The WWE Has An Artist-In-Residence, And He Lives In Kansas City
By painting the stars of pro wrestling, Kansas City artist Rob Schamberger has become a bit of a celebrity himself.
In the ring at World Wrestling Entertainment the contests are pure theater. There are body slams, blood feuds and there’s a lot of trash talk. You'd be forgiven for thinking they wouldn't have something as fancy-sounding as an artist-in-residence. But they do.
His name is Rob Schamberger. He's a soft-spoken guy. He spends a lot of time painting in his studio, using eye-popping colors in watercolor, acrylic and ink to illustrate the outsized characters he’s painting. He makes them look like superheroes.
“I’ll use both photographs and video stills to get the likenesses right," explains Schamberger. "But that's just kind of where I start. I liken it to free-form jazz. you know where you're starting, you know where intending to end. But in between there you're playing jazz. And that's what I do with the paintings as well. I’ll get the likeness down. And then from there, I'm really free to experiment and get the emotion across.”
Schamberger is prolific. He paints hundreds of portraits a year for the WWE. His artwork appears on posters and t-shirts, and he hosts a show of his own “Canvas 2 Canvas” on the WWE Network. It takes wrestling fans into his studio — for an art lesson.
Schamberger knew he wanted to be an artist at age 7, the day he picked up his first comic book.
"It was a very, very easy transition to bring that aesthetic over to pro wrestling," he says.
Before Schamberger started drawing professional wrestlers six years ago, no one else was doing it. He’s been able to pioneer the genre.
“There is a way you draw Superman versus the way you draw Batman, Schamberger says. "And so it's not that different with how you draw John Cena versus The Undertaker.”
Like everyone else, Schamberger faced a lot of uncertainty this spring.
“So it was early March when everything in America shut down," says Schamberger. "There's never a good time for it, but that was right before WrestleMania, which for me is a sizable chunk of my annual income. But amazingly, my online sales were amazing. People just wanted to support because they knew what I was going through. That was actually heartwarming."
One of Schamberger’s latest subjects is another native Kansas Citian. Tom Pestock was born in Lenexa, Kansas. He's been wrestling with the WWE for the past eight years. He wears a dark crown and his name in the ring is King Corbin. He can be seen on Friday Night SmackDown on FOX.
King Corbin is one of the bad boys — in wrestling they’re called "heels." And Corbin likes to say that he spells the End of Days for anyone who dares to fight him.
King Corbin says growing up in Kansas City fed his early love for wrestling. “Handsome” Harley Race, a legendary Kansas City wrestler, was one of his early heroes.
“My dad was a huge wrestling fan," says King Corbin. "And so we would go to shows and watch it on TV and destroy the living room with wrestling matches.”
King Corbin says it’s been an adjustment to do his job during the pandemic, too. The WWE never stopped performing. Now, they work on a closed set without an audience.
“I'm used to walking out of a curtain and there's thousands and thousands of people there that usually do not like me at all," Corbin says. "They boo me a lot. But there's no crowd. There's no one to really feed off of. You kind of have to put beliefs into what you're doing in that moment is the right thing. I think it's really been helping guys find their motivation, you know, in different places. And so I think it's going to make everybody better for what we do.”
When he performs, King Corbin says he wants his fans to be able to forget their troubles, at least for a little while.
“I want people to sit at home on Friday nights and watch me on Smackdown and forget about what's going on in the world for two hours," King Corbin says. "That's the goal. You want them engulfed in the show, not being stressed out about work or the world or family or whatever it may be.”
King Corbin met Schamberger last year, when the artist presented him with a portrait in Springfield, Missouri.
“When you have guys like him with this unbelievable talent, an unbelievable eye for that, it helps elevate you to that level of a superhero to larger than life,” says King Corbin.
Right now we’re all battling with an unseen enemy — COVID-19. Schamberger says hardship often inspires the extraordinary in people.
“The world needs heroes," he says. "And if fiction is something that can give us those heroes right now, that’s very important."