Why my art’s in the Valiants
By Zita Collinson
Paine Proffitt is one of the most-sought after artists in the world of football thanks to his love of the game and stylish depiction of working class life. He tells Zita Collinson about a journey that begins in war-torn Beirut and ends up in Port Vale via West Brom – but how Stoke-on-Trent will always be his home
There's something about Stoke-on-Trent that appeals to Paine Proffitt. To some, the affinity might be surprising. For a start, Paine spent many of his formative teenage years in Philadelphia. Where his grew up watching baseball (although he's still a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies), he's today surrounded by ardent football supporters.
That said, he's right at home here.
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He continues to follow baseball but he's also a season ticket holder at Port Vale, where this year he's designing the match day programme artwork.
Such is the demand for his artistic talent, that his striking designs will similarly be featured in Aberdeen FC's match programmes.
It follows 2011-2012's stint as artist-in-residence for West Bromwich Albion – where he also designed the programmes throughout the season.
Meanwhile, in March he's heading to the SMMEX trade fair in Wembley, along with the owners of Barewall Gallery in Burslem, where a selection of his work is on permanent display.
The sports merchandise event is the biggest of its kind and allows exhibitors a chance to pitch their ideas to clubs about how best to promote their brand.
Paine's portfolio has already proved so popular (his vintage-look programmes have certain collectible appeal and Barewall is reporting a brisk trade selling prints and original artwork of his Port Vale covers) that he's sure to be in demand.
After all, his love of sport and art seems to be a natural fit.
"Last year I sent my work out to a few teams," says Paine, currently living in Newcastle with his partner.
"West Brom was the team who came back to me and took a chance. Their programme editor really wants to try new things and he's won awards for the things he's done.
"He wanted to go with a religious theme. I got the concept and went with it.
"It's been said before that football is a modern religion. You've got the stadiums that are like cathedrals and the songs and they're like hymns, and you worship the players.
"I understood the parallel that he was going for. It was very much the gospel according to West Brom.
"It was mixed at first. The editor told me that they would probably hate it until October and by Christmas they wouldn't want to see anything else. That's kind of how it happened."
P aine has been living in England for the past 12 years, after first moving here to study illustration at the University of Brighton. As a youngster, Paine was used to moving around. His dad Nicholas was a war correspondent working for Newsweek, and his mum eventually became a newspaper copy editor.
As a child, Paine, who has a younger sister, spent time in some of the most troubled political hotspots in the world, including Beirut and Vietnam.
Drawing provided an escape and where his sister became more extroverted, Paine admits that he was a shy youngster.
"I grew up all over the place," he says. "My dad was a journalist.
"I'd still class the main part of where I was growing up as Philadelphia, which is where I moved to when I was 14.
"I lived in Saigon in Vietnam, then in Beirut during the conflicts there. I also spent a few years in Kenya.
"I can remember being in Beirut, and experiencing some sort of attack. The lights had gone out and there were a few flashes and my dad kept checking what was happening.
"He'd keep running to check on the balcony and the hallway.
"I was too young to know what was going on.
"But in Kenya we were kept well away from everything. It was quite fun actually. As a kid you get to go out and see the animals. I lived there between the ages of six-and-a-half to about nine.
"I think with my parents having journalistic background, and being writers, they were quite encouraging of my art.
"With moving around so much, I ended up going more and more into my shell. My sister would make friends with everyone so we went in different directions socially.
"I was very shy and stuck to myself. I kept my own company and in doing that I ended up drawing. It was something I could do wherever I was."
After being offered a posting in central America, Nicholas decided to end his career as a journalist and turned his hand to novel writing instead.
His book, Gardens of Stone, was turned into a film for which he also wrote the screenplay.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it starred James Caan and Anjelica Huston.
Nicholas died in 2006 and Paine's mum now lives in Florida.
"He was sure his next move was going to be central America and I think he'd had enough," says Paine, of his dad's decision to leave journalism.
