Olympic Gold: The Muhammad Ali Project

Muhammad Ali by Peter MarsMy Father is a boxing fan. So I grew up as a little boy going to fights, watching them on closed circuit TV and, (yes I’m old enough to remember) listening to them on the radio. Cassius Clay was one of my Dad’s biggest heroes, and as I came of age during the Vietnam years, I quickly understood why this made sense, and what a profound American hero Ali truly is.

Muhammad Ali by Peter MarsFast forward to a meeting in 2008 where my agent asks me, “If you could do an in-depth project with any athlete in the world, who would it be?” The words “Muhammad Ali” literally fly out of my mouth. Within a year he has me sitting in the Madison Avenue offices of Muhammad Ali Enterprises, where we inked a deal for me to be an Official Artist to the Ali family archive.

I dreamed of this opportunity for so long that it felt completely surreal to be sitting in Ali’s offices now, being granted permission to use images directly from Muhammad Ali’s personal archive. The boardroom was beautifully appointed, all quiet and relaxed, but I just couldn’t shake an eerie feeling that, in theory, The Champ himself could bust thru a door at any moment, and either shake my hand with a big smile, or punch me in the head and knock me out cold. So I just took some deep breaths and tried to stay calm enough to listen to the meeting.

I daydreamed back to one of my Mom’s favorite stories about seeing Mr. Ali and his entourage walking through a Las Vegas casino late one night. She described him as “the most handsome man I have ever seen.” Recalling the story seemed to calm me down a bit.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

In the meeting I could hear people talking about how I would be able to use their archive. Muhammad Ali’s archive spans his entire career beginning with his amateur bouts in Louisville Kentucky, thru all the landmark fights, The Thrilla in Manila, Rumble in the Jungle, and his Civil Rights battles that would define an entire generation.

The people in the boardroom start showing me examples of images from the archive.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

And at first I really could not believe that I was even being allowed to see these images, let alone use them in my art. The whole experience transported me to a place where Ali is maybe sitting at his coffee table on a lazy afternoon, kindly showing me through his personal photo albums and scrap books. Again, the only word I have for it is surreal.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

The material is rare and amazing. Here they are, literally thousands of photos taken of Ali in the ring. Here he is on the stand accepting the Olympic Gold Medal in Rome 1960, here he is riding in a ticker-tape parade through downtown London, next, relaxing at home with friends, then shadow-boxing with Elvis in a Las Vegas hotel room, and finally here he is meeting with historic figures like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and every sports-world dignitary you can image.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

How could it be that same little boy in me, who had watched Ali from afar, and across a lifetime, was now paging through these photo albums, excitedly thinking of turning this story into Art?

Very shortly my excitement  turns back again to fear. This time the fear is reminiscent of the “we’re not worthy!” scene in a Wayne’s World movie. How can I possibly even try to tell this story with my art? Ali is superhuman! He’s larger than life both in and out of the boxing ring! He is a man that our popular culture frequently compares to Superman!… mostly because people have just plain run out of words to describe him. And I’m supposed to make paintings that tell this man’s life’s story? …one of the most important stories in American History? We rode the elevator back down to Madison Avenue, my head still buzzing.

After the shock wore off, I got started. And the images I’m showing you today are the results of the past 4 years of my labor on the project.

Muhammad Ali by Peter Mars

Hope you enjoy them !  All the best, Peter

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ELVIS: Peter Mars artworks featured at Clinton Presidential Library

On Friday, June 3, an anthology of original new Elvis artwork by Peter Mars was launched to the American public for the first time via ELVIS, an exhibit that will run throughout the summer of 2011 at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Coming on the heels of a successful show this spring at the Pop International Gallery in New York’s Soho neighborhood, 2011 is shaping up to be an incredible year for Peter Mars! “I like to think I’m a big dreamer, but to go straight from Soho to a presidential library is just way more than even I ever dreamed,” he said.

The world-class Clinton Library is a beautiful, zero carbon footprint facility using the latest green technologies. The Library’s incredible staff helped to make the June 3 opening a memorable event for Peter, who said he “felt like royalty” thanks to their exceptional professionalism and VIP treatment. The event was very well attended, with a crowd estimated at more than 400 people.

Though Peter most frequently tells stories through his art, his first-hand retelling of the memorable experience he had at the ELVIS exhibit opening best sets the scene:

Arriving in Little Rock
“Upon arriving in Little Rock, Sandra (my lovely and talented wife!) and I were immediately made to feel at home by Lloyd, our friendly driver of the Peabody Hotel van. Lloyd was kind enough to drive us up and down the main drag of Little Rock, a beautiful example of small-town America, and the capitol of Arkansas. The “old” state capitol building is right next to the hotel, and is a beautiful, little old building open free as a museum filled with all sorts of cool, old-fashioned Arkansas memorabilia. You can walk right out onto the floor of the senate chamber, and the wood chairs and desks are all in there – a very magical place! We head to the hotel and the famous Peabody ducks are in the fountain, just as we had pictured they would be.”

