Idaho educator doubles as Olympic artist

John Blackman’s artwork is on display in Seattle, Manhattan, the local bar and this week at Sochi’s 2014 Winter Olympics.

Blaine County’s long-time teacher and administrator has painted some of the most famous Winter Olympic helmets in history. They have been featured in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and this week the Orange County Register. They have raced through finish lines and captured celebration photos.

Blackman painted the helmets for multiple World Cup and Olympic champion skier Picabo Street and several Paralympic winter athletes.

John Blackman
John Blackman with the helmet he painted for the 2014 Winter Olympics

He hadn’t painted a helmet since 2002, but a call from Street got Blackman back in his shop, painting a helmet for her friend, Olympic skeleton racer Kate Uhlaender. She competes Thursday and Friday.

“For me, it’s getting the artwork out there and having it be seen and appreciated and enjoyed,” said Blackman, who charges a few hundred dollars for a helmet that takes at least 30 hours to prepare, paint and seal.

Blackman was an art teacher in Blaine County when Street entered his class as a middle school student. Years later, just as she was starting to reach world-class status as an alpine skier, she asked her art teacher if he could paint something on her helmet, one of the few pieces of equipment the athletes are allowed to decorate.

Blackman elected to feature Street’s name, which means “Shining Waters” so the helmet was a mountain scene reflecting in water with a sunset sky.

“She won her first World Cup with that helmet and I painted it three times before I got it right,” Blackman reminisced.

He went on to paint seven more helmets for Street, including a ram’s head with the horns curling on the side, a Medusa, a globe and a 2002 patriotic-themed helmet with the Statute of Liberty on one side and four jet fighters on the other. Apple’s Bar and Grill in Ketchum has that helmet on display.

“I just noticed it the other day when I stopped in there,” Blackman said. “It’s pretty great to see people appreciate my artwork.”

One of Blackman’s most famous helmets of a tiger is the one Street wore when she won gold in the Super G at the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Blackman has commissioned reproductions of Street’s helmets, which are on display at Nike Town outlets in Seattle and Manhattan.

Picabo Street wearing a helmet painted by John Blackman

He’s also painted multiple helmets for Paralympians — eight were worn by athletes competing in the 1998 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Nagano, Japan.

This week his painted helmet will protect Uhlaender, a member of the U.S. Olympic skeleton team.  Skeleton racers lay face down and head first on a sled with steel runners and a weighted frame. Without hand steering, racers control the sled using spikes on their shoes.

The head-first position necessitates a high-impact crash helmet. Uhlaender, a 2012 World Champion and three-time Olympian, has suffered concussions in her sport, which led to her friendship with Street, who also suffered major injuries while competing at the top of her sport.

Blackman has not met Uhlaender, but they’ve conversed over email. He only last month painted the helmet and shipped it to Germany to hook up with its athlete.

Blackman’s time is hard to come by these days as he serves as the interim superintendent of the Blaine County School District while trustees search for a new superintendent. But he would never have passed up the opportunity to see his helmet on the Olympic podium.

“I had a three-day weekend when I spent at least 10 hours a day working on that helmet,” Blackman said.  “The eagle on the front is what everyone will notice, but the waving flag on the side is really cool.”

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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