Published online for The Bay magazine. October 31, 2018. 

It’s Only a Game, now showing at the Bristol Art Museum, is a dynamic exhibit. Bright paintings depict bodies in motion. Like classical Greek statues, Tom Brady is shown with his arm turned, a mid-catapulting throw. Grand portraits of race horses look as if they could run, with a galloping verve, right out of the canvas. The show, which sets out to explore games, play, and athleticism in a multidisciplinary way, endows the visitor with energy.

I entered the museum with little prior knowledge of sports – my days on the junior varsity lacrosse team have long passed – and was delighted that even a novice could leave the show with an appreciation for athletics, both its cultural institutions and local history.

Mary Dondero, head curator of the museum, emphasizes that Only a Game uses a wide (yet nuanced) brush to illustrate what Americans consider “play.” The show’s inspiration stemmed from a general interest in sports history, but a practical uncertainty about what that might look like. One fruitful trip to the Newport Art Museum changed everything.

Inside the vaults of the museum, curators were struck by Joseph Norman’s lithographs, which turn everyday baseball objects – gloves, bats – into haunting portraits of what life was like for African-American players in the segregated league. Curators were able to borrow 11 of the lithographs for It’s Only a Game, and the scope of the exhibition took shape. The lithographs led to meditations on gender – such as a portrait of Lizzie Murphy, a Warren native and the first woman to play baseball with men in the Major Leagues; Murphy famously got a hit off of Satchel Page.

Amid the works is an interactive game of marbles – so kids can “play,” too – several sculptural deconstructions of children’s games, and trophies from the Bristol Athletic Hall of Fame. A series of wild images combine medieval jousting, kings, baseball, punk rockers, and even Annie Lennox into pigmented and stylized canvases. The exhibition plays with physical motion, showcasing athletes in media res, but also reflect on the trajectories of sports through the ages.

A recurring theme is how children’s play informs adulthood. For Dondero, childhood and imagination construct “ideas about social behavior and interactions,” but they can also be a tool for community building, “how just playing the game of marbles can do more than just be simply a game of score and [can] actually bring together community.” Dondero said that once word got out about the exhibition, many members of the Bristol community came to her with their own stories of local sports heroes. Like a post-game wrap-up, Only is a Game interweaves the personal with the national, revealing the players for who they are. The exhibit continues through November 18, Bristol Art Museum, 10 Wardwell Street, Bristol. BristolArtMuseum.org

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