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These artists use basketball courts as their canvas

Symbolically powerful — and playable — murals are popping up around the country

By Jim Sullivan

Shortly after the NBA resumed play in late July, the artist Victor Solomon unveiled an ambitious creation to mark the occasion: the “Kintsugi Court.” Using the Japanese craft of kintsugi, an ancient method of repairing pottery with gold resin, Solomon filled in the cracks of a decrepit basketball court in South Los Angeles. In the process, he transformed the forgotten bit of concrete into something eye-catching and luxe — and functional. He highlighted the court’s flaws instead of hiding them, making them look like shimmering, spidery tendrils crisscrossing the grey concrete.

“You take this Proletarian icon — very blue collar, takes a beating — and you adorn it with these intricacies that have this rich history of kings and churches using it to display their wealth,” Solomon says. “The juxtaposition of these two things is a compelling story of the opportunities that the sport provides.”

Basketball has been a frequent muse for Solomon, whose work ranges from projects like the Kintsugi Court to glitzier fare — and clients. Once an apprentice at a stained-glass shop, he’s created stained glass backboards — only for show — for the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The work that tipped off his artistic career, in 2015, was a gold-laced backboard that went viral on social media and quickly made him a known quantity in NBA circles.

But he’s far from alone. Over the past five years, basketball courts, some previously in disrepair or disuse, have been frequent canvases for public art. The work, from celebrity creators like Solomon as well as nonprofit organizations and art collectives, uses the courts to comment on the interconnected dynamics of race, class, and changing communities. And those projects have taken on a new relevance this year, amid the dual forces of the pandemic and widespread calls for racial justice.

“It’s not just a jock throwing a ball in a hole.”

Victor Solomon, artist

Much of the news about public art this year has been about images that are hurtful or problematic: the toppling of symbols of the Confederacy across the country. “It’s been an odd year for public art, a battleground,” says Thomas Vannatter, who manages Northeastern University’s public art collection. “There’s a want for it to reflect where things are right now, especially when it comes to revitalization in areas of urban decay.”

In that context, a basketball court renovation can be especially meaningful. The court is a community gathering spot, an urban space that isn’t just for show. A creative repair can restore vitality to a neighborhood. And it can recast the focus of public art — celebrating, not a moment in the past, but the present-day people who use the space.

The basketball-courts-as-public-art phenomenon precedes the Black Lives Matter movement, but there is a relationship between the two in their dialogue with the struggles and dynamics of Black life in the United States. This summer saw myriad examples of public art connected to calls for racial justice, including a basketball court in Gastonia, North Carolina, repainted as a Black Lives Matter mural in June by local artists and community members. 

Artists say they’re drawn to the symbolic power of a basketball court as a quintessential urban setting. But they’re also drawn to basketball as inspiration because of the game itself — the egalitarian nature of it, as well as the ingenuity involved in the actual game play.

“I think basketball is the most creatively expressive sport, and I attribute that, the earlier roots of it, to Black culture in the U.S.,” says Maria Molteni, who heads up the Boston-based group New Craft Artists in Action, which knowingly uses the acronym NCAA.

Molteni has completed five court murals, with more planned; last year, she won a national public art award for 2017’s “Hard in the Paint” — a dazzling, multi-color design in a public park in Dorchester, Mass. The 20,000 square-foot court incorporates shapes, colors, and designs that local youths drew when asked about their “dream” basketball court.

With basketball, “there’s no barrier to entry,” says Solomon, who grew up rooting for the Celtics and playing the game on public courts in East Boston. Solomon, who’s half Cambodian, says he often felt out of place in the predominantly white neighborhood where he was raised. “But on the basketball court, that was a great place for everyone to be on the same plane — we all had the same purpose,” he says.

Solomon’s art plays with issues of class, and the power of the sport to elevate a select few out of poverty into unimaginable wealth. “It’s a spicy irony,” he says. “You take this banged-up people’s court and adorn it with this ornate artwork — symbolizing new money — and the fix-up brings back the functionality of what it was to begin with.”  

For other artists, that functionality — the opportunity to produce a useful public resource — is as important as the aesthetics. Dan Peterson is founding director of Project Backboard, an organization that renovates old basketball courts into eye-catching murals that double as durable public recreation spaces. “We’re not just putting paint down on a surface and working with local artists,” he says. “We’re working with a local contracting crew to do the repairs.”

Since its founding in 2014, Project Backboard has revitalized more than 20 courts, using work by 17 artists, in locations around the U.S. including Memphis, St, Louis, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. Repairs are done with the same material used to patch up public tennis courts, ensuring they will hold up for years to come.

Tiefenthaler Park, in Milwaukee, is a typical project for the organization. The smoothed-down court design contains geometric shapes — circles and squares, mostly — painted in blue, red, purple, orange, black, and teal. The tips of two squares in the court’s center touch the edge of the three-point line. Inside the overlapping square is a colorful circular design with the word EARTH written twice

In addition to providing a place to play, artists and experts say these lushly painted basketball courts can do what other public art does as well: tap into the inherent creative potential of a community, outside of the confines of an art class or museum.

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“The thing about the sport and the court itself is that it is indifferent to class or race or background of people it’s surrounded by,” says Vannatter. “These are meaningful contributions of public art in places that maybe would never have access to art. [It can open] a community’s eyes to what an object can represent.”

Molteni, of NCAA, says she and her team — mostly queer or non-binary artists — make it a point to involve neighborhood kids, incorporating their drawings and color choices into her designs. “The installation is a big part of the community process to engage youth to help their voices be heard,” she says. “I think that when communities have access to excellent artwork, it opens doors to other ways of thinking and lets young creative people know that it’s a thing that they can grow up and do.”

Following the success of the Kintsugi Court in Los Angeles, Solomon says he’s been having conversations about bringing the method to future sites, though nothing is set in stone. “The narrative and the technique are applicable to courts around the world,” he says. “It’s amazing to recontextualize the sport. It’s not just a jock throwing a ball in a hole.”

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.


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