It’s an understatement to say it was a thrill for me on Friday when I attended the presentation ceremonies of the inspiring portrait of major league baseball pitching ace Pedro Martinez into the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
This is the nation’s premier repository of portraits of those who’ve made an impact on American life, from politics and the arts, to business, sports, science, even crime.
“It’s like America’s Facebook,” commented director Martin Sullivan, greeting over 100 people in the auditorium on the bright, brisk morning.
”It’s a brilliant day, full of energy and life and perfect for inducting this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery,” he added.
The portrait depicts Pedro, eight time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner and a World Series champ with the amazing 2004 Red Sox, in his prime. He’s on the mound, arms slightly raised, elbows bent as he prepares to hurl a pitch. There’s a look of commitment on his face as he stares with strong determination into the unseen batter’s eyes. His long, talented fingers curl around the ball. It’s a moment in time, perfectly preserved.
“She’s captured such a telling likeness of him,” said Sullivan, as he introduced the speakers..
The “she” Sullivan referred to is artist Susan Miller-Havens, who so ably captured Martinez’s fierceness, as well as his heart in the work, one of three portraits she painted of him in her Cambridge gallery over 10 years ago.
Miller-Havens is my lifelong friend, dating back to Miss Grace Bloom’s kindergarten class at the Forest Avenue School in Glen Ridge, N.J. Her artwork fills the 1962 Glenalog, our high school yearbook.
I have followed her career since we reconnected at our 25th high school reunion almost 25 years ago. I saw her Pedro on view before at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J. and I also savored her portrait of stellar catcher Carlton Fisk that’s also part of the permanent collection in the National Portrait Gallery two years ago. I’ve written about her work featuring women and their dogs that was featured in a group show during Lowell Women’s Week eight years ago.
But I wasn’t prepared for the moving events that took place on Friday, and several days later, still find myself processing all that happened that day.
First, Susan talked about Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who “understood the beauty and athleticism” of his subjects. “He said ‘art is not what you see, but what you make others see,’” noting that she lives by that expression, which hangs on her studio wall.
She talked of meeting Pedro and getting to know him, something she does with every subject she paints.
“Pedro is exceptional. I spent time with him, talked about gardening and life with him, got to know his family. I saw his devotion to his country, his promise to help children and to build a church there where there was none and of his love of nature, his soul, and. yes, his moodiness.” said Susan.
“Pedro is one of the greatest pitchers who has ever played baseball, but he also has a great heart,” she added. And that made him an exceptionally appealing subject for her to paint.
Gloria and Peter Gammons, the great ESPN baseball commentator who grew up nearby in Groton, donated the portrait to the NPG from their extensive art collection. Gloria had purchased it for Peter several years ago on his birthday. They loved it a lot. But they also knew it deserved to be seen by millions more over the coming years, decades, even centuries, as an important part of American history and culture that the NPG preserves and presents in its collection.
“Gloria bought it for Peter seven years ago and I know how much they treasure it,” said Sullivan.
His Excellency Dr. Roberto Saladin, ambassador of the Dominican Republic, also spoke and commended Pedro for his talent, but also his commitment to his native country.
“It’s a great honor to congratulate Pedro Martinez, and thanks to Susan Miller Havens for capturing his strength and talent. He is an artist with his arm and every Dominican is proud of Pedro. He’s a wonderful example to our nation,” he said.
Finally, it was Pedro’s time to speak. And when he did, a standing ovation erupted and greeted him. He thanked God, his family and all who had contributed to his success in life. He lauded Susan for her stellar work.
“My friend Suze - you did a great painting. I love you and am proud of you and proud to be the one you painted,” he said.
Overcome with emotion, he wiped tears from his eyes and noted, “I never felt this much emotion in any of the games I played. I’m sorry, Suze, I didn’t know this was going to happen. I thank you all, I thank God from above and I am extremely proud and happy. It is an honor to be inducted into this museum. Susan, you are beautiful and your artistry is even prettier.”
His family, including his mother, wife and children flocked to the stage, hundreds of photos were taken and dozens of hands were shaken. “This is a day to celebrate,” said Sullivan. “Now millions will see Pedro’s portrait, as it joins presidents, poets, activists, actors, men and women of greatness who have shaped our nation.”
Afterward, at the reception, Pedro signed autographs, posed for more pictures, including one with my awe-struck grandson Jack, and basked in the glory of the day. Susan looked on, hugged her friend and marveled at his hands. He marveled at hers, too, two artists – one with a ball, the other with a brush – who have added to the national legacy preserved in the National Portrait Gallery.
It was a day to remember – one I’ll never forget – and neither, I bet, will Pedro Martinez nor Susan Miller Havens either.
Visit www.millerhavens.com for her detailed explanation of the Pedro Project.