Arts

How one Raptors game turned this artist into a fan — and inspired these larger-than-life portraits

Joanne Tod went from having never seen a live basketball game to painting the team's 2018-'19 roster.

Joanne Tod went from having never seen a live basketball game to painting the team's 2018-'19 roster

#WeTheArt. Paintings from Organizing Principle by Joanne Tod, a series of portraits depicting the 2018-'19 Toronto Raptors. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)

Toronto's a city of Raptors fans, so the idea of spotting an enormous painting of Jonas Valanciunas on Richmond Street isn't exactly strange. (Beyond the fact he was traded to Memphis in February, anyway.) But there's a story behind the 17 Raptors portraits showing at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery right now — including the picture of Valanciunas that is, indeed, hanging in the window.

The series is called Organizing Principle, and it's the most recent work by Joanne Tod, an artist who's built a reputation as one of the country's most respected realist painters over the last 30 odd years. Until this past November, however, she'd never seen a real, live basketball game. And without that night at the Air Canada Centre, these paintings — which depict the team's comprehensive 2018-'19 roster in extreme close-up — probably wouldn't exist.

What surprised me was that the game itself was so beautiful to watch.- Joanne Tod, artist

Tod remembers the experience in breathless detail. "I didn't know what to expect," she tells CBC Arts. (To be fair, she says she was a fan before she scored a ticket through a friend. She was never a "diehard fan" to use her words, but still. "I've always enjoyed the sport of basketball as a spectator," she says.)

"What surprised me was that the game itself was so beautiful to watch," says Tod, giving a stream-of-consciousness play-by-play of every last sensory detail: players coming and going and going again. Cheerleaders, t-shirt cannons, "some guy doing Simon Says."

"And it's loud, loud, loud! It's like this moving organism. It never stops for a set change," she says. "It was so completely fluid."

"I was like, 'Stop it! I have to look at you!'"

And that's when she decided to paint the team.

Organizing Principle by Joanne Tod. Installation view at Toronto's Nicholas Metivier Gallery. (Photo: Michael Cullen/Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)

"Part of the reason I wanted to paint the portraits was to actually immobilize those people," she explains — to blow the whistle, metaphorically speaking, and appreciate the humanity in all the spectacle. "They're legendary, and they have huge followings and fanbases and all that. I wanted to take a good look at each of these guys and try to faithfully represent what I could discern as their character, just based on an image."

Working from the team's official roster photos, Organizing Principle conceptually stops the clock on the 2018-'19 Raptors. Even in the short time since Tod began painting, the team's been through some shake-ups. In keeping with the "freeze frame" concept, Tod's included players who have since been traded or waived. ("Greg Monroe, as a free agent, I put him in a suit with a red and black striped tie," she laughs.) The canvases themselves are a range of sizes, proportioned according to the height of the athletes, though they're not literally as tall as them. (So, no — don't expect to find a 7'1" painting of Marc Gasol's face.)

I was like, 'Stop it! I have to look at you!'- Joanne Tod, artist

Tod had actually been thinking about making art about basketball long before making it to a Raptors game, which might be unsurprising given her career-long interest in pop culture. To give a recent-ish example, for her 2012 "Invasion" of the Gardiner Museum, she painted everyone from Adrienne Clarkson to Brangelina in the style of ceramics from their historical collection.

Usually, there's something about the celebrity subject matter that taps into current events with loads of irreverent humour. In the introductory essay for Tod's current show at Nicholas Metivier (which also includes another new exhibition of paintings, Once Removed), Catherine Osborne brings up another example: Tod's 2004 portrait of Martha Stewart, which was painted around the time of "M. Diddy's" infamous incarceration: "Tod has always been interested in  portraiture as a way to capture moments that define our collective consciousness," she writes. And for the last couple of years, basketball has been the trending topic on her mind.

She says it began with some loose curiosity about the game beyond the game, so to speak. "There's this huge fanbase, and the merchandise, and huge salaries — and it's African-Americans, Canadians, whoever who are the recipients, so that's a fascinating thing," she says.

"It's a popular sport, it's not a violent sport." (Unlike, say, hockey — "that loves violence and gloves-off fisticuffs," she laughs.) "It's exciting; it's kind of a sexy game. I was thinking about it in all these general ways."

"In all truth, I was coolly detached from it. I was thinking, like I mentioned, about the sociological elements to it," she says. "I wasn't looking at it in terms of, 'I want to go watch a basketball game' — but now that I've seen it, I just thought it was the most interesting thing."

I wanted to take a good look at each of these guys and try to faithfully represent what I could discern as their character, just based on an image.- Joanne Tod

In making the series, she started researching the players. "My knowledge of them is truly superficial," she admits — but based on the stats any basketball fan might know, she'd imagine their interior lives while painting: where are they from? "Pascal Siakam who, I think he's from Cameroon. I was listening to Cameroonian pop music as I was painting, that kind of stuff," she says. How did their lives change when they joined the team? How does a trade, or the threat of a trade, change everything?

Tod left the background of each portrait unpainted. It's meant to suggest a feeling of uncertainty, she says, specifically when it comes to the idea of being suddenly traded off the team. "So there's that kind of vulnerability too, even though they're these massive hugely athletic men, you know. 'Whoops! Sorry. You're going now.'"

"The true basketball aficionados, they know about these guys and they keep up to date on every little thing. They're intimately involved with these guys' lives."

"I didn't feel I had to go that far. I'm not that much of a zealot. I have a certain kind of detachment, which also colludes with the idea of holding these guys by the shoulders and saying, 'Just sit still for a sec!'"

As of writing, the Raptors themselves hadn't seen the portraits — yet. Says Tod: "If I've done my job correctly, which is to try and make a faithful representation of that person, then I think they should be amused and flattered."

Check out these selections from Organizing Principle.

Joanne Tod. Kyle Lowry, 2019. Oil on linen. 20 x 16 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Kawhi Leonard, 2019. Oil on linen. 22 x 22 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Jonas Valanciunas, 2019. Oil on linen. 30 x 40 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Marc Gasol, 2019. Oil on linen. 36 x 24 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Pascal Siakam, 2019. Oil on linen. 28 x 22 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Jeremy Lin, 2019. Oil on linen. 20 x 20 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Serge Ibaka, 2019. Oil on linen. 30 x 22 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Jodie Meeks, 2019. Oil on linen. 24 x 18 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Danny Green, 2019. Oil on linen. 24 x 18 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)
Joanne Tod. Fred VanVleet, 2019. Oil on linen. 20 x 16 in. (Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery)

Joanne Tod. Once Removed and Organizing Principle. To April 27 at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. www.metiviergallery.com

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.