West Ham fans have had plenty to cheer about with the improved quality on display on the pitch so far this season, but there has also been something new to catch the eye in the club shop, after American artist Paine Proffitt’s West Ham artwork and merchandise went on sale.
Robbie Williams and Sir Bradley Wiggins are just two of the famous names who have a Proffitt original adoring their walls, and Irons fans have also been able to get their hands on his distinctive retro artwork since the club began selling it in the summer. Fed up with earning a living as a freelance illustrator of other people’s work – an existence he called ‘soul destroying’ – the 42-year-old who now lives in the Potteries decided to combine his love of sport with his artistic talent, and a whole new career was born.
‘Growing up, I loved American sports, mainly baseball and ice hockey, but as soon as I first came to live in the UK 20 years ago, I fell in love with football,’ he told Blowing Bubbles. Having first done artwork for the team he supports, Port Vale, Proffitt soon became increasingly in demand, doing programme covers for the likes of West Brom, Aberdeen and Grimsby, and it was not long before fans of other teams were asking him to do something for them.
Recently, West Ham joined that list. ‘I’d already done a West Ham piece in the hope of catching the club’s eye, and a year ago I was at a sports merchandising trade show with my partners BWSportsArt, and we met someone from the club,’ he added. ‘After a year of working things out and sending them ideas, at last the prints and the shirts and mugs, which are made by Genesis Sports, have gone on sale, and so far the feedback has been great.’
Profitt admits he is an artist rather than a historian, but says sometimes a club has a certain feel to it which instinctively inspires him. This has certainly been the case with West Ham. ‘I’m not making a visual record of a club’s past, I try to capture the spirit of the club and what things make it special – past players, songs, club myths and legends, that kind of thing,’ he explained. ‘So far my West Ham pieces have been general supporter pieces, but finding out more about the club culture makes me want to do some more specific ones.
What really inspires me is stories from players and fans – that gives me so much more than Wikipedia could, it makes the work much more personal and brings the club’s history and soul to life. A great example of this was when I was doing a programme cover for West Brom v West Ham, Baggies legend Tony Brown wrote a great piece about how Martin Peters was one of the most gifted players he’d ever played against, so that really inspired the picture I did of him.’
So, as an outsider, what has Paine learnt so far about what makes West Ham tick? ‘West Ham fans are a passionate bunch who are really proud of their roots and really identify with the club, and pass down that tradition – that’s why one of my new pieces shows three generations standing together, passing on the torch of supporting the club. Of course you get an element of that at every club, but I think it particularly rings true at West Ham,’ he explained.
Talk of tradition, history and indeed torches are particularly relevant at the Boleyn these days, as the clock ticks down to the Olympic Stadium move, and Paine says he hopes this transition can be the source of more creative inspiration. ‘I’m looking to do a few more pieces about the club’s past, particularly drawing on the significance of the ground,’ he said. ‘It’s been suggested I do a few paintings on the greatest matches played there, which is a fascinating prospect for an artist and one I’d really like to explore.
With a club meaning so much to its fans, woe betide the artist who tries to encapsulate its spirit – and gets it wrong. ‘As I don’t have week-in, week-out intimacy with a club when I’m painting it, it’s always a bit of a gamble and can be pretty daunting, hoping that I get it right, but all the reactions so far to my West Ham work have been positive, which is a great relief,’ he said. ‘That’s why I prefer to do my own thing, rather than commissions. My best work is done when I’m left to my own devices – I have the freedom to fail if I want to, rather than trying to fulfil someone else’s requirements. That makes it feel too much like work.’
Many clubs have been given the Paine Proffitt treatment in recent years, and he says it is hard to explain why some inspire him more than others, but his own words suggest that in West Ham, he has found a club he can relate to.
‘I don’t even quite understand it myself sometimes, but certain clubs do jump out at me more than others, for all kinds of reasons,’ he said. ‘I’m attracted to clubs with rough edges, with a bit of character, a story and some toughness. I like working class clubs with a passionate fanbase, and I’m drawn to tradition and nostalgia.’ Paine Proffitt may not quite understand what has drawn him to West Ham, but to Irons fans reading those words, it may well make perfect sense.