The In the Paint exhibition at The Local Gallery in Toronto. (The Local Gallery)

Pepe Bratanov, curator of Toronto’s The Local Gallery, says Toronto is “a legit basketball city.” And it’s hard to argue with him. In addition to Toronto’s passionate support of the Raptors, it also has a thriving grassroots basketball culture. Not so long ago, seeing kids from the GTA make the NBA, WNBA or NCAA Final Four felt like an exciting anomaly. Now, it’s almost expected.

In the Paint, a show at The Local Gallery, features art from 13 different artists, celebrating the city’s basketball culture. The show opened on April 13 and continues through April 30. The pieces in the show range from a bedazzled basketball and a sneaker covered in watch parts to a machine that shoots ping pong balls, painted to look like basketballs, into a hoop, over and over again, and almost never misses. 

Mallory Tolcher is one of the artists featured in the show. Her work takes the traditionally masculine-coded world of sport and re-envisions it using “feminine” materials: think basketball hoops with nets made out of crystal beads and lace, or jerseys made of tulle with numbers made of flowers. She says that she actually grew up a hockey fan. She got into basketball via a university boyfriend who was a fan, but quickly “realized that basketball is the greatest sport in the world.”

A jersey in tulle and artificial flowers by Mallory Tolcher, as part of In the Paint at The Local Gallery. (The Local Gallery)

Tolcher says that there are a couple of reasons why basketball, in her eyes, lends itself to art more than other sports. One is that the game is accessible, both in terms of participation and fandom. To play it, “all you need is a basketball,” she says. And as a spectator, there’s not the same barrier between the audience and the players and and the crowd that you get in other sports

“As someone who used to be into hockey, I remember going to my first basketball game and not having that barrier, that physical glass divide between the audience and the athletes,” she says.

The other reason, she says, is that basketball already embraces aesthetics in a way other sports don’t — in ways ranging from sneaker culture to in-stadium DJs to how some NBA players have become trendsetters in men’s fashion. 

Briony Douglas, whose contribution to the show was a rhinestone-encrusted basketball with the Raptors logo on it, says that for her, the nature of basketball itself — fast, frenetic, always something happening — is part of what she finds inspiring about the game. 

“It’s the most exciting sport to watch,” she says. “And so bringing that to life through art is exciting in and of itself. If I go to a baseball game, 90 percent of the time I’m not really paying attention. Basketball, I’m engaged the entire time, and I think that translates into my art.”

Jay Vogler, aka JBV Creative is the creator of the shooting machine, titled “Jumping Through Hoops.” He admits he’s a bit of an outlier in the show. 

“I’m not really a huge basketball fan,” he admits.

Vogler is an engineer by training, having worked designing toys and golf clubs, among other things. He left engineering to apply his training to art, in part, because he was he tired of having “to do what marketing told me to do.” He says that initially, “Jumping Through Hoops” wasn’t conceived of as a piece about basketball.

“I just had this idea of a catapult shooting a ball and then just cycling,” he says. From there, he says he set to work figuring out how to bring his idea to life. He says that for him, having the idea is “the fun part.”

“Then it’s three weeks of sitting at the computer, clicking, twirling the model around,” he says. “Three weeks of figuring out how to screw that to there and get this motor to turn this part.”

He says the Bratanov saw an early version of the project, and suggested he make it basketball-themed — making the ball receiver look like a net, putting basketball leather on the backboard, painting the balls to look like basketballs — and added to the show

“I like to refer to it as ‘The Steph Curry,’ because it almost never misses,” says Bratanov. “People sit here for like 10 minutes waiting for a missed shot. It’s basically kinetic art at its finest.” 

Briony Douglas’ “Rhinestone Raptors” as part of In the Paint at The Local Gallery. (The Local Gallery)

Tolcher says that there is a real community among artists who make art about basketball, but traditionally that community has been online, and even more so with the pandemic. She says she had been following many of the other artists in the show “for years” on social media.

“When Pepe reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be involved I was like ‘obviously yes,'” she says. “How perfect is it to have a show about basketball in Toronto, right as the playoffs are starting?’  But at the opening of the show, everybody was like ‘Oh my God!’ and giving hugs. We’ve all known each other through this small circle on Instagram, but putting a face to the name and the art was amazing. I’ve never been part of a cooler, more supportive show, ever.”

Douglas seconds that feeling.

“Being around these other people that also love basketball, and also love to create, I walked away like ‘OK, what am I doing next,'” she says. “You just get so inspired and excited by your peers.”