A Fans Perspective – The “Art” of Supporting the USA

Filed under: A Fans Perspective, Art, Supporters, US National Team

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She is the creator of the iconic Charlie Davies #9 banner that was so memorable at the recent USA-Costa Rica World Cup Qualifier at RFK. She is responsible for many of the high quality banners you’ve seen at USA and New England Revolution matches.

Prairie Rose Clayton, a huge USA and New England Revolution fan and artist, recently spoke with TOW to share more about her love of the sport, her support of the USA, and how she began creating her unique banners culminating in her CD9 tribute.

Words and Images via Prairie and additional image by Cache2

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I’m 33 years old and have barely kicked a ball in my life. I’m short and uncoordinated and just not cut out for team sports.

But, as my mom says, it’s in the family to turn into an obnoxious sports fan. We’re from Pittsburgh. I grew up nominally a Pirates and Penguins fan, but I don’t care much for the NFL personally. Soccer though, that’s what finally hit the hidden sports fan gene, I guess.

I was only vaguely aware of soccer until 2002. I saw the 1998 final in a bar here, which was about it. Then in June of 2002, my husband (then boyfriend) and I were both out of work, and had nothing better to do than turn on Univision at 2 in the morning and see what exactly our Brazilian and Portuguese neighbors were going on about. We started watching the US and got hooked from there. To this day, Brad Friedel’s still my favorite player.

I grew up wanting to be a cartoonist, and took art classes all through high school. A bad experience with an art teacher and a great experience with a history teacher when I was a junior changed my path from art school to regular college (specifically Boston University), studying history. However, when I’m painting banners, I can still hear my drawing instructors from summer art enrichment programs in my head, telling me to let the shadow create the line.

The truth is that ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been good at crafts rather than fine arts. It runs in the family; my grandmothers knitted and crocheted, one of my aunts is a quilter, and another was a bridal seamstress. I can knit, sew, and cross-stitch, but what I’m really good at is putting paint on fabric.

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Why did I become such a big soccer fan? Accessibility’s a huge part of the reason I love the sport. There’s a big sense of community, too. American soccer fandom is friendly and well-networked. You show up for a few games, meet some people at tailgates, and pretty soon you’ve got buddies all over the country who can show you around town if you’re on a road trip. That level of accessibility and interaction isn’t going to be there forever as the sport continues to grow, so it’s something I absolutely want to take advantage of while I can.

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Creating banners seriously started in the winter of 2004-2005, when my friend Evan and I got to thinking that we’d had fun doing a US themed banner for an early WCQ, and wouldn’t it be nice to have some banners for the Revs all season long? We worked all winter prepping some designs and playing with ideas, and that year you saw our stuff turn up around the north side of the stadium.

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There have been some great highlights over the years…

In 2006, Taylor Twellman was told he was not going to the World Cup. Evan and I painted a paper one-shot banner reading “WHY NOT TAYLOR?” for the next game. During warmups, he nodded at it, which was cool. Then at game time he scored, and ran all the way over to pose in front of it. Fantastic, I think.

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The next morning, I opened the paper, and there was a big photo of him in front of the banner. The story inside explained that not only had he been cut from the WC squad that week, but his grandfather had died, so he was feeling really low going into the match. Julie got me an autographed copy of the photo as a Christmas present that year, and I have it framed above my sewing/paint cabinet, along with his quote from the article: “Every once in a while you need reassurance that people want you around.”

In 2008, the Revs won in Columbus, but Dube had racial slurs yelled at him. For the next game, I created a “No Racism in MLS banner.” ESPN didn’t show this on camera, but Dube scored and ran over and posed in front of it.

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In 2008, I got home from vacation and checked an email account I don’t use as much. There was an email asking to turn one of the Revs “words” banners into a t-shirt. I get this a lot, and usually have to explain that I’m a little too connected to the teams to do shirts without legal clearances. This time, it was different–it was Shalrie Joseph asking about making shirts.

Or, to put it another way, the guy whose shirt I wear to a game every week tracked me down to tell me he’s a fan and wants to wear my shirt.

