The Abstract Athlete inaugural symposium panelists (from left) Percy King, Vernon Davis, David Cifu, Jarred Guest, Joe Onley and Alicia Dietz. (Photo courtesy of The Abstract Athlete)

Melding art and athletics and the benefits of creativity on the brain

The Abstract Athlete Symposium offered athletes — including NFL standout Vernon Davis — and military veterans a chance to share how art can change people’s perceptions and break down stereotypes.

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At first glance, Vernon Davis does not seem to have much in common with David X. Cifu, M.D.

Besides the obvious differences in age and race, one is a pro athlete, while the other is a practicing physician. One is a member of the Washington Redskins, the other a die-hard New York Giants fan. But the two have one important thing in common: a passion for melding art and athletics.

“[Art] is as big a part of who I am as football,” Davis said. “Maybe bigger.”

Davis and Cifu, chairman and Herman J. Flax, M.D. Endowed Professor of the VCU Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, discussed the benefits of arts in sports — with special focus on the effect creating art has on the mind and body — at The Abstract Athlete Symposium held at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center Feb. 23. 

Richmond-based The Abstract Athlete is the brainchild of Ron Johnson, an assistant professor in the VCU School of the Arts, and Chris Clemmer, co-founder of Sprig toys and BeginAgain Toys. Artists themselves, the two are also former high-level athletes — both of whom have had multiple concussions. They each had experienced the benefits of creativity on the brain and began to look for other athletes — and later veterans — who also practiced art.

“It’s been exciting to find these athletes … and veterans that are really creative, and they’re really excited to show their work,” Johnson said. “It shows them in a different light, and for us, that’s the inspirational part. If you have this big, 6-foot-tall, 300-pound football player and you realize that he’s a really good photographer, it changes the way that people look at people.” 

A painting for The Abstract Athlete exhibition by Larry Sanders, a VCU alumnus and former VCU men's basketball standout.
A painting for The Abstract Athlete exhibition by Larry Sanders, a VCU alumnus and former VCU men's basketball standout.

The Abstract Athlete explores the collision of art, sports and science, showcasing curated artwork and merchandise that inspire participation and drives charitable giving to programs that foster art and science. It also hopes to partner with universities to study the effects of art on athletic performance with special focus on brain injury rehabilitation, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other traumatic brain injuries.

“Art is a creative outlet,” said Percy King, former defensive back at Ohio State University, artist and a panelist at the symposium. “Playing ball over the years has become really stressful, so you need that stage where you can go somewhere and get away from the world. So for me, [art] is just giving me an outlet to be able to express myself in so many ways and stay stress free.”

NFL player Vernon Davis signs his artwork at 1708 Gallery. (Photo courtesy of The Abstract Athlete)
NFL player Vernon Davis signs his artwork at 1708 Gallery. (Photo courtesy of The Abstract Athlete)

Davis and King are big names for a small startup company’s kick-off symposium, but Johnson and Clemmer also had help from four students in the VCU da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation program.

Andrew Indelicato, a former student of Johnson’s, heard of the plan for The Abstract Athlete and wanted to get involved. He suggested that Johnson contact Garret Westlake, the da Vinci Center director. Westlake liked the idea and suggested that Indelicato work with Johnson and Clemmer for academic credit through the center’s pre-accelerator program, VCU Pre-X, which pairs students and local business leaders for entrepreneurial collaboration.

Indelicato knew classmates Keith Ranaldi, Shannon Cowan and Lee Wilson were interested as well, so they formed a team. They rounded out the symposium panel with former VCU basketball player Jarred Guest and military veterans Joe Onley and Alicia Dietz. 

“As a veteran, [art] has been a way to start conversations with myself or others where I didn’t have the words or ability to do that …  so it’s been a way to look in a little deeper and discover some issues that aren’t always at the forefront,” Onley said.

David Cifu, M.D., and Vernon Davis. (Photo courtesy of The Abstract Athlete)
David Cifu, M.D., and Vernon Davis. (Photo courtesy of The Abstract Athlete)

For Dietz, art is a bridge.

“In society today, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves into these different groups and make ourselves unique and exclusive,” she said. “But on this panel — I’ve never played an elite sport, but we can all sit up here together because art has the ability to blur those lines and to challenge what we think as an athlete or a soldier or an artist. It breaks down those stereotypes. And so depending on what uniform I put on that day, I can be a soldier, an artist or an athlete, and actually be all three at a time.”

The one nonathlete/veteran on the panel was Cifu, principal investigator of a $62.2 million federal grant that oversees a national consortium in 10 states that studies what happens to service members and veterans who suffer traumatic brain injuries. However, he does consider himself an artist.

“As a healing artist, I need to appreciate where [patients] are from and that we can use a variety of things to try to get them well,” Cifu said. “I think of the term art and the concept is a way to really understand where a person fits in the environment. We each have a different way of looking at the environment, at looking at who we are, and art reflects that.” 

Artwork by the panelists and others from The Abstract Athlete are on display at 1708 Gallery, 319 W. Broad St. through March 17.