Continuing my unedited transcript of my conversation with Canadian artist Hazel Meyer, who uses basketballs and nets in her most recent art installation called Walls to the Ball. She also runs a Tumblr where she showcases great basketball photos. Part 1 can be read here.
The second part of our conversation focused on her experiences bringing basketball-themed art to students at an inner-city Toronto high school.
Hazel: After Sackville a year went by until I had my next show, which was in Peterborough two months ago. I also worked with about 50 high school students in Toronto, and we did a variation of Walls to the Ball where we knotted and braided and macraméd an 80-foot net and installed it in their gymnasium. So that was really interesting to work with these awesome youth and all these ideas that they probably never thought about before. When they’re in gym class, they’re forced to work together, so we tapped into that collectivity and ideas about muscle memory.
There was this one gal… I had taught them to do macramé and a week later, she was like ‘miss, miss, miss, I forget how to do this!’ and I showed her the first two movements and there was this gorgeous moment where her eyes lit up and she was like ‘Miss, Miss! I get it, I get it!’ The muscle memory that’s such a part of sports is a part of any learned movement. Even watching the Olympics, Allie Raisman from the States was doing this crazy vault that was really intense and very complicated, and she said ‘You know what? As soon as I start running, it’s all muscle memory.’ That’s a really gorgeous relationship between textile work and sports that’s underappreciated.
So I don’t ever really feel like a piece is done. Maybe it will never be done. That’s just the nature of the project, because wherever it goes, I go with it, and I’m there for a month. So the work is very site-responsive and interested in engaging the community around the gallery, wherever it is, and all of these ideas about sports and textiles and labor and gender. I’ll be in Newfoundland in October for a month, and it will change from the context of being in St. John’s, so we’ll be using fishing nets and using them in a game that we’ll choreograph.
Eric: I think about the process and the work that goes into the final product with athletics and creating art, where there’s behind the scenes work that goes into it, and it’s not always fun all the time. But at the end, repetition and muscle memory turn into something beautiful in athletics and in art. It’s a connection people don’t make very often. It’s interesting that you saw that even with the kids learning to do the macramé work.
Yeah, I agree.
I wanted to talk about working with the students. What do you hope the kids will learn from the experience?
A bunch of things. I mentioned working collaboratively, and that’s really important. When you’re in high school, you may work on a project together, but from what they told me, that’s not something they did in art class. If they do, it’s you and a partner instead of working collectively as a class. That’s an incredible thing to do, to know that what you are doing is important; that you might not get credit for your exact work but that there’s a larger project at stake.
Teamwork, you know? I always used to scoff at that, like ‘I want to do my own thing,’ when I was a teen. It was an incredible experience, because it seemed to really work. They weren’t able to articulate exactly why, but it was much different than it had been in the past.
I also think a lot of them were like ‘Oh, do you do this… for a living?’ The idea of somebody being an artist — and sure, I don’t make a lot of money, and don’t know how long I can sustain this – but the idea that you don’t have to follow some proscribed route in your life. You don’t have to go from A to B to C to D and then end up with a house and a mortgage. You can be an artist and rent for your whole life and do wild things with awesome kids. I had conversations with them where they were like ‘What do you do?’ It’s nice to be that person who can let them know that it’s possible.
It was a really interesting school. It’s the only school in the TDSB – the Toronto District School Board – that has an armed guard. That isn’t very common in Canada. It was a kind of intense neighborhood. I was there for three months, and it was kind of difficult, because the first month was all about building trust, getting to know them and learning to engage. I’ve worked collaboratively with communities, but this was a wonderful experience because it reminded me how trust is so huge. I was bringing a project to them but they had to trust that I had their best interests in mind and that I’d listen to them and that we’d be working through it together.
The final installation we did was a lesson; that you could work so hard on something for so long and then install it. For an hour, it was open to all of the school, so all the kids from the school came in and forty basketballs were being played with at one time and it was kind of wild and chaotic. So it was a good lesson that you can work on a huge thing and at some point you have to just step back and let whatever happens, happen. That’s an interesting lesson when you’re working on a larger project.
You actually mentioned earlier that you made a very stark black-and-white choice between sports school and art school. Usually jocks and artists are two totally different groups in school, and they’re at odds with one another. Did you see any of those barriers break down when you worked with them both together?
Yeah. In conversations with the kids afterwards, they said things like ‘I had no idea you could ever take basketballs and make them into art.’ It kind of makes me chuckle, but if you’re 15 and you’ve never thought about that… but together I think we opened up and broke down this idea that you have to be one or the other. That you can have crossovers.
Definitely during the hour that we had our open installation, there were a lot of blank faces from a lot of the other students at the school. I hope that this idea that you can coexist and have some interesting relationships, I hope that idea germinated in their young minds.