This post first appeared in Houston Chronicle.
A former pro athlete turned artist created Minute Maid Park's new 'Space Man' chrome sculpture.
The Astros welcomed a new guy to Minute Maid Park during Monday night's game against the Red Sox. He's 13-feet tall, has a steel skeleton and is made of carbon fiber.
A "Boonji Spaceman" sculpture by artist Brendan Murphy was unveiled as an extension of the Astros' Space City Connect program. Earlier this year the organization became the ninth Major League Baseball team to launch its Nike City Connect uniform. As a nod to Houston's rich space travel legacy and proximity to NASA, the team now wears a lunar and star chart-inspired jersey during Monday home games.
So Murphy's "Boonji Spaceman" is a perfect fit.
"A credit to Jim Crane for having the vision of bringing me on," the artist says. "Most team owners don't think that way -- it's all pretty bottom-line type stuff. It makes no sense to commission a high-price artist."
He was introduced to Crane through an old friend from high school-turned-art collector. Part of Murphy's process is a month-long question and answer session to identify the theme of a piece. With the Astros, he worked directly with leadership on selecting Pantone colors and various chapters of team history surrounding its players, victories and success.
"What's great about what Brendan does is that those sculptures are a story-telling piece," says Astros Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications Anita Sehgal. "It tells the story of the Astros in a fun and unique way and talks about the last 15 years of golden era Astros baseball."
From those initial planning conversations, a firm deadline was set for Aug. 1. In Murphy's industry, 6 months is a considered a quick turnaround.
"There are far more talented artists, but I work really hard and have a great team. I crate and ship easier than most people," he explains. "And because I don't have the technique you might learn in art school, I had to get good at blocking and tackling instead of the technique stuff."
Murphy may not have a conventional art education, though he is a former athlete. Back in the day he played professional basketball in Europe before making the leap to Wall Street. After the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, he came to terms with a life-changing truth: he was a creative person, not a finance guy. That's when he began painting as a hobby, and hunkered down in a studio on his native Rhode Island.
Murphy made ends meet by selling his art and playing poker. In the past decade, after selling an athletic clothing line, he was able to make a living strictly on art.
"Now I'm making things that I want to do and people come to me," he says. "I own proprietary rights to a special painting technique which makes anything look like metal. It's very light materials that make things look heavy, chrome and shiny. That never existed before (those pieces) couldn't live outside."
The versatility of "Boonji Spaceman" is part of its appeal. For now it's installed in section 118 across from the Astros team store on the main concourse. "It can fit inside or outside," Sehgal adds. "It's conscientious in that it's built for sustainability and longevity."
Murphy not-so-secretly hopes that other team owners take notice. His signature, astronaut-inspired sculpture proved serendipitous for Houston's space theme, though it also builds a case for commissions beyond the typical bronze statue requests.
They don't come cheap. The artist suggests the value of his most recent "Boonji Spaceman" is $1 million. In 2021, Sotheby’s estimated comparable sculptures between $170,000 - $190,000. Ahead of last year’s holiday season, Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship in Midtown Manhattan advertised "Frozen with Desire," a 4-feet, 80-lb. version featuring 6,200 diamonds, for $25 million. The Astros declined to disclose the actual amount paid.
A hefty price tag, albeit one that comes with digital bragging rights.
"Brendan is interesting, progressive and a little disruptive. He was a great partner for us," Sehgal admits. "He's leaned into NFTs. So the Astros not only purchased the physical sculpture, but the NFT properties around it, too. Think of it as a legacy piece. The world is changing."
Murphy invests in good old-fashioned face time, too. Nearly 30 friends and family members flew to Houston to cheer him on as he threw the first pitch. An additional 40 Boonji Project members -- purchasing one of the artworks affords access into a private club -- filled the stands at Minute Maid Park for the latest sculpture unveiling.
But the most rewarding experience for Murphy was getting to meet a father and son who drove in from Georgia for the game. Later, the pair bumped into the artist.
"A guy stopped me on the street after the game and congratulated me on the pitch," Murphy recalls. "He said, 'You need to know my son and I took a photo in front of your sculpture and he couldn't stop talking about it.' That's what you want -- anytime you show your work you hope it moves the needle for people and brings them into the moment."