“I’m an artist, a hockey fan, and a (fading) hockey player.” That’s how Anthony Jenkins describes himself these days. If you press him a bit on the artistry, he might add that, for all the painting that he does up near Orangeville, Ontario, where he lives, he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as a painter. “I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints,” he told me recently.
If his style seems familiar, it might be that you’re a regular Globe and Mail reader. For 39 years, Jenkins was on staff at the Toronto newspaper as an award-winning editorial cartoonist, illustrator, and sometime writer.
The scope and charm of his post-Globe oeuvre is on display at his website, over this way. For hockey fans, that’s also the best place to get to know and marvel at Jenkins’ collection of portraits of NHL Hall-of-Famers for which he uses working table hockey games for a canvas.
“My ‘Game Face’ series of paintings are intended as a homage to the idols of my youth,” he says of the ongoing anthology that he started in about 15 years ago. Subjects to date have included Guy Lafleur and Gump Worsley, Tim Horton, Wendel Clark, and Auston Matthews. His preferred canvas might be the old Eagle table-hockey game from the 1960s, but he also frequently works with Stiga games, which are Swedish-made. As far as he can determine, Stiga is the only manufacturer still producing table-hockey rinks on any scale.
Several of Jenkins’ hockey portraits have featured in gallery shows, including in 2019 at a hockey-minded exhibition at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, that also included etchings by Peter Doig, the photographs of Diana Thorneycroft, and paintings by former Hockey in Night Canada broadcaster Brian McFarlane.
Some of those same works of Jenkins’ are available for sale (see, again, his website); he’s also glad, he says, to take on commissions, whether the subject excelled on NHL ice or is someone you know (aor are) who laces up to chase late-night beer-league pucks.
Earlier this year, Anthony Jenkins was good enough to collaborate on a Puckstruck Q+A. Our conversation, edited and condensed, is reflected in these answers to my questions.
On his background, in hockey and art:
I grew up in Toronto, Scarborough, played hockey as a young boy. I wasn’t particularly good. My first team was Baby Bunny Nuts — sounds pretty ferocious, doesn’t it? They were a firm that had hot-nut machines in grocery stores … so I played for Baby Bunny Nuts for a year.
I always wanted to be an artist and ended up being a cartoonist and later on, an artist. I dropped away from playing hockey and picked it up again as an adult. I’ve played pick-up hockey for years since.
On matching hockey portraits with hockey games:
The hockey game thing — I guess a friend of mine was painting on various kinds of toys and games, and one of them was a little tiny, almost palm-of-your-hand-sized, hockey game.
And so it dawned on me — I was familiar with the big hockey games, because I played them as avidly as a boy, and even in university. I thought, if you stand this upright, it’s a natural frame — I’m going to paint something on there.
I’m a face guy — I love painting faces — so I thought I’ll paint a hockey player on there. And then I found out: not so easy. Because your canvas has got slots and spikes sticking out of it, with mobile players. So it was more of a challenge to get an interesting pose that the slots didn’t interfere with. And that’s where the most work is, laying that out, designing how you’re going to paint it. Then once you do that, on goes the portrait.
I’d say I’ve done 30, at least. Mostly I just do them and then try and show them and sell them. Sometimes people call me and I’ll do commissions of their favourite guy: can you do a Gump Worsley? Absolutely. They’re a quirky thing, because, you know, most people wouldn’t put him on the living-room wall … it’s more of a man-cave thing. Some people can take them or leave them, but the people who like them, like them a lot. I like them a lot.
On materials and methods:
As far as I’m aware, Stiga is the only company still making table hockey games. I grew up in the as a kid in the ’60s, so I knew that the old Eagle games with the flat metal players. I’ve still got a few of them up on my bookcase, just as a memory. You can still get them on eBay, but they’re really hard to find, and they’re expensive.