I ended up doing shirts for him and his youth teams this year, and hope to work on some fun stuff in the offseason.

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Going to the World Cup in Germany in 06 and supporting the US was another huge highlight for me. I brought a whole bunch of US banners and after the first game they stayed back at my rental house because German stadiums don’t really have railings. I wasn’t traveling with duct tape, and I was way up in the last rows of the stadium. The first game made it pretty apparent the banners would be more of a liability than an asset, although they were useful to sleep on in the Frankfurt airport after we stayed out all night post US-CZ.

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It’s a different world entirely from US games on US soil, where I can hook up with the supporters’ groups and someone from USSF in advance to get things set up.

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One thing I’ve had to learn along the way is that if I can’t come home with a win, or even a decent draw, I’ve gotta look for what else positive is out there. Maybe it was a really hard fought loss in an exciting game. Maybe I just had fun laughing and yelling Simpsons jokes with the guys next to me. Maybe I met some new people, maybe someone came up to me after the game to talk about banners, maybe someone’s got birthday cake at the tailgate. I still rue the Revs losing MLS Cup 07, but that doesn’t change the fact I spent the rest of the weekend having a great time running around DC with some fantastic people.

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You’ve always gotta find the good story out of the bad outcome; living and dying by what’s happening on the field is just asking for trouble. You can’t pin your entire hopes for the day, the weekend, the road trip, the tournament on one particular thing happening, be that a win, getting on tv, showing off tifo, a big tailgate, whatever.

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I admire plenty of artists: Rene Magritte, Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey., Frida Kahlo, Roy Liechtenstein, James Montgomery Flagg and Howard Chandler Christy. I watch and read a lot of cartoons, I always have; I’ve turned two Revs into Family Circus characters this year. I also shoplift pretty freely from the music I listen to; the Twellman 100 Stars banner has both a Bouncing Souls and an Operation Ivy line in there. I once traded Jimmy Conrad a Wizards jersey for a Ted Leo shirt.

To begin making a banner I start out with some kind of concept–a slogan, an image, maybe a combination of both. I put stuff together in Photoshop and work out a digital comp of the final product. When I do the artwork, I make it so the comp is proportionate to the target size of the fabric, e.g. something 600 pixels high on my laptop will be 60 inches high in real life.

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Once I’ve got the image, I sew the fabric. This summer I went ahead and bought an entire bolt of white cotton twill. I usually use that or cotton duck. Cotton soaks up water, but it’s also cheap and takes paint beautifully. When we did the banners in 2005, we actually tested a bunch of different fabric and paint combinations and techniques to get the right mix of color, cost, and workability.

Now here’s the part where being married to a hotel audiovisual manager (that’s Michael Toole, whom you may know as the large guy in the luchador mask in the Fort at Revs games) is a bit of an ace in the hole: We own an LCD projector. Tack the fabric to the wall, hook the laptop to the projector, and trace the desired image on to the hemmed fabric. I don’t do this for one-shot paper banners that are just slapping a slogan on paper, but I do it for every fabric one. It’s how I get the level of detail in my banners.

Next up is painting. That’s the fun part. I have a cabinet full of fabric and housepaints, and I use a mix of them to do banners. Glidden actually makes paint that’s cued to the official MLS team colors; you see those in all the Revs banners I do. The fabric paints are almost all Jacquard brand; their stuff is fantastic, but I wish they did skin tones. The last few banners I did, I used a chemical called Airfix in the paint, which makes the paint waterproof on drying. Otherwise, fabric paints have to be heat-sealed with an iron or industrial dryer to make them weatherproof, and that part is boring and annoying.

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Finishing the banners involves sewing straps and snaps to them for hanging. Nobody else seems to do this, but it’s a few minutes of work that make banners so much easier to display, move, travel, etc. I got inspired by looking at tabbed curtains in a store one day–why not install the means to display banners permanently, so that you’re not messing around with zip ties or tape every single gameday? Nylon webbing, a snap plier kit, and some practice, and you’re all set.

