Arts

This artist installed beautiful hand-made basketball nets around her hometown

Through art, Mallory Tolcher wants to make sports more inclusive. When it's safe to gather again, come out and play!

Through art, she wants to make sports more inclusive. When it's safe to gather again, come out and play!

The beauty of basketball. Photo from Nothing But Net by Mallory Tolcher. (Mallory Tolcher)

From her home in Guelph, Ont., Mallory Tolcher is designing the perfect basketball net. "I've been looking at chiffon," says Tolcher. "I've been using organza right now; I've been looking at felt." And despite what you might imagine, she wants the finished product to hold up on the court.

In 2019, Tolcher began crafting hand-made nets out of similarly delicate materials: strands of crystal beads, silk flowers, lace and laser-cut leather. The collection is part of the artist's ongoing series, Nothing But Net. And while Tolcher, a long-time sports fan, has explored her love of the game in several past projects, this particular series was initially inspired by an entirely practical situation.

Tolcher's a teacher, and a few years back, while working at a middle school in Etobicoke, she looked around the playground and realized the rims were all bare. Something needed to be done about it.

Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)

While a person could certainly hit up Canadian Tire, the DIY route is just as viable. Just search Etsy, where crocheted nets hide in certain corners of the shopping site. And one Boston-based art collective, New Craft Artists in Action, is known for their Net Works program, a project that gives people the know-how to fabricate nets of their own. A self-published book features project patterns, among other things, and the initiative has reached cities all over the world (including Toronto), refreshing neglected parks in a bid to bring folks together. 

Through Net Works, says Tolcher, she learned how to knit a net — a skill she then passed on to her hundreds of art students. "We all just made nets and then we would put them up in our community," she says. And, like Net Works, Tolcher's an advocate for welcoming anyone and everyone to play. 

The visual culture around sports, however, can be pretty much the opposite of warm and fuzzy — or, to put a finer point on it, feminine. Tolcher brings up the aesthetics of sports media, everything from TV ads to team jerseys. "It's so bold and graphic," she says. The colours are often high-contrast; the line work is intense. "It is very aggressive. There's no room for it to be delicate. I've never seen anything made with, like, a pastel colour in sport," she laughs. "There's nothing that suggests any femininity."

Growing up, Tolcher was a basketball player. "I identify as an athlete and as an artist," she says. But she's not fond of how sport is sold. "I'm not drawn to the visuals that are out there. I think they're bringing in — well, the main audience is male." Nothing But Net, in a way, offers her counter-narrative — an over-the-top feminine response to an over-the-top masculine culture. But like a jacked-up hype reel, the project's objective is to get you into the game.

I've never seen anything made with, like, a pastel colour in sport. There's nothing that suggests any femininity.- Mallory Tolcher, artist

As lockdown restrictions were beginning to soften last summer and caution tape was removed from the playgrounds, Tolcher scouted public parks around Guelph, hanging her hand-made nets. "I went to the places where I have seen the most play," she says. Ideally, she thought, people from the neighbourhood would be baited by the sight of twinkling beads or intricate lacework. Maybe they'd strike up a game, or take a few shots. 

"I would leave them up for a week at a time, and then I would go back and photograph them or mend them or switch them in a way that I thought was appropriate," she says. Most of the nets survived; they were stronger than she imagined they'd be. And watching the public react was another happy surprise. "I was curious about how males would respond to them," she says, because she figured there'd be a smidge of resistance. ("Like, 'I don't want to play on that flower net.'") "It was almost the opposite effect," she says. "I would put these up and they'd be like, 'Oh, that's so cool. Let's go try that out!'"

Tolcher plans to show some of her photos from that time at a local gallery exhibition that's scheduled for the fall. Until then, she continues to experiment with making nets at home — exploring ways to make them "more playable, more versatile, but still feminine."

Check out some of her photos.

Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)
Mallory Tolcher. Nothing But Net. 2020. (Mallory Tolcher)

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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