Listening to Al Wertheimer
“Next we went to Clinton Presidential Library, and got to sit in the front row and listen to Al Wertheimer give a talk about his years as an Army photographer leading up to his traveling with Elvis in 1956, the exact moment in time when Elvis was on the cusp of superstardom. Al is a smart well trained pro, not just a kid with a camera. He shot using available light only, using black and white film. Ask any professional photographer, and they will tell you what a challenge this must have been!

Al Wertheimer said his mission on his travels with Elvis was to be invisible, and that Elvis let him shoot everywhere. He told stories of traveling on the train with Elvis, of photographing Elvis in New York and Memphis. He reflected on how amazed he was at the explosiveness of Elvis’ stage presence. He went on to relate how seeing Elvis play live was a transcendent experience, almost coming from a type of indescribable force, and that even though he considered himself to be simply documenting a moment in history, Al came away with much more and realized that what was happening was really special. “Wertheimer’s books tell that story too, but listening to him describe it in person was very cool.”

Exploring the Clinton Library
“When Al’s talk was over, we walked around the Clinton Library facility and took it all in! It is massive and cutting-edge, modern architecture – a “Chicago-sized” building sitting on the edge of town with a beautiful view of the river. Seeing the Peter Mars art showcased on these walls was impressive! And knowing that Bill Clinton himself will be visiting the Library in about a week has me super-excited! President Clinton is a huge Elvis Fan, and there are words to this effect posted throughout the Library. I believe the story goes that staffers sometimes called the former President, “Elvis,” for obvious reasons!

There is a complete precise replica of the oval office in the Museum. “All the girls wanted to sit on the president’s desk, but thankfully it was roped off. At the cocktail bar, some napkins bearing the presidential seal did find their way home with me as souvenirs (please don’t tell the Secret Service!)”

About the Exhibit
Most of Peter’s paintings in the ELVIS show were completed during 2010 and 2011 and were made specifically to fit the exhibit space at the Clinton Library. All of the works are Pop Art paintings in silkscreen on canvas, and many were previewed at the Pop International Gallery show this spring. Peter admits to being “totally geeked up” to be showing his artwork alongside the iconic Elvis photography of Alfred Wertheimer, Elvis’s most famous photographer.

During the planning of the installation, Peter requested that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) provide one of Elvis’ motorcycles to be parked in the center of one of the exhibition rooms. Instead, the folks at EPE did him one better and rolled out the original, beautiful, red MG roadster that was driven by Elvis in the 1966 movie Spinout! Peter describes the scene: “To see the whole place full of armed guards, protecting Elvis’ Car, and all that beautiful artwork, made me feel like I was in a movie! This is really something to see if you can make it to the Clinton Library this summer.”

Lloyd, redux
“Punchline to my story about Lloyd, the Peabody Hotel’s airport van driver, is that on our ride back to the airport we again have the same driver. But this time we notice he is wearing a slightly different uniform, and his name badge not only says “Lloyd,” but also below that is the word “Duckmaster.” Turns out Lloyd is not just a limo driver, but also tends to the Peabody’s famous fowl in his dual role as Duckmaster! He tells us a very funny story about having to drive “The Team” (of ducks) up to Chicago for a hotel convention. The fact is that when ducks are “out of water” – such as when riding in a car to Chicago – they must be kept damp at all times. So Lloyd had to stop the car every couple hours and pump spray the ducks with water, proving that there is some truth to the “duck out of water” saying! He went on to say that The Team currently at the hotel is a good bunch of ducks. Once they are on the march from their nesting area into the hotel, they all kind of start to run and make a mad dash for the fountain! And they enjoy being in the fountain all day and having people fuss over them.”

End Scene
Wrapping up his extremely positive experience at the ELVIS exhibit opening, Peter said that it was especially a great deal of fun to hear everyone swapping their favorite Elvis stories. “With the spirit and stories of Elvis in the air, how can you go wrong?” he said. If you’re still planning your summer travels, think about making the trip to Little Rock, staying at the Peabody and visiting the ELVIS exhibit at the Clinton Presidential Library – you may turn out to have as memorable an experience as Peter did!

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Peter Mars Soho show opens Mar 24, 2011

Peter Mars in Soho NYC this Thursday, March 24, 2011, 7-9pm.

Pop International Gallery
473 West Broadway
New York, NY 10012
T. 212.533.4262

if you like Evel Knievel.


Or perhaps you are an Elvis Presley fan

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