Now Reading
The Art of Arnold

The Art of Arnold

Danny Hamen

Depending on whom you ask, the Arnold Sports Festival (March 3-6) represents a variety of different philosophies. For some, it’s pure virility—that hyper-masculine aesthetic you might expect from the nation’s leading body building competition. But for others, say the gymnast or the fencer, dexterity and agility are the central attributes of their art form. Though dissimilar, both types of competitors put forth a distinct artistic expression of the body. Kevin Buckland, an Arnold Sports Festival coach and senior graphic designer for the event, calls this ‘the beauty of the athletic form.’

It was this specific beauty that gave Buckland an idea: a marriage of athleticism and fine arts. With the help of his wife, Pertain Gillespie, he came up with an art competition, dubbed Art at the Arnold, involving 50 qualifying artists who use the athletes as source materials. The qualifiers are able to work in any medium they like—watercolor, acrylic, colored pencil, and of last year, clay—competing for a cash prize provided by corporate sponsors.

This bizarre juxtaposition of athleticism and fine art isn’t so farfetched if you think about it. These athletes spend years conditioning bodies into beautiful forms, so why not immortalize that art onto a canvass or into a sculpture?

Don and Ben Slobodien are two artists who have competed side by side in the last four Art at the Arnold events. The father and son and their disparate styles represent the duality of art and athletics.

“His art is much more creative and intuitive,” said Don, gesturing to his son, “where mine is much more calculated. I would say our styles are polar opposites.” Looking at their previously submitted pieces side by side, the difference in styles is evident. Don is a master of photorealism, preferring colored pencils as his tool of choice, whereas Ben is more abstract in his approach.

“Ben is much more willing to experiment with media and techniques and things I would never even think to do,” Don said with a caring smile, the way you would expect a proud father to talk about his son. “I am more about rendering and getting precision.”

Considering that Don has a classical background in fine arts and science, this is not much of a surprise. Four years ago, the pair’s first year in the competition, Don won first place with his colored pencil rendition of the boxer Mike Pulley. The piece, “One of a Kind,” draws its title from a tattoo on the athlete’s left pectoral.

Ben won fourth-runner-up last year with his abstract piece, titled “Gymnast.” The image is a 5-year-old gymnast sprawled on the ground in a leotard, one hand reaching into the air. The body was created using paint markers as well as letter and number stickers creating a sense of chaos, which contrasts the elegant pose of the child.”

“To me, the letters and numbers represent making a physical object out of figures that compose our internal monologues,” Ben said. “You know, we always have something rattling around in our heads, and generally for us it is vaguely in the English language—words and phrases that just kind of make up what a person is at any given time. So, by using them to actually make up the form of the figure, [that] is what I am trying to represent as far as intellectualizing it. And, well, I also think it looks cool.”

Although Ben agrees that this is his best work, he does not know much about his subject. He snapped a photo of the girl while wandering around on the first day of the competition, and from there he decided to make her the source material for his entry. “She was doing a very sophisticated pose for a 5-year-old child,” he said, “so I wanted to represent both of those things: the sophistication and elegance of her pose, but also the fact that she is actually just a child. That is why I brought the letters and numbers to the forefront, kind of like an alphabet chart you would see in classroom. This represents the duality of two elements: childhood and sophistication.”

The pair has always had a fasciation with the Arnold Sports Festival. Don has attended every year and was actually considering entering the disc golf competition until the art contest came around, which better suited his strengths.

“[The Arnold Sports Festival] is made for art,” Ben said. “These people are sculpting their bodies into works of art and are performing art with their movements. The Arnold is the pinnacle of many people’s competitive careers. This is the apex. They spent a whole year of their life crafting their bodies into a work of art so that we can observe and represent them in some creative way.”

“It takes dedication to get your body to that level,” Don added. “It doesn’t happen overnight. The artists have their craft, and it’s the same with these athletes. It takes years and years of practice. It’s the convergence of this whole aesthetic of the body and it’s movement.”

For more on Art at the Arnold, visit


Scroll To Top