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Todd Marinovich's first work of art was inspired by a movie his mother took him to when he was 6 years old: Jaws. When his kindergarten teacher gave his class an assignment to create a poster, he knew exactly what he would do, and it didn't involve a bathing suit. "I created the poster like I saw it," he says during a recent interview in his Costa Mesa studio. "She's nude, doing the breaststroke on the surface, and [the shark] is coming through."
Although his teacher insisted he add a bathing suit to the poster, for Marinovich, the value of his creation was the initial shock he'd created. "The reaction was everything," he recalls. "It was completely unexpected. It was the first time I experienced the power of art."
More than 35 years later, Marinovich, the former bad-boy Los Angeles Raiders quarterback, is still getting reactions to his art, which ranges from abstract pieces to more literal takes on famous athletes and music legends. An ESPN documentary released in December featured a stunning painting titled The Alchemist, an abstract piece on plexiglass that shows a shadowy football player emerging from bold orange and red hues that explode when light pierces through the plexiglass. Since the documentary's release, Marinovich has happily been overwhelmed by requests for original works.
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"It's a fabulous thing I've never experienced," he says. "The shocking thing was the response from people all over the country." Marinovich seems almost mystified at the connection he's made with total strangers. "That was the hope," he explains, "that people would identify with it."
Marinovich works with acrylic paint and a bevy of tools from scrapers to squeegees. One of his most recent works, on black canvas, took just minutes to produce. He splashed blue paint onto the material, sprinkled water on it, then spread the paint with a squeegee. Several swipes later, he says, he had created Tsunami, a Japanese-style painting that looks like an ocean wave, one he hopes to sell for more than $3,000.
Making art doesn't always come that easy to Marinovich, who says he has spent months on a particular painting, painstakingly adding details to the point of mental exhaustion. An untitled piece he's still developing, one that began with an angel and the color red sweeping across the canvas, has been reworked four times. The angel is gone, as is the dash of red, replaced by a bright globe that looks as though it's either inhaling or exhaling the waste of the Earth, including a dinosaur. Yellow and blue tones augment the abstract work.
As he is apt to do with all his paintings, Marinovich is hesitant to interpret the work. "I knew internally [art] didn't always have to represent reality or look like a picture," he says. "I just always felt it had to make the viewer feel something. It could upset them or make them sick to their stomach or go, 'Ah.'"
Unlike his regimented athletic career, Marinovich hasn't had much formal art training, although he was an art major when he played football at the University of Southern California. Still, Marinovich credits as a mentor noted Laguna Beach landscape artist Bob Abbott, in whose studio he spent countless hours honing his techniques, poring over Abbott's library of books.
"My whole journey through art was definitely not by design," he says. "It was always something in me, without a doubt. But I didn't really study it until, no shit, two years ago. I took a course at Orange Coast College, art history. It took me [a long time] until I cared, which is, you know, there's a lot of reasons for that."
One of Marinovich's favorite artists is Vincent van Gogh. "I had an experience with him, and I was completely sober," he says. "When you walk into a museum or gallery . . . if you're taking it in all at once, his paintings suck you in. It doesn't matter what, really, the content is; it's the color, and it's the way he applies it with texture. That's the thing I've taken from him, the texture and the color."
After he infamously lost his football career to decades of drug addiction, Marinovich was inspired to pursue art when an old friend from high school had taken a less-dramatic but similarly painful path from starving artiste to working artist, he says. His friend had resorted to selling his detailing equipment when he happened upon a 1957 Chevy truck hood with bullet holes in it. He took the hood, placed recessed lighting in it, and, according to Marinovich, sold it for thousands of dollars. "Fuck, if he can do it, I can do it," Marinovich figured.
Looking back at his childhood, Marinovich now realizes he was probably always meant to be an artist as opposed to just an athlete. As a creative kid with a knack for balling, Marinovich says, he was always happiest either on the football field or in art class. To him, being a high-profile athlete is akin to working as an artist staring each day at a blank canvas, before a hungry audience ready to praise or criticize. "You're putting yourself out there with art in a way that's personal," he says. "And it takes balls."
This article appeared in print as "'It Takes Balls': Painting is ex-football phenom Todd Marinovich's other life passion."