Road Trip Dad - Of Artisans and Artists
Dan Witmer | February 8, 2021
Not sure how to start this. “An artist, a stick-maker, and a videographer walk into a…”

“I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d stop by…”

“This one time, at LaxCon…”

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Never mind; I’ll just jump right in.

A few weeks ago I visited Alf Jacques’s workshop at the Onondaga Nation. I’ve known Alf for almost 20 years, and I’m fortunate to own one of his handmade lacrosse sticks, but I had never been to his workshop before, so this was something special – definitely a bucket list item.

I made the trip with Doc Nelson, my long-time friend and the boys’ varsity coach at Oswego High School. Doc plays with the Onondaga’s Senior/Masters team, so he’s known Alf for years, and this was hardly his first time stopping in at Alf’s place of work.

With the invitation from Alf, his friend and West Genesee Boy's Lacrosse Historical Archivists David Sorbello assisted us in coordinating the arrangements. Dr. Sorbello is most known for his tribute video produced for Coaches Messere and Deegan's retirement party, his Jimmy 13 documentary short was viewed at the Syracuse Film Festival  (https://youtu.be/0J_C4sKzyqE and/or http://www.justlacrosse.com/19archives/blogs/witmer_tellingthejimonakistory.htm), countless photographs as 91WGLax, and his four-year undertaking of cataloging/digitizing Coach Messere's and others’ library to preserve Camillus’s rich lacrosse history.

David called me a few weeks ago excited to tell me about a new project that he coordinated with Alf and Vinnie Ricasio, the man behind The Art of Lax…and he wanted to bring me into the mix to put the whole development into words. I was not only invited to share time at Alf's as I had hoped to someday, but also to help record what was happening here.

So, what was happening here with these three?

If you know anything about Central New York lacrosse, you know that Alf is known world-wide as a second generation master stick-maker. His sticks are meticulously hand-crafted, and there’s a three-year wait on personal orders. I won’t get specific about prices, but you could probably buy a new custom-strung, custom-dyed, plastic head, with a long titanium shaft for less than an authentic Alf Jacques woodie. He has done stick-making demonstrations and presentations all over the country. His workshop felt more like a museum, or maybe a shrine, or maybe some hallowed sanctuary of reverence.

Vinnie, on the other hand, is an artist who specializes in drawing lacrosse art. He sketches modern-day players – boys and girls, men and women – as well as Native American players. He’ll customize his drawings with your favorite jersey numbers, team colors, etc. – and his love for the game goes back to his boyhood, growing up in New York City. He played prep lacrosse at the South Kent School in Connecticut, but chose to attend the Pratt Institute of Art, which didn’t offer a college lacrosse program. Still, his passion for the game led him to his senior project, when he decided to showcase his skills and his love for the game. He then turned that passion into a successful business.

As the story goes, Vinnie and Alf first met back in 2009 at the vendor’s exhibition at LaxCon, the annual national lacrosse convention sponsored by US Lacrosse. By chance, they were assigned adjacent tables, and they admired one another’s work. It took a few years, but at LaxCon 2020, Vinnie was honored to become the owner of a genuine Alf Jacques stick. In fact, when he proudly showed his new Alf Jacques stick to a friend, his buddy said, “This is a Stradivarius of all lacrosse sticks!”

Then last summer, while hunkered down with family on Seneca Lake for a pandemic vacation, Vinnie decided to “make a piece for myself” – and, working from a photo of his fellow lacrosse artist, Vinnie drew a sketch of Alf working on a stick. In a Twilight Zone kind of coincidence, it turned out that Alf was about five miles away that week, also visiting friends in the Finger Lakes.

“Serendipity,” as that silly little gecko would say.

In the half year since the sketch was completed, it has gotten legs – partly because of Covid, and more from Vinnie's desire to help Alf with the proceeds from the print. It is also partly due to David's CNY Lax connections and desire to help both Alf and Vinnie, not to mention his affinity for their combined arts. It initially started as a unique gift to Coaches Messere and Deegan as a token of Dr. Sorbello's appreciation for the archival content and responsibility. Vinnie's curiosity took over as he could not believe his work was about to be signed by himself and Alf and then given to two legendary Hall of Fame coaches. The rest has been an epic journey with a wide range of amazing lacrosse players – a story that will eventually be shared in full.

Bursting with enthusiasm, David invited us all to get together to help celebrate the combined efforts of Alf and Vinnie. Doc and I got to Alf’s workshop around 1:30 in that afternoon, and were met by our host and David. We exchanged greetings, were introduced to Alf’s assistant/mentor Parker Booth, then Doc and David were introduced to one another, and then David set up his phone so Alf, Doc, and I could FaceTime with Vinnie, whose home base is in Pelham (Westchester County). Again, introductions were made, biographical summaries were exchanged, and we played the inevitable favorite game of all lacrosse people everywhere: “Do you know ___?” or “Oh, you must know ___!”