The last two things I do for every banner is sign them (look at the lower right corner of each one) and photograph them.

The biggest thing that helps me makes these is practice. I’ve done so many of them that it’s a system at this point. I was able to knock out the Charlie Davies banner in about six hours. I know the right fabrics, I know the right paints, I even know what I’m looking at for ground clearance and railings at several MLS stadiums. I keep most of the materials on hand, and stock up when I find bargains. I don’t cut the fabric–or even the paper–until I’ve got a design finished.

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When I heard the news about Charlie Davies ahead of the Costa Rica match, I was stunned, saddened, and worried like everyone else.

Charlie played at Boston College, and although I have not met him myself, I know plenty of people who know him–the one who comes to mind right away is ex-Rev Adin Brown, who’s a good buddy of mine, and whose brother was Davies’s roommate at BC.

I wasn’t sure I’d have the time to put something together for Charlie Davies. I hadn’t actually packed and gotten stuff together for the flight the next morning, let alone made dinner. But the more I thought about it, I realized I had the works ready to go. It helps a lot that I keep most of my needed supplies on hand.

I took the image Davies’s head and face from an ISI photo of him lining up for the national anthem against Egypt, and added it to Chuck D’s body from the Shepard Fairey poster (below).

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I’m a Shepard Fairey fan in general; I like the bold, striking qualities of his simpler pieces and the layers of detail in his more complex ones. I believe this Chuck D poster was in the ICA Boston exhibit I recently saw.

When I look at Shep Fairey’s Chuck D poster, I see black power, sure, but I also see populism and a call to arms to do what you think is right. If you really want to tie it all back to why I do what I do, it’s a call to stand up and do what you can to be heard.

When people first started hitting me up to do a banner that afternoon, the suggestions were to keep things simple and to the point, and before the game, one of my friends expressed concern that people were getting a little bit too eulogic with the tributes. That’s part of why I think the banner works. You’ve got a clear message of support for the player, without specific reference to what happened. Heck, there’s a good chance I’d have done a similar banner next year to cheer him on as a starting forward.

It was a weird evening at RFK for me. It turns out I didn’t actually have a ticket, thanks to a mix up with US Soccer and American Outlaws. This didn’t matter, because during pregame banner setup, I got pulled aside and asked if I knew anyone who would be willing to be interviewed about going to South Africa, specifically someone who’s put money down on going. I volunteered, as I landed WC tickets in April.

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I waited outside media will-call for a while, people watching, missing most of the people I was supposed to meet up with pregame. I handed Sunil Gulati one of my scarves, and he told me the last time he wore one of them there [MLS Cup 07], we lost. I watched the crowd go in, and it was killing me I wasn’t in the stadium already, because I not only like to be up front, I genuinely like to take in warmups and the progression as the stadium starts to fill. Shortly thereafter, I was whisked through a set of doors and hallways, and I came out in the dugout in time for warmups.

I chatted with the interviewer about plans for South Africa, and as I talked, Sunil Gulati appeared again. “Oh, hey, watch out with this one, she’s not a real fan, she’s just a Costa Rican in disguise.”

I got to stand on the sidelines for warmups and get some photos, then was led to the general area where I was supposed to sit. The original location of the Charlie Davies banner was more front and center, but it was not only dragging on the ground at that location, but it was in a puddle. I switched it with the Lincoln banner (below) so that it could hang a bit more freely and not be in a puddle.

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By that point, the Costa Rica national anthem had already started, and I took a spot in the front row near one of the corners.

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At the end of the match, I threw one of my scarves on the ground and Donovan picked it up; he’s wearing it in the shots with Erin’s banner. Gotta tell you, though, the best part of the night was Tim Howard running around with the cowboy hat. That right there, that is everything that is awesome about American soccer.

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My phone died about fifteen minutes into the game, just as I was starting to get texts from my husband and others not at the game that the banner was getting serious airtime on ESPN.

