When SI needed a painting to portray the despair and self-imposed isolation of Willard Hershberger, a Cincinnati Reds catcher from 1938 to '40 whose tragic life is explored by senior writer William Nack in this issue (page 52), design director Steven Hoffman called on free-lance artist Kinuko Y. Craft. "We wanted someone who could pinpoint the mental state Nack was getting at—to show Hershberger not as an athlete but as a psychological being," Hoffman says. "Kinuko used the story's recurrent image of Hershberger sitting alone by a window at night, smoking a cigarette."
Ironically Craft's main challenge was visualizing this troubled man with a somber expression on his face. "I had seven photos to work from, but he was smiling in all of them," she says. "I had to imagine how he would look with his mouth closed. When a person smiles, the whole facial muscle system changes. So while I was painting, I kept a mirror in front of me to figure out how he would look if he wasn't smiling."
The impressive results came as no surprise to Hoffman, who says, "Kinuko is an amazingly versatile artist. She created medieval-style illuminated manuscripts for our story on The College of Cardinals [Aug. 14, 1989] and did paintings resembling 18th-century Japanese prints for an excerpt from You Gotta Have Wa, a book on Japanese baseball [May 15, 1989]. She's so good at finding the right mood."
Craft, who grew up on a tree farm near Kanazawa, Japan, says, "I've always liked painting, and for as long as I can remember, I've painted. I was brought up by my grandfather, who was kind of a Renaissance man. He was a politician, but he was good at calligraphy and flower arranging, and he collected art, antiques and art books. So I was always surrounded by art."
Twenty-seven years ago Kinuko Yamabe, then 24, brought her talent to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied commercial art and met Mahlon Craft, the painting student whom she married a year later. Today Kinuko and Mahlon and two dogs reside in Norfolk, Conn., in a house that Kinuko describes as "terribly dilapidated." In an apt turnabout, their daughter, Marie, 24, lives in Tokyo.
Kinuko admits she's "not a terribly sporty person. But in Japan I used to ski and watch sumo wrestling. It was kind of fun seeing those big meatball-looking people punching into each other." Now she spends most of her time painting in her gloriously cluttered studio.
"I'm kind of a storyteller," she says. "I like to tell a story not with words, but with color and images. When I read the Hershberger article, I built up some images of him, and of course I had to pay attention to what the magazine wanted. But other than that it was my own world to deal with."
That's just how we like it.