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Major League Artist
Baseball as an art canvas? Sure, the game is considered as an art by fans.
But as a canvas?
That's the idea behind the business Conversation Pieces Inc., a local company that's the brainchild of Emily Wolfson of Bala Cynwyd. She paints intricate scenes on official size and weight baseballs -- in the process transforming an ordinary piece of sports equipment into what she calls her trademarked "Unforgettaballs!"
"As an artist with a background in architecture," Wolfson explained, "I was inspired to begin painting baseballs after I saw some on the cover of a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog about 12 years ago. Each ball was colored in various solid colors -- blue, red, green, orange, yellow and other bright colors -- in an Andy Warhol kind of way."
Ironically, Wolfson's baseballs were on another Hammacher Schlemmer catalog cover in mid-summer 1995. "When I saw the earlier cover, I liked the baseballs so much that I was going to buy them, but being an artist decided I could paint on a baseball myself. The very first one I did was of an American flag, with the stars and stripes on one half of the two pieces of leather that are sewn together to cover a ball, and with a blue field with white stars on the other half. Together the two pieces form a flag."
Wolfson said she likes baseball, but isn't an avid fan.
She's much more a follower of football, though recognizes the great significance of baseball.
Painting images and scenes on baseballs, which, she added, is a full-time endeavor, is what she's done exclusively for the last 11 years now. It takes her about 40 hours to paint one ball; each one sells for about $15.
In the beginning of this creative venture, she would paint the baseballs and sell them at craft shows.
"They sold well, but I didn't have enough of them since I was painting just one ball at a time, which was slow and not very profitable. After doing craft shows for a while, I met someone who advised me of a better way -- paint just one ball and have the scene printed on other balls as needed," she said, adding that there are about 2,000 baseballs in a printing run.
Her baseballs are produced in a factory in Shanghai -- the same one she's used since the start.
"We have developed a detailed printing process to get my art work on the baseballs," she said. She added that she's sure her counterpart there, Herman Yen, part owner of the factory, has learned some English from her, just as she's learned some Chinese from him during their numerous telephone calls.
Acrylic paint is used on the original, and prints are made with nontoxic ink. Also, a clear plastic box and stand come with each ball.
Soon, 1 Million Served
The system has worked well -- so well, in fact, that to date, Wolfson has sold more than 600,000 of her hand-painted baseballs, largely in the United States and Canada. She estimates that the magic number 1 million will be reached sometime in the next two years.
"While I continue to do all of the legwork myself, wearing all of the hats in my company -- since I'm the only one in the company -- I rely on TDC Games, my new and only wholesale distributor, located in Itasca, Ill., to do the marketing," noted this work-at-home Jewish wife and mother of two: Joseph, 9, and Henry, 5.
Wolfson has designed 60 different baseballs that run the gamut, she said, from balls for kids to those with crossword puzzles to a King Tut ball that's in the gift shop at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia in honor of the current Tut exhibit.
Then there's a major league ballpark series that depicts the history of most of the stadiums of Major League Baseball. A ball of Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies, is in the works, as is a series of rivalry teams, leading off with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Not all scenes are of baseball. There were Chanukah baseballs, for example, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art gift shop this past season, she added.
In addition, she's appeared on QVC, and will be on again sometime this spring.
Her baseballs have sold everywhere from Avon to Bloomingdale's, she insisted, "and some have been in the National Baseball Hall of Fame's gift shop in Cooperstown, N.Y."
According to Wolfson: "When I first started doing this, no one else was. Early on, I had a meeting with representatives of MLB, who resisted the idea, who told me it wouldn't work, that no one would buy them. One of MLB's distributors was there. He said the same thing.
"Today, that same distributor is making and marketing baseballs very similar to mine, which is okay since what is protected is my design and not the concept.
"My goal is to continue to create this niche, this little empire of baseballs, to do highly detailed scenes, little tiny paintings, on baseballs to continue to make and market a unique product," said Wolfson.
One of her "Unforgettaballs!" has scenes of Philadelphia painted on it, and is carried by Distinctive Gifts in Jenkintown.
For a complete list of items, log on to: www.unforgettaballs. com.