Literally Balling: Artist Victor Solomon's Opulent Stained Glass Hoops

Twenty-four karat gold hoops, Swaroski crystals—the whole nine yards.

Feb 25 2016, 8:31pm

There's a promise of luxury that comes with the NBA. Sure, pro athletes from other sports throw down for swaggy decor, but there's something about the NBA—the arc of a shot, the Sunday-best press conference attire, the sheen of the hardwood—that just hollers style. For artist Victor Solomon, there's a beautiful gap between the game's humble origins and the cathedral-like excess of the pros. So he decided to take the iconography of basketball—specifically one of the functional elements of the game, the backboard—and elevate it to monument-level status with stained glass.

Solomon's project, which he calls—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—"Literally Balling," is an attempt to take that lavish NBA lifestyle and amplify it to the Nth degree: 24 karat gold-plated rims, Swarovski crystals, Renaissance-style glasswork, the whole nine yards. It started as a pet project, but now Solomon has sold pieces to Rick Ross and Grantland (RIP). He's getting noticed by prominent art collectors, including NBA superfan James Goldstein, and was recently featured at Miami's Art Basel. His work will be on display at the Joseph Gross Gallery in New York through March 19.

Solomon didn't exactly have a prestigious stained-glass career that then took a turn toward hoops. In fact, his first time working with glass was on a backboard; he didn't even consider himself a fine artist until this project. Solomon, a 34-year-old Boston native and Celtics fan who currently resides in San Francisco, was a filmmaker before anything else, making shorts and commercials. But one day in the fall of 2013, the concept just struck him.

"There are a lot of cultural metaphors that are wrapped in it—what with basketball's opulence, and what stained glass historically has meant back to medieval times, and only super rich people being able to afford it. But on a really simple level, I was like, That would just be a cool thing," Solomon told me. He's a tall, stylish guy with a clean part in his salt-and-pepper hair, and a decidedly warm "why the hell not?" vibe. "I had no real pretense in getting it into the art world. It was just an idea that I had to manifest by whatever means necessary."

Almost a year ago, VICE's The Creators Project featured some photos of Solomon's work. As he showed me around the gallery on Tuesday, it was clear that his craft has evolved. There was a pile of gold leaf in the middle of the floor used for last-second touch-ups, six backboards—waiting for a final layer of paint before connecting the rims—lain across shipping crates and tables, with gold-dipped middle school trophies in the corner and custom-made jerseys, one of them made from chain mail, hanging from glammed-out towel bars.

By the time Solomon finished his first hoop in September 2014, he was building rectangular backboards that had more of a 90s look to them. But as he became transfixed by the old-new dynamic of using a medieval art form on modern hoops, he opted for a more throwback arched look. His hoops and frames are now custom made, and his soldering lines much cleaner.

"At first, it was really unsophisticated. The frame was just a regular backboard frame that I ripped the plexiglass off of. And we just used the hoop that it came with and plated it," Solomon told me. "Moving forward, after getting the reaction that we got, and sort of wanting to explore it a bit more, I decided that it needed to be bespoke, and specific to this thing. So we're doing all custom frames, custom hoops."

As for making the glass, Solomon struggled to climb the steep learning curve at first. When he started going to Aanraku Glass Studios in San Mateo to pick up supplies, he was quickly schooled by the shop owners. They were a bunch of older guys, dedicated to the craft of stained glasswork—an art form that has changed very little since the Renaissance—but were happy to see a younger person getting involved. When they first saw photos of Solomon's early work, they just shook their heads.

"They told me, 'You're doing this so, so wrong,'" Solomon said. They later took him under their wing and taught him the finer points of working with glass. At first, he was embarrassed to tell them what he was making—they thought it was just a regular window pane—but as the project started coming together, he finally had to explain that the rectangular space at the bottom was there to help mount a basketball hoop.

"They thought it was the dumbest thing ever. But when I finished the first one, there was this very cute moment where one of the guys—this 80-year-old man—brought in a Nerf ball and told me, 'I want to take the first shot.'"

As the pieces came together, Solomon wanted to mount his crystal nets in a more elegant way, and consulted a metalsmith in West Oakland who custom built a more functional two-tiered rim that allows for the chain to drape more cleanly.

As for the gold plating, Solomon reconnected with an old skater friend named Chance who works for a retired rodeo cowboy at a company called Gist Silversmiths. They specialize in making what Chance calls the "Mercedes of belt buckles," and when Solomon approached them with his idea for the hoop, they were more than excited for the switch from cowboy garb to fine art. Gist charges Solomon the players' price for plating, which comes out to a clean $1,073 an ounce. "The gold price is actually pretty good right now," Chance told me.

Since Solomon is relatively new to the fine art world, he says he's only just learning about the pitfalls of listing prices. He didn't want to reveal the typical cost of production, but his backboards and hoops take about 100 hours each and have sold for prices ranging between $15,000 and $18,000 a piece.

Wesley Barrow, a Bay Area tech worker who is fairly new to the art-collecting world, owns one of Solomon's backboards. I asked him what drew him to them in the first place.

"I'm more of an art fan than a sports fan," Barrow told me. "I just thought it was really unique and was more of a commentary on luxury in America than anything else." Barrow says he's intent on "holding onto it until there's a reason not to," noting the value in collecting a piece from an artist still starting out in his career.

But Solomon considers his most important client, hands down, to be the Rick Ross.

"When I flew into Miami [for Art Basel], I told myself I was going to get Rick Ross to buy one, without having any real contact with him. And I must've manifested it, because it just happened."

Solomon excitedly told me about how Ross's assistant came to the show and sent photos to Ross, who loved the work. Eventually, Solomon got a call from Ross's assistant and was flown out to Atlanta to do an installation in Ross's 109-room mansion for his 40th birthday party.

Solomon set up the piece just outside of Ross's indoor basketball court, which is furnished, of course, with a real hoop—with clear glass, so fans behind it can watch the game. The real hoop sits dangerously close to the stained glass piece, which Solomon reminds everybody should not be played on.

"The whole thing is about the fragility of luxury, because it's an impossible piece. If you shot on it, it would shatter."