Victor Solomon is ‘Literally Balling’ Atop NBA’s Art World
LOS ANGELES -- Victor Solomon doesn’t take his work too seriously—hence “Literally Balling,” the name of his ongoing crossover between art and basketball. But there is one rule that he, like any artist, would prefer patrons follow when observing his work: Look, but don’t touch.
By and large, Victor’s famous visitors played along during the opening night of his exhibition in Los Angeles over NBA All-Star Weekend in 2018.
Dwane Casey, then the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, carefully admired his extravagant backboards—complete with stained glass, gold-plated rims and nets threaded in Swarovski crystals. Baron Davis, a former All-Star and current cultural connoisseur, copped a photo with the bespectacled sculptor. DeMarcus Cousins, all 6’11” and 270 pounds of him, managed to hop around on crutches without so much as brushing one of Victor’s intricate works.
It wasn’t until the next day that a surreptitious visitor broke Victor’s rule, albeit without breaking anything else.
“Normally, that's a problem,” Victor recently tells CloseUp360 inside his East LA studio.
But this was no normal situation—not even for Victor, who's had whole collections commissioned for NBA superstars. After all, what’s a lifelong basketball fan supposed to say when his creations are getting hand-checked by Allen Iverson?
“That was a crazy moment for me just because I feel like aesthetically, he's such an embodiment of a lot of the look of this thing,” Victor recalls. “So that was a cool experience to see how a guy like that reacted to seeing the works.”
Victor Solomon poses with NBA legend Allen Iverson in front of "Xanadu" at his gallery exhibition during the 2018 All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. (Geordy Pearson)
Over the past three years, he’s witnessed many an NBA superstar’s responses to his creations.
After Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in July 2016, Victor partnered with Nike to welcome the All-Star forward to the Bay Area with a gallery of decorative backboards alongside KD’s own photography.
“I feel like a lot of players don't really get to show their personality off, or don't really get to show a lot of the stuff that they do off the court,” Victor says. “So I think [Kevin] was really excited about that part of the project.”
This summer, while adoring crowds marveled at LeBron James in Shanghai, the Los Angeles Lakers’ newest superstar was busy admiring The King's Court, a curated selection of 16 pieces—one for each of his seasons as a pro—crafted by Victor several stone-throws from the four-time MVP’s new throne at Staples Center.
“It's a crazy moment to have a guy like LeBron who's probably, you know, one of the sort of biggest cultural figures we have at the moment looking at stuff that I've made, and being impressed by it,” says Victor, who was with the superstar at the exhibit in China. “It's very humbling and a very, very cool thing to be a part of.”
At Paul Pierce’s retirement ceremony in February, the Boston Celtics presented him with one of Victor’s backboards, customized with “The Truth’s” No. 34. That was a thrill for Victor, who grew up in Boston idolizing the Celtics and counts the team’s 2008 championship run as his favorite basketball memory.
Except, Victor couldn’t make it to the TD Garden to bring his project full circle. Instead, he was stuck in his studio back in LA, where he moved following the completion of his KD exhibit.
“I was busy actually getting ready for another project,” he says, “but it was a very crazy moment to be here in the studio working and I was just watching the ceremony actually happen on TV.”
Such is the life of the most sought-after sculptor in the basketball world today.
Victor talks with LeBron James at The King's Court, an exhibition featuring the artist's work in Shanghai. (Geordy Pearson)
If Victor had his way back in the day, he might be making tricked-out hockey nets instead of his embellished basketball hoops. As a kid growing up in East Boston in the 1980s and 1990s, he dreamt of putting on pads, lacing up ice skates and honing his slap shot.
But coming from a poor mixed-race family, Victor could ill-afford all the accoutrements of hockey. He would look longingly at the gear through the windows of sporting goods stores, but he could not touch it.
Instead, he sought a sense of community on the pickup courts of East Boston, where the only barrier to entry was a ball.
“The basketball court was a great place where everyone was equal,” Victor says. “We all had the same goal in mind. So within the confines of the court, we forgot about the race, we forgot about the class and we just became focused exactly on the sport, which I think is one of the most beautiful things about basketball.”
Not that Victor could hide his Cambodian-Jewish heritage—or his slight frame—while surrounded by his Irish and Italian peers.
“I was always a skinny little kid, and I got picked for skins and cried,” he says, “because I didn't want to take my shirt off.”
But Victor kept coming back anyway. Though his jump shot was “erratic,” he got to play plenty, thanks to his ability to create for others.
“I'm probably a very poor facsimile of [Rajon] Rondo,” he quips.
Working with stained glass, especially the way Victor does, requires a certain vision—an ability to peer into the future and unwind what exists only in the mind.
“The process of making it is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” he says, “but you're also making all of the pieces.”