"Whereas in some countries, you can keep your family out of the way, that would have been too much.
"My parents have always been supportive of their kids, my sister and I, in whatever they do.
"Mum likes the arts and she's happy that I'm doing what I do. For the most part though, I'm not sure how much she knows about. I tell her over the phone and she says it's great but in the States, football isn't as big.
"It's getting more popular but at the same time it's way behind baseball and American football and basketball."
Paine continues: "Because I moved around I actually feel more at home here than I've done anywhere. I've always felt comfortable. It's something about the people, the lifestyle.
"Philadelphia is a very working class city. Like Stoke-on-Trent it's also made up of lots of little towns rather than feeling like a big mega-metropolis.
"But there is a big difference between English life and American life. It's something that I became fascinated with in terms of my artwork and what I was drawn to.
"I like that grit and pride and also despair. Hopefully that works its way into my art."
When Paine was 17 he went to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, before spending a year in Brighton.
"I became more and more interested in painting and drawing as I got older," he says. "I decided to take it seriously and try for a place at art school."
Now aged 40, he came to England permanently in 2001, before heading north because of a relationship – and he's been here ever since.
"Stoke-on-Trent might have a reputation among other parts of England but I took it, when I first moved here, as what I saw," he says. "I wasn't thinking about the industrial past or history, or the working class. I didn't have that baggage or didn't get caught up in it.
"I'd been working as an illustrator in the States so I continued working on that when I first moved here.
"It was mostly editorial stuff. I did a lot of things like business illustrations and optometrist illustrations. It was boring stuff.
"It didn't work out in the end and I decided to leave the illustration work and just concentrate on my own interests, and that's when the football work came in."
I t was when he was first living in the Potteries and looking for ways to supplement his income working as a commercial illustrator that he became a steward at Port Vale.
"I almost did the covers for Port Vale last season but it fell through at the last minute," says Paine. "I was disappointed at the time, but looking back on it I'm kind of glad I didn't do last season's.
"I'm glad I'm involved this year. My artwork has got a lot better and everything surrounding the club has got a lot more positive. Vale Park is a much nicer place to be."
Paine doesn't restrict himself to football. His depiction of a rugby match hangs in the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham.
Meanwhile, in September, he was commissioned to paint a cycling scene to honour the Tour Of Britain's leg in North Staffordshire. His paintings were presented to cycling champions Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish.
Paine's work even hangs in the home of homegrown superstar, Robbie Williams, and he's been approached by a group of London-based Napoli fans to provide a selection of paintings.
"I haven't had any feedback from Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish but supposedly they liked the pictures," he says. "Of course they're going to say that. You never quite know."
He's been featured in The Guardian and FHM magazine to name but a few, and is now preparing a new exhibition later in the year.
This time the subject matter is more gothic and he uses music and lyrics as his inspiration – but he remains true to his own inimitable style.
Still, nothing matters more than the support of his fellow Vale fans.
"It's been good to be a fan of the club and now to work on the artwork," he continues. "It took me a while to find Vale but once I did, I just felt comfortable.
"Barewall has been really supportive too. They've always championed local artists.
"With being on the way to Vale Park, it's just growing and the interest we've had has been great.
"I'm very happy with how things are going. I've ventured into social media which I never thought I'd do but it exposes your work to people you would never expect it to.
"People have been in touch from Italy and the U.S. It's a bit scary at times because you just don't think your stuff will have that kind of reach.
"Stewarding was a great experience and I got to know the club and yes, I've got a few stories to tell.
"But it's very stressful and you're there dealing with all kinds of people.
"It's not much fun. At the time, Port Vale was having a lot of protests. The supporters weren't happy and the stewards were used as a line of defence.
"Finally, this year, they're just starting to get some luck and the good fortune that the club deserves.
"The supporters have suffered so long and it's good to see them get something back in return.
"I'd much rather be a fan than work with the club in that capacity.
"Luckily enough I am able to still work with the club, but now in a different way, in a much more enjoyable way."