In 2013, Micah Johnson led all of professional baseball with 84 stolen bases. In 2015, he batted .315 in 78 Triple-A games and got his first big league experience. In 2017, he reached the Major Leagues for the third time.
More than any other season, though, 2016 was the year when Johnson had his biggest breakthrough. At Dodgers camp at Camelback Ranch-Glendale during Spring Training, he confessed to his teammates an interest in painting. He's been an artist ever since.
Johnson garnered national media attention in November when his piece "‘sä-v(ə-)rən-tē" (think: sovereignty) brought in six figures at auction. The canvas will be prominently displayed on the outside of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Los Angeles through Jan. 10, 2021. On Dec. 9, it was honored as NFT of the Year in the first annual NFT Awards, which takes its name from the cryptocurrency category of non-fungible tokens and aims to celebrate "innovation, genius and excellence in the blockchain industry."
But as with many stories related to Minor League Baseball, the final stats -- however impressive, newfangled and intimidating they may be -- are not as interesting as the process and product that created them. "‘Sä-v(ə-)rən-tē" is a multimedia depiction of two Black boys standing among tall vegetation, facing a doorway; on the other side of the doorway is an astronaut. The older of the boys points to the door as his younger brother looks on.
While art is often a form of social activism, "‘sä-v(ə-)rən-tē" takes that traditional notion a step further by not only evoking a sense of possibility and hope for Black children but also by making inspirational and financial impacts directly on the lives of its subjects.
The boys featured in the art are real-life brothers Jacque (8) and Rayden (7). On each boy's birthday every year, the door in the artwork opens a little more and text appears behind the astronaut to reveal the birthday boy's answers to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The public can feed these dreams directly; a QR code facilitates Bitcoin donations. On their respective 18th birthdays, Jacque and Rayden will disappear from the artwork, and they'll be able to access their amassed cryptocurrency.
"‘Sä-v(ə-)rən-tē," therefore, has multiple kinds of power -- artistic, social, economic and technological. The idea of making it interactive came, Johnson said, "just from educating [himself] on the different things that were out there," but how exactly it would function or what building it would involve was an open question. Ultimately, he teamed with programmable art studio Async to bring his vision to life.
"I used all the resources I had and all the connections I had," Johnson said. "I contacted Aysnc and said, ‘This is what I want to do. Can we do it?’"
The inclusion of a Bitcoin component (rather than, for example, Venmo funds going into a more traditional savings account) was a choice made as an extension of the piece's social themes. Async's website for the piece quotes Isaiah Jackson, author of "Bitcoin and Black America," which explores the possibility that Bitcoin could bring an economic revolution to Black communities.
"The purpose behind using Bitcoin was the fact that you have this asset that some say is the new gold," Johnson said. "We’ll see where it takes us, but it’s allowing us to convert whatever small contributions individual people can make into something else. With Bitcoin, the whole purpose is that it’s decentralized, so the kids will have the ability to use it on whatever they want. It’s not something where they have to ask anybody’s permission. It contradicts the suppression the financial system has historically been responsible for.”
Having produced a work that's firing on so many cylinders and generated widespread interest, Johnson recognizes he's grown a lot as an artist since Spring Training 2016. During that camp, manager Dave Roberts challenged his players to share their off-the-field interests with the group. Johnson, in no mood to perform a concert, avoided mentioning his piano hobby ("a lot of classical and country ... and jazz and blues") by telling the group he was into painting. It wasn't a lie, exactly, but he'd only dabbled at that point. As a kid, he'd gone to museums with his mom but never experienced any profound connection to what he saw.
"There wasn’t much art at all," he said. "With baseball, I was so obsessed with it, that was all I focused on."
His artistry on the basepaths was evident as the 2012 sixth-round pick by the White Sox racked up a Minor League-best 84 steals while traversing three levels -- Class A Kannapolis, Class A Advanced Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham -- his first full year in the pros. In six-plus years in the Minors in the White Sox, Dodgers, Braves and Rays systems, Johnson batted .283 with 193 stolen bases, 379 runs scored and 249 RBIs in 624 games.
So baseball understandably was a huge part of his first paintings. Roberts challenged Johnson to do a portrait of Dodgers legend Maury Wills, and Johnson did, turning in a piece that wowed teammates and wound up in Wills' possession. Justin Turner, Joc Pederson and Adrián González were among many on the club who were immediately supportive and continue to follow Johnson's art. His reputation grew in the game. Soon, he was designing a tattoo for Jace Peterson and doing a Blake Snell-commissioned portrait of Ken Griffey Jr. A piece featuring Jackie Robinson has been displayed at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Frank Thomas got in on the action.
Naturally, Johnson painted his subject matter more and more outside the foul lines. In 2017, he had a solo show in Atlanta that featured a pop art-influenced depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in one piece and explored an anti-violence theme further in others. When he overheard a 4-year-old nephew ask whether astronauts could be Black, he was inspired to create a whole other show's worth of pieces on the theme of children and dreams. That show opened at the West Hollywood gallery Art Angels over the summer, and the work within it combines with "‘sä-v(ə-)rən-tē" to provide a clear sense of Johnson as an artist in 2020.
“It’s just understanding what I’m good at and learning my style. That's kind of really it," he said. "The hardest part is finding your style. Once you find that, you’re having fun at that point, and then it’s more about what you’re doing conceptually. You start thinking about what you want to do as well as the message you want to portray. In the beginning, I was painting different people or whatever, using watercolor or acrylics, and I was learning my style.
“I’m more conscious of myself individually and what makes me me. I can think about how to portray that best on canvas. It’s about recognizing, ‘I’m good at this. This is my personality.’ It’s all easier once you identify who you are as a person.”
Once he learned to do that, Johnson said, more and more people began to connect with his work.
“I think people can, for lack of a better term, read through bull[crap]. Whatever you do authentically, it’s going to resonate with some people. Not everybody. Not everybody is going to like you. That’s the first thing – you have to understand that," he explained. "Once you realize that, you can start painting whatever you want to paint or doing what it is you want to do, and you’re going to find your little group of people who appreciate your authenticity.”
Committing to authenticity in Johnson's case has meant recognizing he's spent his professional life in two extremely competitive and high-profile fields. He realizes that means some people are going to see him as a role model.
“I’m pretty aware, because both of the things I ended up doing are kind of [atypical]," Johnson said. "I also know where I come from and I know what that path was. One thing I try to make sure people know: I didn’t have crazy talent at either thing. I worked hard. I worked hard at baseball and I work hard at my artwork. I know the recipe is hard work and I want people to know that, too.
“I’m not parading around as this or that, but obviously, something is working. I wasn’t the most gifted baseball player and I wasn’t the best artist, but I work within myself and if people notice, I want to show them I’m not anything different. I’m not LeBron James or some gifted prodigy."
If Jacque, Rayden or anybody else ever needs inspiration in human form, they need look no further than Johnson. His success as both an athlete and an artist makes him a walking, talking example of one of the messages of "‘sä-v(ə-)rən-tē." Namely, dreams are achievable.
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.