NEW YORK -- If you want to know how much working on Topps’ groundbreaking 2020 Project means to artist Blake Jamieson, just listen to him talk about his Mark McGwire card. Or, better yet, watch him.
Like clockwork, Jamieson streams live on YouTube every night at 10:23 ET, but he rarely does the same thing twice. You might find him unveiling his latest Topps creation, giving a virtual tour of his studio or custom-painting cards to mail to fans. One night, he read a passage from "The Alchemist." Another time, his girlfriend, Lauren Mayhew, performed a live DJ set in the studio.
“I’d say like 50 percent of the time, we don’t know what we’re doing going into it,” Jamieson said with a laugh. “I mean, we’re winging it a lot, which is fun.”
Make no mistake, though: There’s a method to his madness. With so much in life uncertain at the moment, one thing you can depend on is Jamieson streaming every night, right at 10:23. He also responds to every tweet, answers every email and signs every card people send him. (Note: Include a self-addressed stamped envelope.)
As a result, Jamieson has become a true ambassador for the 2020 Project, which handpicked 20 artists to redesign 20 classic Topps cards. And he’s forged a real connection with all sorts of people at the intersection of art and sports.
“I’ve heard from so many people saying how much this has meant to them,” said Tony Bianchini, Jamieson’s publicist. “It’s a really lousy time in the world, and all these people are saying this brought them back to the hobby. They’re looking at their cards again, and connecting with their kids and their dad. It makes people feel so good about themselves, and that blows us away.”
Which brings us back to Big Mac. When Jamieson was a kid collecting cards in the Bay Area with his dad -- a frequent participant in his YouTube live chats -- his “prized possession” was the iconic 1985 Topps McGwire card, in which the slugger wears a Team USA jersey. Assigned by Topps to remaster the '87 McGwire, he made the jersey red and added stars and stripes to work in the Team USA element. All of Jamieson’s cards have been popular, but McGwire was a labor of love, and collectors treated it as such.
On his livestream the night the card dropped, he read a story his dad wrote about the two of them meeting McGwire when Jamieson was just 2 years old. He had to pause a couple times, overcome with emotion about how he’s come full circle.
“That’s why this matters a lot,” Jamieson said on the stream, his voice cracking. “Pretty cool.”
He took a deep breath, held up a book and joked, “I think 'The Alchemist' will be easier to read!”
Jamieson’s journey is proof that betting on yourself truly can pay off. A college lacrosse player, he worked in social marketing until the exact day he turned 30, when he decided he’d rather create his own path. In what he calls a “quarter-life crisis,” he quit his job and took a soul-searching trip to Barcelona, where he went on a walking tour of the city’s street art community. Jamieson, who had loved art as a kid, was enthralled.
When he returned to his hostel, in a moment of serendipity, there was an art supply store across the street. Jamieson bought some paint and headed to the roof to make stencils.
“Next thing I knew, I was going out, doing graffiti and stuff in Barcelona. All the locals were really receptive, and it was super fun,” Jamieson said. “So when I got back to the states after that trip, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to give this painting thing a shot.’”
Jamieson headed back to California, set up a studio in an old barn at his parents’ house and with their encouragement, immersed himself in his craft. Inspired by legends like Basquiat and Warhol, he found a niche doing pop art portraits of great athletes and stars like Drew Brees, C.J. Anderson and Odell Beckham Jr. soon became clients.
Jamieson next relocated to New York, where he was hoping to find a way to collaborate with Topps. Sure enough, the universe conspired in his favor again and the company reached out to him.
“The Ermsy Trout is insane. It blew my mind. I’m like, ‘Wow, we can really push this,’” Jamieson said. “So I went back to the drawing board and got a little bit looser with Nolan Ryan, and it kind of opened my eyes. I want a good mix of paying tribute to the original card, while having my own style where hopefully someone sees it and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a Blake Jamieson.’”
Jamieson no longer works in marketing, but he uses the skills honed during his former career to great effect. The 10:23 start time is no accident -- it stands out a lot more than, say, 10:30 -- and he’s constantly innovating new ways to engage his fans. He also feels a kinship with his fellow Project 2020 artists, frequently hosting them on his livestream and encouraging them to similarly put themselves out there.
It doesn’t hurt that Jamieson is eminently likable, not to mention patient. Studio assistant Matt Castello recalls how Jamieson recently disarmed a relentless Twitter troll by sending him a customized Ronald Acuña Jr. card out of the blue, instantly winning him over.
“I think Blake resonates because he’s both genuine and generous. People feel like they know him and are friends with him just from watching him on YouTube,” Castello said. “'Authentic' is perhaps an overused word, but he is truly authentic in the best sense.”
So what’s next for Jamieson and his team? In the short term, his Mike Trout card -- a highly anticipated collaboration with celebrity jeweler Ben Baller -- is now scheduled to release Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET on Topps’ site. He also has 14 more Project 2020 cards still to come. And he sells autographed cards on his own site, with part of the proceeds going to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and similar causes.
Past that, he’d like to continue working with Topps on other projects -- in a perfect world, his own set -- to continue exploring the synergy between art and sports.
“You can obviously get photographs of athletes doing amazing things,” Jamieson said. “But I think a painting can capture more of the energies of that moment. It’s hard to get that in a photo because you only have one perspective. But with a painting, you can mix many different elements and bring more of the magic out of that moment, and people are responding to that.”
And one other thing that fans respond to: Jamieson seemingly never stops working. They joke with him that he should take a night off here and there. But if you love what you do, every day represents a new opportunity.
“I worked my whole life for something like this, for 35 years, to be where we’re at right now,” Jamieson said. “To have an engaged audience that appreciates and loves what I’m doing and is giving feedback … this is what I worked for.
“So I’m not taking time off. I’m going to soak it up and enjoy as much as I can.”
The best part? We all get to enjoy it right along with him.