Orioles' artist in residence

Painter: A week from Opening Day, a Waldorf man lives and works at Camden Yards, putting final touches on murals of team's heroes.

March 27, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

When he wakes up in the morning, Chris King steps onto a terrace, sits down for breakfast and beholds a singular sight: the field at Camden Yards. Late at night, he sometimes takes in the stars and downtown skyline from the vast openness of the upper deck.

In between, he paints and paints and paints.

King has become a true artist in residence, sleeping most nights on an army cot in one of the three stadium "party suites" the Baltimore Orioles have hired him to decorate with murals recalling heroes of old.

With Opening Day set for a week from today, King has been racing the clock to finish the series of larger-than-life images celebrating Orioles legends Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer.

Not that the 31-year-old Waldorf resident is griping about his unusual room-with-a-view setup for the past month.

"This project is worth it," he said yesterday, showing off his temporary digs in the Jim Palmer party suite like a lord of the manor. "I'm not painting a bathroom here. This is the Orioles. This is a premier thing."

The team couldn't be happier with his uncanny likenesses of the stars, now just a few touch-ups away from completion. There's Palmer with his signature high leg-kick, Brooks Robinson making a trademark diving stop and Frank Robinson poised to launch one of his 586 home runs.

"I think fans are going to be really pleased with it," said Roger B. Hayden, the Orioles' director of ballpark operations. He said he was "flabbergasted" by the images of Frank Robinson, because they were so realistic.

That Hayden hired King is a tribute to King's knack for self-promotion. One day last fall, King showed up at the stadium with his assistant and representative Steve McClay. The two plunked down $5 apiece for a tour of the stadium to see what cried out most for a mural.

When the tour reached the drab Brooks Robinson suite, they looked no further. Like the other two suites -- which businesses or large groups rent for a couple of thousand dollars a game, plus food -- the yellow walls featured just a few photos and a framed baseball jersey.

The Orioles had been looking to spruce up the rooms, Hayden said, but hadn't thought of what to do until King walked through the door. A series of meetings followed, culminating in an agreement March 2.

In return for a guarantee of dry paint by the first pitch, the Orioles would pay King and McClay roughly $12,000 in cash and goodies such as season tickets, a quarter-page ad in the Orioles game program and a segment on the scoreboard during games.

"Your face on the JumboTron -- you can't buy that," King said.

King has come a long way since the night when, as a heartsick 16-year-old in Virginia, he took a box of pastel chalk and transformed his bedroom wall into a montage of castles, waterfalls and planets -- all to impress a girl who'd jilted him.

His first paid mural followed when a friend offered him $30 to paint bears on the wall of her baby's room. Soon he was applying his artistry for the Ramada hotel corporation. While his dream of drawing comic books stalled, he had found a sort of calling.

His credits include racetracks, aquariums and restaurants up and down the East Coast, he said. Some jobs have come with unexpected perks. While working at a maritime museum in North Carolina, he got to pet a shark. At the National Zoo in Washington, he played with gazelles. At Six Flags America in Largo, he tooled around in the Batmobile.

But nothing, he said, compares to calling Camden Yards home for a month.

"This one has got to be the coolest one so far," he said. "I don't know how I'm going to top this."

First, he's got to finish, meaning more nights on the cot. It's not just the time crunch that has compelled King to sleep in a deserted stadium, he said. It's also a desire to be near his art -- an impulse that has led him to live at previous work sites.

A typical day at the ballpark goes like this: King rises around 7 a.m., washes up in a nearby women's restroom and paints from photos until noon. After a three-hour break, he picks up the paint brush again and works until about 3 a.m. -- or "until I'm ready to pass out and can't do it anymore."

The Orioles have humored King and McClay, his neighbor in the Frank Robinson room next door. The team handed them a set of keys and let them use a refrigerator. Stadium security guards drew the line, though, when King and McClay asked if they could have a game of toss on the field during the small hours one morning.

The thrill is especially great for McClay, 38, who remembers cheering for the Robinsons and Palmer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. King, however, does not exactly bleed orange and black. Before he showed up at Camden Yards looking for work, he hadn't been to a major-league stadium since 1969, when he was in diapers.

"If there was a team I'd be a fan of most," he offered weakly, "it'd be the Orioles, because I'm from here and live here."

Die-hard fan or not, King plans to spend a lot more time in the bleachers this season. After all, he's a season ticket-holder now.

And he can't wait to see his face on the JumboTron.

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