With six of us talking, asking and answering questions, it could have gotten pretty chaotic, but somehow we managed to (mostly) limit our conversations to one voice at a time. Despite David’s proclivity for the video camera, he didn’t record our meeting. He explained, “I didn’t want the camera to any be kind of influence to the unique time we were sharing together. I believe there are certain moments, especially at Alf's, that are sacred, not to be recorded or captured. I have been fortunate to see so many visitors’ faces light up in the shop, and those priceless memories are only attained by being in the moment. Some still-photographs try to capture it, but they still fall short of the magic of the situation. If I’m worried about my camera or some detail, I am missing the joy of being there. So the camera stayed off. It is a respected time."

Of course, I was the only one who brought paper, pen, and questions, and I guess I led most of the discussion. We were there in Alf’s shop for about two and a half hours that afternoon, and I learned more about and from Alf than I had ever known before.

For instance:

  • He told me that, back around 2007, he and Doc suited up in goal against one another. “We were the two oldest goalies to play in the same game!” he boasted.
  • He last played in 2014, he said – in a medicine game. His medicine game stories especially were simply fascinating to me; I could have listened to those tales all day and night.
  • His career highlights include coaching the Onondaga Redhawks Sr. B box lacrosse team, three-time champions of the Can-Am league. His 2010 team went on to win the prestigious President’s Cup.
  • He’ll be 72 years old next month, and worked as a machinist for 24 years, specializing in rocket engines for NASA. He retired from that line of work in 2002.
  • On average, he makes about 200 sticks a year; his most productive year might have been 225-230.
  • Visitors to his workshop have included men’s teams from the University of Virginia, Notre Dame, and Hofstra, as well as high school teams from Fayetteville-Manlius, Long Island, Florida, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
  • Pre-COVID, Alf has done presentations and/or been a guest at LaxCon, Laxapalooza, the Onondaga Museum at Onondaga Lake Park, the Tewaaraton Awards, and plenty of others.
And although I don’t think I had ever met Vinnie before, I was familiar with his work, his website and, in particular, one particularly beautiful early-morning photo taken at Lake Placid several summers ago. In fact, Vinnie said he’s played at the Summit Classic for most of the past 14 years for teams like Stu Funk, the Brooklyn LC, and CBRE, so we could have talked about LP all by itself. Of course, Vinnie knew some Oswego State alumni who still play club ball down in Westchester, and as we talked, I tried frantically to keep up with the pearls of wisdom he shared, too.

For instance:

  • He drew his “Creator’s Game” illustration way back in 1999, as part of his senior project at Pratt. His art professors discouraged his love for lacrosse, telling him there’s no future in it. But he “found his audience, followed his own tribe” and he hasn’t looked back since.
  • Ten years later, that same “Creator’s Game” print had caught the eye of Alf, who hung his own copy up on the walls of his Redhawk teams’ locker rooms.
  • Vinnie worked in advertising and marketing for more than ten years, but started his The Art of Lax business in 2009 and then committed to it full-time in 2012. His first visit to LaxCon in 2009 made him nervous – “There are no other artists here!” he remembered.
  • Today, there are other lacrosse artists, and when I asked Vinnie how he feels about finding his niche and navigating the competition, he said, “I just need to be a little different, find some uncharted territory.” Since he’s gone “full-time,” he told me, business has been good.
  • He says unapologetically that “Lacrosse has been more powerful for me than my college degree,” and, personally, I could relate (my sons’ degrees are in recreation and leisure studies and criminal justice, and there’s also a Master’s degree in public administration but, like Vinnie, they both have let their passion for the game lead them in their full-time pursuits).

So there we sat, an eclectic collection of assorted artists and artisans – Alf and Parker, master craftsmen of wooden lacrosse sticks and snow snakes; Vinnie the talented lacrosse sketch artist; David the videographer who was artistically sitting this one out; Doc, who has a degree in Fine Arts, among others; and me, the retired English teacher and author of three books… To quote a forgotten source from my classroom readings, “it all made for a very rich stew.”

And that brings us back to Vinnie’s black-and-white sketch of Alf. Two lacrosse artists with very different talents, working together. It’s been available – unsigned, not personalized – since early fall and, ever since that afternoon at Alf’s workshop, David has been sending me photos of additional recent presentations. He’s also sat in on some amazing visits to Alf’s workshop – long, leisurely chats with legends Roy Simmons, Jr., Oren Lyons, and others.

David plans to present more copies of Vinnie’s print to other Central New York lacrosse icons, but Vinnie and Alf are also making arrangements for the general public to get their own customized copies as well. Prints can be ordered through Vinnie’s The Art of Lax website, and he and Alf will share the proceeds from each sale. To order your own customized print, go to http://www.theartoflax.com . Depending on size, prints range in price from $22 to $28, and the cost includes shipping.

As Doc wryly observed, “Not everyone can own an Alf Jacques stick, but anyone can have an autographed, personalized The Art of Lax print.”

Go ahead – treat yourself!

Thanks for reading. Please, drive carefully, stay safe, stay smart, and stay kind.

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of three books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – The Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  … and piles to go before I sleep – The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore. His third book, The Best of RTD – A Lacrosse Coach’s Handbook, has just been released at Amazon.com. It contains more than 55 weekly Road Trip Dad blogs spanning 2012-2020, featuring Xs and Os, highs and lows, and even some Dos and Don'ts, and plenty of advice for coaches of all levels.