, I just read and drew in my hotel room. There was a tournament the next week, and I choose not to prepare for it. The mental gymnastics I went through was draining and a bit painful. You can see that in the eyes of this self-portrait. I felt tremendous urgency to clear my brain with a clear choice and get it done with. So I kept hashing through every pro and con I could think of: would I ever have a great backhand drive? Did I accomplish everything in art I tried? Did I want a traveling tennis life and see the world? Or was painting in a dumpy studio more exalting? Could I cheat it and do tennis now and art later?

Neither choices were safe. Both were extraordinarily risky, no paid training, no guaranteed income, and not even entrepreneurial in the sense of a money-making goal. Tennis was played to win (if you win you keep going) and serious art was creating as an end in itself, money had to come from somewhere else, or from the sales of work, and commissioned art was not an option—not for real artists, it is what hacks do. Letting someone direct me in the choice of subject was akin to abdication of my soul, a disgusting thought, and if accepted would undoubtedly lead to suicide. [That is one of my pet peeves of contemporary classical art education, it generally welcomes commissions as part of the art’s craft, that lack of self-awareness is unconscionable in modern times.] Fuck, be an artist or go be a doormat!

This self-portrait was the day I made the choice to be an artist. I signed, dated, and wrote the city in the lower right-hand corner.

The drawing is done with India ink and I must have done of combination of mixing it with water and full strength, there is a tremendous amount of tone nuance that is not typical in a ink drawing. You will notice that the mark making is done quickly with confidence and authority, as if drew as fast as I could. Today I am surprised how well I did the tonal depth, notice how the edge of the neck, ears, and hair dissipate. And look how the beard likewise diminishes in the back, with just a couple of dark marks that bring it forward. I am very impressed with how well the mouth is done, there is no outline of the lips, yet they have form and feel real, in ink that is crazy difficult. You will also notice that the contour line quality is organic, especially noticeable in the edging the shirt collar. Organic lines, always varied, are the mark of the difference between a fine artist and an illustrator, the latter generalize and automatize patterns and lines, while the fine artist looks deeper and closer with the goal to make every mark a unique thing.

Then, the key reason I decided to be an artist was that I knew I had “it.” Every goal I set, every push beyond my limits worked. I could feel it viscerally. In tennis I knew I had a few limitations, which would hold me back from being the world’s best. In art it is not about being the best, rather it is about achieving that magnificent spiritual orgasm when the mind, emotion, and perception come together. It is something I felt finishing this drawing 44 years ago, and I feel the same way about it today.

Another important consideration is that an art life/career is forever, an artist can keep evolving til the day they die. Tennis has its specific physical limitations, it is downhill in one’s thirties.

I am thankful that the young me had the foresight, gumption, psychologically savvy introspection to make the choice to be artist. I have loved and love every second of living the art life, every obstacle was/is a delicious challenge to grow and flourish. In all that time I only recall having one moment of regret. I was painting Woman in Blue, I was 24, it was late at night and I was pushing myself at my limits. It was in Holland, winter time, and hail was ferociously beating at the window panes like aggressive and anxious bats. For a few seconds I thought I could be playing tennis in the south of France, or touring Australia, warm and dry playing on a magnificent centercourt. Then I saw something I could tweak in the painting, and I thought: hell no, I don’t want to be hitting a ball somewhere, I am bringing this woman to life, there is no other place in the universe I would rather be.

Fine art, specifically figurative art, is one humanity’s greatest gifts to human evolution. It integrates visual science, crazy technical skills, human empathy, introspection, self-awareness, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and gives us tools to navigate the future successfully. It is like a psychotherapist, life coach, and humanist priest rolled into one. Some of you avoid it, and to those that do, it is not the art you are avoiding. A major key to human flourishing, personally and culturally is figurative art. Have a wonderful journey with it.

Michael, Idyllwild, 10/28/2021

5 Replies to “Early Work, Self-Portrait 1977”

  1. I remember when I was playing a satellite tour down in Florida and made my decision after playing pro for two years. No regrets.
    I think we made a good choice.

      1. So they say, however I stopped teaching eleven years ago and now work for the biggest bank of P.R. reviewing appraisal. I became a certified appraiser Twelve years ago. Keep up the good work, It’s amazing.

  2. Michael, Would be interested in maybe doing a post with this artwork and your story for Tennis Players as Works of Art. If you are interested, just let me know. I’ve worked with many artists and tennis players from around the world and am very interested in sharing this portrait and your story in some form. My email is linebarg14@gmail.com All best, David Linebarger

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