Visual Arts

Gallery Hop: Football lends itself well to painter's 'operatic' work

Pile, an oil painting that is 14 feet across, is the largest of the large works in Scrimmage, an exhibit by Berea College professor Kevin Neal Gardner at Ann Tower Gallery.
Pile, an oil painting that is 14 feet across, is the largest of the large works in Scrimmage, an exhibit by Berea College professor Kevin Neal Gardner at Ann Tower Gallery. Courtesy of Ann Tower Gallery

Lexington art lovers are familiar with sporting art, with the area's signature Thoroughbred racing regularly being represented in galleries. But sports like football, though ubiquitous on TV throughout the fall and early winter, are not common gallery fare.

Kevin Neal Gardner might not be the obvious artist to bring the gridiron to the gallery.

"I'm not really a football fan," says Gardner, an assistant professor of painting and drawing at Berea College who lives in Lexington.

But a few things came together for Gardner, including an interest in Roman relief work (a form of sculpture in which the subject appears to stand out from the field behind it), painting "large, almost operatic" work and a compelling newspaper photograph of a high school football practice.

Those were the seeds of Scrimmage, Gardner's new exhibit of oil-on-linen paintings at Ann Tower Gallery, which will open with a Gallery Hop reception Friday night.

"It seemed perfect for this; idealized, nostalgic, youthful, and it was a perfect connection between the two forms," Gardner says of combining football with a Romanesque style in large images.

The largest painting, Pile, is 14 feet across, and many are six or seven feet at their longest measurement.

"The bigness came from a criticism once, because I like opera, and the criticism was, 'I don't see anything operatic in your work,'" says Gardner, 38, who holds a bachelor's degree from St. John's College and a master of fine arts from Indiana University. "It tended to be small. I thought, well, that's a good challenge."

Painting that big can be a challenge, from finding space in which to create the work to moving it around once it's done.

"I wanted it to be like you're watching a musical production of football," Gardner says.

But it is a production tied to cultures in centuries past. The images in Scrimmage echo classical spectacle in the coliseums, which, after all, is what a lot of football stadiums are built to represent.

Gardner also gets back to the domestic North American feel of the game in other pieces, such as Pass, featuring a solitary player stepping back to unleash the ball against an orange sunset.

"I was just thinking about fall and the season changing and being in high school, playing a fall sport," Gardner says. "There's just the sunset and world's end and isolation, and I tried to connect to that."

He says it has been interesting to watch who stops to see Scrimmage.

"It has drawn in some people who might not spend that much time with a painting," Gardner says. "I saw men and women who probably are more drawn to football than paintings, so I saw a great variety of interest."

Thus, Scrimmage draws worlds together in another way.


Gallery Hop

What: More than 50 Lexington venues participate in LexArts gallery tour

When: 5-8 p.m. Sept. 20

Where: Various galleries in downtown Lexington and Chevy Chase. For participating galleries, go to or call (859) 255-2951.

Exhibit mentioned in this story:

Scrimmage, football paintings by Kevin Neal Gardner. Through Nov. 3. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.; extended hours during special events, Downtown Arts Center theater performances and by appointment. Opening reception: 5-8 p.m. Sept. 20, during Gallery Hop. Ann Tower Gallery, 141 E. Main St. (859) 425-1188,