Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Once a quarterback, Hughson artist’s playbook now an easel

Playing quarterback requires a certain bit of artistry.

Nick Brown led Hughson High to a Division III Section title in 2000, quarterbacked Modesto Junior College and then went on to become the starter at the University of Redlands.

But the talent he displays inside the San Francisco 49ers’ new $1.2 billion digs doesn’t involve a football, cleats or even a backup’s clipboard. The 31-year-old Valley native is one of 27 artists featured throughout Levi’s Stadium, the NFL’s newest edifice, where Turlock’s Colin Kaepernick is the quarterback in residence.

In fact, 14 of Brown’s works grace the place, including two in team owner Jed York’s private skybox. Seven others are shown in the Citrix Owners Club, a series of sponsored suites.

“The rest are placed in different spots in the box suites,” Brown said.

None of his pieces depicts the 49ers or the game itself, and yet he says his football career ultimately led him to Levi’s Stadium.

“I played football, but art was always in the background,” he said. “When I got to Redlands, I was paired up a roommate who was a punk rocker and skater. We couldn’t have been more opposite.”

Yet, he and roomie David Scherer became great friends. They formed a company in which Scherer designed and built skateboards, and Brown did the artwork for them. Through Scherer’s family connections, Brown began working at the Millard Sheets Gallery in Pomona. The gallery offers art demonstrations each summer in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Fair. He specializes in landscapes and portraits.

“Loose hand,” he said. “I go for a little bit impressionist, but you can tell what it is.”

During the 2012 fair, a woman named Samantha Wendell walked by as he demonstrated. She stopped and watched. They struck up a conversation. She told him she, too, is an artist, that she liked his work and has friends and agents in the art world. She specifically mentioned Tracie Speca-Ventura, owner of Sports & The Arts. She was in the process of gathering artists to display works in the 49ers’ new stadium.

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“We traded contact info,” Brown said. “I even noted on there, ‘49ers.’ But I thought, ‘We’ll see’ ... You never want to get your hopes up too much.”

Around Thanksgiving of that year, he received an email from Speca-Ventura, curator of the collection at Levi’s Stadium. She wanted to meet him the next day at the Marriott Hotel in Santa Clara, just an Andy Lee punt away from the new stadium, to discuss his work. She wanted the collection to be diverse in its representation of the Bay Area and surroundings, and the various cultures and ethnicities, and include up-and-coming artists such as Brown.

“We had over 300 submissions,” Speca-Ventura said. She ultimately identified 200 original artworks to display. Fourteen of them are Brown’s.

“Nick really captures the Central Valley,” she said. “His paintings are like they are coming out of a dream. The coloring and shadowing are exceptional.”

“I was floored,” said Brown, who was in Hughson when he learned his art would be shown. “It was emotional. I told my parents (Dan and Cindy Brown). I told my grandmother (Jean Brown), who lives next door. She started me in painting. They’ve been an unbelievable source of love and inspiration. They’ve never questioned my path as an artist. The last two years (since that day) have been a trip.”

The family also contributed to his artistry in another way. Brown’s family members are skilled in carpentry, which he learned as well and uses as an in-house artist at the Millard Sheets Gallery. He used those skills to create one piece of art made of oak wine barrel staves. It is one of his two hanging in owner York’s suite. The other is an oil painting of the famed Monterey Cypress. Two of his paintings are Valley-centric: one of a water tower near Westley and the other of an old semi-trailer along Interstate 5, also near Westley, that is sometimes used as a billboard.

The rest of his works in the stadium depict scenes in Salinas, Gilroy, the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Muir Woods, Bodega Bay, Cannery Row and other places throughout the state.

He’s not done contributing to the Levi’s collection, Speca-Ventura said.

“I need one more Nick painting,” she said.

For Brown, the stadium collection offers the opportunity to have his works displayed in the Bay Area’s state-of-the-art showcase, in luxury suites frequented by people who might want a portrait or landscape or wine-barrel piece of their own and can certainly afford them.

It’s also time to reflect on the success he’s enjoying in what has been a relatively short career as an artist, and to give credit to those who have played a role in it.

“It’s been being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Going to Redlands, rooming with Dave Scherer and meeting his family. Meeting Samantha (Wendell). I’ll always be grateful and I owe her one.”

An accomplished artist known for, among other works, her sports and pop culture portraits, Wendell also has pieces on display at Levi’s Stadium. And she will be demonstrating alongside Brown at Miller Sheets Gallery’s LA County Fair exhibition in August and September.

Indeed, football took him to Redlands, which, in turn, led to his career as an artist. And now, Brown’s art adorns the walls of a football stadium – a brush with destiny, you might say.

It’s just that his playbook is now an easel. He’ll leave the quarterbacking to Kaepernick.

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