That’s what’s keeping Victor busy inside his studio—hidden behind red brick and wrought iron, on a nondescript industrial street—on a gloomy fall Saturday in LA. With his latest backboard design drawn out on paper, he uses the sketch as a guide to carve out exquisitely curved fragments from a sheet of glass. Then, he shapes those cutouts to fit his blueprint, using a grinding machine that looks like an old Nintendo Entertainment System with a spinning thimble on top, all the while protecting his mouth and nose from glass dust with a mask.
“It's pretty dangerous around these parts,” he jokes.
Once the pieces are properly shaved down, Victor wraps the edges in copper foil and places them back into the design. He then applies to the edges a clear substance called flux, which assists the adhesion the coper foil and the liquid metal solder. Finally, he "glues" the glass pieces together by melting solder over the lines using a scalding-hot soldering iron.
Follow those steps enough times and voila! He’s got a work of art that would fit in any church around LA, but will instead be mounted inside a blinged-out semicircle atop a stanchion.
“You get to know each of these pieces really well because you repeat the process so much,” he says. “And really what you end up doing is regretting a lot of the design decisions you made up front, because you could have done it a lot more simply.
“But all the trouble ends up being worthwhile.”
Victor was looking for a creative outlet. He had grown tired of what he calls “the bureaucracy of the filmmaking process” while working in the business in San Francisco.
“Creating a film requires mobilizing so much equipment and people and stuff like that,” he says. “And I kind of wanted to do something that was wholly mine.”
Victor had dabbled in different art media throughout his life. But it wasn’t until his creative drive collided with his passion for basketball that his thoughts turned to stained glass.
“I had always approached things sort of agnostic to the way that I would execute them. It would be more about what medium and what concept does this project require,” he says. “And as I came up with the idea for this, stained glass just made sense.
“And then it's kind of reverse engineering of, like, ‘Okay, this has to be in stained glass. Now I need to figure out how to make stained glass.’”
Considering all the tools and procedures required, that wouldn’t be something that Victor could intuit on his own, let alone learn from a few YouTube clips.
Victor's Tools of the Trade
1) Glass Cutter: to cut shapes from sheets of glass
2) Hand Vise Clamp: to separate pieces that have been partially cut with a knife
3) Glass Grinder: to refine pieces to fit the overall design more precisely
4) Flux: to help the solder adhere to the copper foil lining each piece of glass
5) Solder: to connect adjacent pieces of glass
6) Soldering Iron: to melt the solder
(Photos by Amir Ebrahimi)
Stained glass isn’t entirely a lost art, but it’s not thriving these days, either. It’s tedious and time-consuming, with Victor spending upwards of 100 hours to complete each piece. And between the knives, soldering irons and grinders required to form the pieces—let alone the glass itself, in both shard and dust forms—the trade has its hazards.
Most of all, it’s expensive to get into and even more expensive to create, with a small customer base to boot.
“It's so niche in that it mostly gets handed down by word of mouth or there's not a lot of people working in the craft,” he says. “So you kind of always ended up apprenticing under someone if you want to learn how to do it on your own.”
So that’s what Victor did. His search for a stained glass sensei led him to Aanraku Glass Studios in San Mateo, California. There, he found a charming bunch of retirees who had worked with stained glass for decades and were eager to take him in as their kohai.
“They were just excited to have someone that was less than half their age be curious about the medium, because it had been basically dormant,” he says. “And these guys would go and shoot the shit, and work on some door window or something for themselves, just to kill time and hang out with their friends.”
Victor absorbed all he could from the “old-timers.” He studied their techniques, took in their expertise on materials and tools, and listened to the tales they spun over decades spent in the studio.
All the while, Victor kept his plans make a backboard out of stained glass under wraps. He worried that his teachers wouldn’t approve of his ends—that they would think he intended to subject this gentle medium to the violence inherent in a typical backboard’s utility.
But Victor could only hide his project for so long. Eventually, those pieces of his prototype, created and laid out in plain sight, would reveal a more complete puzzle.
“I finally had to come clean and explain why there was this big knot taken out of the middle,” he says. “And at first, they were very upset and did not like the idea of someone shooting a basketball at one of these pieces that they so often spend hundreds of hours putting together.”
Eventually, though, his teachers came around. After Victor finished his first stained glass backboard, Bob, one of those teachers, brought a small Nerf basketball into the studio.
“I need to get the first shot,” Bob insisted.
“It was very cute,” Victor recalls.
Since then, the crew at Aanraku has been Victor’s biggest fan club. They pin his press clippings to a cork board in the studio, and eagerly await news of what’s next when he pays a visit from Southern California.
More from Victor and LeBron at The King's Court. (Geordy Pearson)
Like the athletes who admire his work, Victor is always adding to his skill set.
“Trying to advance the way that I approached the aesthetic is an ongoing thing of looking back and hating the thing that I made the day before,” he says, “just to keep trying to elevate the aesthetic and the process, and sort of challenge myself. It's like a game of H-O-R-S-E with myself to say, like, ‘Okay, we made that. That was pretty good. What can we do now to push it a little bit further, make it a little bit harder, make it a little bit better looking or make the story a little bit richer?’”
