Best known for his iconic images of American pro athletes, the kibbutz-born artist and his wife run a successful fine-arts studio and school in Chicago.
The long list of major-league sports commissions won by the studio of Israeli sculptor Omri Amrany – including the iconic Michael Jordan “Spirit” outside Chicago’s United Center and the statue of Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray at Wrigley Field – could lead one to assume Amrany had spent his childhood on a baseball diamond or basketball court rather than a banana plantation.
The 59-year-old artist likes to joke that he earned a “BK” degree (Born on Kibbutz). He has little formal training aside from a 1985 marble-carving course in Italy, where he met his future wife, Chicagoan Julie Rotblatt. Married since 1987, the couple and their son Itamar, 24, head a 25-person fine-arts studio, Timeless Creations, outside Chicago.
“You have to find a way to become who you are by struggling to figure out how to make it, to be different than anybody else,” Amrany tells ISRAEL21c. He seems to have found that magic formula. His studio is flooded with commissions, and the Rotblatt-Amrany Fine Art School is flourishing.
The works that get the most press are those commissioned by the Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox as well as the Detroit Tigers, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals.
Most recently, Amrany’s broken-bat sculpture was presented to New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera on his retirement. That same September week, his studio unveiled bronze statues of Green Bay Packer legends George Whitney Calhoun, Johnny “Blood” McNally and Paul Hornung for the Packers Heritage Trail Foundation.
Three months earlier, Timeless Creations had installed a statue of legendary outfielder Roberto Clemente in Roberto Clemente State Park in New York, commissioned by Hispanic foods corporate giant Goya.
Building a reputation and an artists culture
Farther from the limelight, Amrany’s reputation was built on projects in diverse genres for clients such as Johnson Wax, Lifeway Foods, the Lincoln Library, several municipalities and universities, and many other corporations seeking artworks for their public spaces.
“A Tribute to Jackie Chan,’’ sculpted by Julie, Itamar and Omri Amrany, will greet visitors at the opening of the new Jackie Chan Museum in Shanghai. Another Timeless Creations sculpture, an image of the boy with his tongue frozen to a pole from the movie A Christmas Story, has been commissioned by Hammond, Indiana.
“We’re trusted by the world of corporations because we always deliver within budget and on time, at top quality,” Amrany says. “After the artistic decisions are made, it’s all about production.”
But his self-appointed mission goes beyond that. “The artists of the world are trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. How can they strive and make it? My job is to nurture artists around us. We’ve developed a whole culture of artists in the area,” he says.
Despite their packed schedule, he and his son have founded a new company – still in stealth mode – to pioneer a new direction in flexible and futuristic architectural design.
They are fixtures of the Chicago arts scene. “In the Midwest, when you shake hands it’s a completion of a project. I liked that kibbutz mentality.”
Michelangelo and Mars
When baby Omri was born into a family of artists at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov in the Jordan Valley, laundry workers on the collective farm bought his parents a book about Michelangelo. “We didn’t have many books. That was my bedtime story,” he relates.
His mother designed and sewed the clothing for the women on the rather Spartan kibbutz, and sometimes Omri helped her cut patterns. His father, formerly a private bodyguard for David Ben-Gurion, was an art teacher, ceramist and woodcarver.
His aunt Leah, on his father’s Yemenite side of the family, taught him to weave classic wall tapestries on her loom. His own tapestries were exhibited at Madison Square Garden in 1978. Grandma trained him in traditional papyrus basket-making, and Amrany’s painting of a Yemenite bride dressed in papyrus work hangs in the Rehovot Municipal Art Gallery.
Besides tending bananas, dates and cotton plants in his youth, Amrany started a music club in a kibbutz bomb shelter he painted in psychedelic colors. As an adult, he headed education for the Haifa region of Tzofim Israel Scouts. When he was 32, the kibbutz invested in his artistic future by sending him to Pietrasanta, Italy, “to break stones,” as he puts it. He and Julie returned to Israel together, leaving for Chicago in 1989 with baby Itamar.
“I promised my father I’d be back in seven years,” he confides. But his father died not long after those seven years were up, and Amrany is still in Illinois. “I jumped into the water of an art career and developed a business,” he says. “I might one day come back. I never considered the possibility of not coming back.”
That is, unless his application to colonize Mars is accepted.
“I registered to go to Mars in 2022 through a company in Holland. I sent them an interview and I’m waiting enthusiastically to hear back,” he says. “If selected, I could become the first sculptor on Mars. I’d have lots of rocks to break — as many as I want.”