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New Kensington teacher illustrates how one man can follow his dream

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011

Larry "Klu" Klukaszewski can score without ever throwing a football.

His preferred pigskin• Footballs he boldly emblazons with artwork of Pittsburgh Steelers players or owner Dan Rooney.

The 41-year-old teacher at Bell Avon Elementary School in Bell Township was one of only 25 artists nationwide who were invited to display their work at the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis for the Football Invitational, which runs until Feb. 29.

The exhibit includes a Klukaszewski portrait of former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Almost overnight, Klukaszewski's artwork on footballs, jerseys, helmets and other memorabilia is in demand. He has 10 orders for commissioned sports artwork. Prices start at $149 for his original artwork painted on a baseball. A detailed, painted two-sided helmet sells for $1,500.

Klukaszewski's first major hand-painted football features Rooney and wide receiver Hines Ward celebrating the Super Bowl XL victory.

He has painted footballs and other memorabilia featuring Ward, and other Steelers such as Willie Parker, Heath Miller and Jack Lambert. He also has painted Roberto Clemente on baseballs and Sidney Crosby on the blade of a hockey stick.

Klukaszewski has presented his work to a number of sports luminaries, including a custom-painted ball to Rooney, which is on display in the Steelers Great Hall at Heinz Field.

He works with a number of NFL player charities, including the James Farrior Foundation and donates his work to the Pittsburgh-based foundation Glimmer of Hope for fundraisers hosted by Steelers Heath Miller and former Steeler Alan Faneca. His donation of a Terrible Towel hand-painted with Miller and Faneca fetched $2,000 for the charity.

"I found a unique niche," Klukaszewski says. "People love sports and sporting teams, and we live in one of the greatest sports towns in the world. It's a lot of things falling in place by the grace of God."

"I don't know how to draw on a piece of paper, let alone making something look professional on a 3-D object," says his sister, Joanie McCallum of King of Prussia, who maintains Klukaszewski's website. "I think he is, at heart, a sports fanatic; he was always good at sports growing up. He always drew action figures (after) looking at Sports Illustrated magazine."

And, he was inspired by the work ethic of these professional athletes. "I remember him quoting Larry Bird 'practice, practice, practice,' " she says. "He just practiced all the time."

Klukaszewski didn't get serious about his sports art creations until 2007, when a collector threw down some major bucks for a painting of the Steelers Willie Parker on a football.

Word of mouth spread in sports circles about his work, and the commissions from collectors, charities, and current and retired NFL players rolled in.

"I just heard from a former Steeler," Klukaszewski says.

When Klukaszewski attended St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights, he never dreamed he would be making such contact with sports stars.

It was his high-school art teacher, James Reinhard, who showed him what was possible.

"I remember he would come to school and he would bring in pieces and say something like, 'Hey this is a piece I did for John Stallworth,' " Klukaszewski says. "I told him, 'Get out of here; you actually talk to these people.' It was amazing that you could get close to these athletes you see on TV."

Although he was impressed with his teacher's sideline of sports art, Klukaszewski didn't pursue art, because he didn't think it was viable economically.

And, art is not part of Klukaszewski's curriculum at Bell Avon where he teaches math, social studies and science.

But that didn't keep him from continuing to draw and dream. He was always doodling and credits his father, Frank J. Klukaszewski of New Kensington, for passing down his natural ability to draw.

"I used to sketch around the kids and got inspiration from family," says Klukaszewski, a husband and father of three children. "They said, 'You're good, you should do it professionally."

Klukaszewski works almost exclusively on commission these days, giving some of his work to charity. And, there's no end in sight as Klukaszewski continues to grow his sports art.

"I have this dream and passion," he says.

He credits his family for being supportive, with a special thanks to his wife, Renea, for "sitting and doing the homework with the kids while I'm painting."

"I think so many people set their dreams aside and say, 'I can't do that.' I believe that I will do this full-time some day."

To learn about the sports artwork of Larry "Klu" Klukaszewski, visit his website: www.larryklu.com/ .

For more information about the National Art Museum of Sport, visit www.namos.iupui.edu/football-invitational.

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