From decorative backboards, Victor turned his attention to the ball itself, for a program he calls “Moonshot.” He’s embellished actual basketballs with silver and gold, and fabricated others whole cloth out of stainless steel and crystal. He also partnered with ceramicist Brock DeBoer to fashion 33 spheres from ornately painted ceramic—only to smash them with a hammer and piece them back together with gold dust through Kintsugi, a traditional Japanese ceramic repair technique.
“The more I had been getting into this project and thinking about different ways to push the envelope,” he says, “the more I realized how much that paralleled the athlete's journey. And everyone has the story of the things that they overcame to become the player that they are now.”
The players weren’t the only ones paying attention to Victor’s work at All-Star Weekend in LA. So, too, was the league office.
From that exhibition came the “VS x NBA” collaboration. For each of the 30 teams, Victor designed a simplified version of its logo—current, retro or otherwise—to be hand-pressed in gold leaf onto a 10-millimeter-thick piece of poly and suspended in a floating glass frame. The NBA produced 1,000 per team, for a limited total of 30,000 crystal prints.
And in the lower left corner of every one, next to the classic silhouette of Jerry West that doubles as the NBA’s insignia, is Victor’s own signature printed in gold foil.
“When you're growing up and you're watching basketball, and you're getting into the sport itself, it's like you understand what the National Basketball Association means as an infrastructure,” he says. “But you never really think about an opportunity to collaborate with them and work on something meaningful. And it's been a really crazy process with how engaged they've been, how open they've been about our collaboration and making these crystal prints.
"And it feels like a very symbolic destination to have arrived to—to be able to have my name next to the NBA as a partner in this release.”
In the NBA, rookies take the sport by storm with regularity. From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, to LeBron James and Stephen Curry, to Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, the league is constantly awash in new blood, eager to innovate and elevate the game.
The art world, for all that it’s done and continues to do to push the culture forward, tends to take a much slower tack. When, in the mid-19th century, the likes of Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Bazille couldn’t get their work into the Salon de Paris at the Academie des Beaux-Arts, they sought instead to organize their own show, the Salon des Refuses. That rejection begat a movement, which became French Impressionism.
For Victor Solomon, that outlet was social media. Where the confines of a bygone era might have left him grinding glass as another aging hobbyist on the San Francisco Peninsula, Instagram exposed his work to the world almost from the opening tip.
In just three years, he’s gone from picking up a new trade to rubbing shoulders with giants, from making elaborate backboards for fun to being commissioned by all kinds of customers—from straight-laced corporate entities like the Celtics, NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association to rappers like Rick Ross—and often for handsome sums, at that.
“It was not designed to turn into a career path or a full art practice or anything like that,” Victor says. “I was just curious about mixing the medium of stained glass and these luxury of materials with the iconography of the sport. And just figured out how to make the first one and posted it on all my social media. And just organically got it some traction around that, and it's kind of been riding the wave ever since.”
Victor with Kevin Durant in San Francisco at KD x Victor Solomon, A Gallery Experience: History in the Making. (Geordy Pearson)
Though Victor is enjoying that ride, he’s hardly kicking back. For his All-Star exhibit, he attached four backboards onto a single stanchion for a piece he dubbed “Xanadu,” which has since made its way from Las Vegas to China and back to the United States. From his crystal print project with the NBA came the vision to create a clear crystal backboard incorporating “slumping,” a technique for fusing pieces of glass together.
There are other projects in the pipeline which Victor would rather note divulge—for now. Despite all the doors that have opened for him, and all the cross sections between art and sports he's brought to life, the pinnacle of “Literally Balling” is yet to come. And it's called "The Sanctuary."
“One of the dreams that I've been pitching to anyone who'll listen,” he says, “is basically trying to build a court that's completely made out of marble and drop it out in the middle of nowhere for people to make a pilgrimage to. And sort of create this destination that becomes the place where people can celebrate the sport.”
Some day, Victor hopes to erect basketball’s “Prada Marfa”—complete with playable, stained glass backboards and a three-point line made of inlaid brass—off I-5, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Until he can muster the resources to bring The Sanctuary to life, it will exist in virtual form, as a playable court in EA Sports’ NBA Live.
In the meantime, Victor doesn’t quite know where this rocket ride will take him. Nor could that proto-Rondo, who cried about playing skins during pickup games in East Boston, have imagined where he would be now or how he got here.
“I don't think it would have even occurred to that kid that any of this could even exist,” Victor says. “So that's kind of the reason it's hard for me to take a lot of this stuff really seriously because I think what all this stuff is, is so pulled out of thin air. I mean, we're inventing all of this stuff as we go along, which is kind of a crazy part of the process and project, too.
“So it'd be, like, ‘We're going to get paid for doing that? We're going to get paid how much? And that's gonna work out? Like, fuck yeah, sign me up for that shit.’”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.