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As soon as I saw someone had unhooked the banner after the game and Jozy ran off with it, I just thought “oh, maaan…” Player and team interaction with the banners is the highest compliment I get, because it means the people I most wanted to hear what I had to say got the message loud and clear.

According to Jozy, via Twitter, he gave it to Charlie Davies after swiping it at the game. Flying home the next day, I watched his postgame interview on Sportscenter. Man, that was weird, sitting on the plane, watching tv, looking at this thing I painted two days ago and a game I was at the previous night.

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After the game, I came home to read a couple of comments on bigsoccer–and let me stress that these guys were about two out of like a hundred “HELL YEAH” ones–complaining about the “black power” slant to the banner. Of course I knew about that, and about the 68 Olympics. I knew it could be read that way, but stuff like this always comes back to the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 quote: What matters is the right people get it. The end of that Sportscenter clip, Jozy points to the banner and says “Chuck D.” I think the right people got it.

I’ve seen a couple people say they took the “fight the power” iconography to mean not just that Davies should fight to recover, or that his teammates should press on without him, but that we–the American soccer community as a whole–fight the people who think soccer’s for kids, or that the US has an easy qualifying group, won’t go anywhere on the international stage, don’t belong alongside the traditional heavyweights. I love that. Stand up and fight for it, whether “it” is Davies (or Gooch, or DeMerit, etc) making a full recovery, the rest of the squad moving forward, US Soccer taking its place no matter what anyone else says.

I have a website, which is a catalog of the goofy stuff I do, built on WordPress so I don’t have to hand-code a new page every time I think of something funny. What I’d really like to do is make this a full time job. I’m just starting out with commissioned work; American Outlaws Des Moines was my first real order. I’d love to turn it into a real business, just doing handpainted banners and tifo stuff. Even if I can sell enough to fund airfare to South Africa, that’d be cool.

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I will be at the World Cup next year. Back in April, I woke up one morning to an email from Evan. “Hey, I just went to the ATM to get some cash before work. Came up NSF. Checked my bank balance and there’s a hold on the card for $200.”

“Hang on,” I said. “I think I know what that is.”

I checked the card I’d used for the FIFA first round ticket auction in February.

“Uh, I have the same hold on my card. DUDE WE’RE GOING TO SOUTH AFRICA”

(USA TST-3s, nosebleed seats, just like we had in Germany).

I dunno if I will be able to do many banners for South Africa itself–you’re sharing an awful lot of banner real estate with a lot of people, and I’m gonna be up in the cheap seats–but if the US has a sendoff tour like last time, I’d love to do an entire series similar to, but not exactly like the Revs “words” banners for the entire roster.

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I genuinely believe that win or lose, 1994-2014 will go down as the golden age of American soccer, the years where we see unprecedented growth, expansion, and development. We’re all gonna be telling our grandkids about how we were there when McBride played against Italy with a bloody face, when Donovan broke the scoring record, when Reyna played his last game. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of it for the past seven years, and I’ve been unfortunate enough to be a part of some of the drama that goes on with the fans when we lose sight of the big picture. Win or lose, what we have right now is special, something fans in other countries don’t. I’ve had some really low points in my life thanks to soccer, but none of them cancel out the crazy, stupid, funny, amazing, and unexpected things that I never thought I’d do in my life, let alone as a direct result of absently watching a soccer game late at night on Spanish language tv. And I’m just some jerk in the cheap seats who knows how to mix fabric paint.

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My philosophy is this: Get out to a game, any game, get out there, get involved, meet people. Go to a bar viewing, go to a live game, make a banner, buy someone a beer, make a friend. There’s so much cool stuff out there that’s ours for the taking; don’t get so hung up on this result, that player, this game, that tournament. Why don’t we do things like this team, this country, this league? We’re us, they’re them, we have what we have, and what we have in American soccer is too much fun to let yourself get held back. Win or lose, get out and make some memories.

Also, Tim Howard in a cowboy hat. I cannot stress this enough.

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Words and Images via Prairie and additional image by Cache2

Added on Monday, October 26th, 2009 by

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