The Gretzky games are from the ’80s, so the next generation, and they’re a little bit easier to find. I like them in that they’re big and solid, and they’re very white, so they’re the easiest for me to paint on. The Rocket one I painted, that’s the kind of game I had as a kid. I’ve done a couple of those, and they’re really quite nice.
What I do is I tape the rods up, inside, using hockey tape, so they can’t slip out. Otherwise a three-foot game becomes a six-foot game.
So they’re all taped in place. And the players come off and then I just start painting over top. I’ll paint out the area I need in white — I’m getting rid of lines and circles — and then I do a line drawing in grease pencil, because you’re drawing on plastic and a grease pencil works best. And then I paint over top of that. And then one thing I’m proud of doing is, I don’t just want to paint the player on the game, I want to integrate him, so I paint a lot of the lines and circles and ice insignia back into the image, so it looks like he’s kind of emerging from the game.
I paint in acrylic, which dries more quickly. It’s quite bright, too. And the idea is, what I trying to do, I’m not trying to reproduce a photograph. So the skin colour isn’t pink, and (say) the Leafs’ blue jersey is not just blue, I’ll get in some turquoise and some pink, and other shades. So, just visually, it’s interesting as well. I mean, it is a painting. It’s more than hockey memorabilia: it’s art.
Putting actual paint on the surface, it takes maybe 12 or 15 hours. Then you’ve got to factor in, I’ve got to go online and find the game, get it, then an hour or two (or more) just kind of plotting the layout, which is the hardest part.
It’s not necessarily the most creative part, but it’s the most important part. I mean, when I first started doing it, I thought, this is great. Then I’d paint a player onto the game and there’d be one of the game-rods sticking out of his eyeball, so I’ve just wasted 15 hours. I learned: planning is key.
On Gump and JC:
The commissions have largely been of Toronto Maple Leafs. At first, I did strictly Hall of Famers I revered as a boy, Howe, Rocket, people like that, Tim Horton. And then later on, when the commissions came in, they were often people who’d end up in the Hall, like Yzerman. And then sometimes the oddball, like Gump. He was a character beyond hockey, of course.
I have one of Christ in a Leafs’ jersey. I forget what prompted that one, but it’s called “Jesus, we lost again?”
It was polarizing. I had one show, in Etobicoke, I had two or three paintings there, including the Jesus one. And very quickly, the gallery curator said, We’ve got to take it down, we’ve got some complaints. I asked why, and it was, well, it’s blasphemous, mocking Christ. Well, no, I wasn’t. But it came down.
And then within a year, I was showing the same painting in Collingwood. They had a contest and I was up there and it turns out I won it. The judges said that they liked the physical application of paint, but they also liked the idea and the sheer bravery. So they got it. It’s a satire, or a sympathy, with suffering Leaf fans, not at all mocking anything.
There are painters … I’m kind of more of a drawer who paints. Painters, they start off with a pink blob, and then they refine the details, refine the details, until all of a sudden it looks like me or you. I do a drawing and then kind of paint it out and paint down until it doesn’t look like a drawing, it looks like a painting. So I’m kind of doing it in reverse. It works for me.
After two Covid-skewed seasons, the NHL gets back to something like regular programming tonight with the launch of a new winter campaign. It’s 104 years since the NHL first put to ice, in December of 1917, with four teams, all of them in eastern Canada, of which only three were around at the end of the 22-game regular season. Pandemics notwithstanding, it’s a whole new world now, with the newfound Seattle Kraken bringing the NHL’s membership up to 32 teams. They’ll each play 82 games — probably? maybe? — for a total of 1,312 before the playoffs get going next May. All being well, the league will pause in February for the best of its players to go to Beijing to play for Olympic gold.
Pictured here: an illustration from a Boston Bruins program from 1938-39. This year’s edition of the Brus start up on Saturday, October 16, when they host the Dallas Stars at TDGarden. Not to promise anything, or to jinx it, but in ’39 coach Art Ross ended up steering the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship.