Slam dunk: New Cranbrook Art Museum exhibit uses basketballs, nets

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

When it comes to using found materials for his artwork, Tyrrell Winston doesn't just think outside the box. He thinks outside the net. Or the rim. 

For awhile, Winston, who was based in New York but moved to Detroit with his wife and baby daughter in March this year, created art out of old cigarette butts. He'd scour the ground outside bars, looking for ones with lipstick marks on them. 

"People would be like, 'If you really want a cigarette, you can have one,'" said Winston.

But now, Winston, an avid basketball fan since he was a kid, has made a name for himself using sports materials — preferably used, deflated basketballs that he's found and old basketball nets (he replaces them with new ones) to create sculptures that raise questions about community, fame, heroes and what society values.

This weekend, Winston's first solo museum exhibition, "Tyrrell Winston: A Tiger's Stripes," opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum, a unique intersection of art and sports. It's one of two new exhibits with Michigan ties opening this weekend at the museum.

The other features Flint multidisciplinary artist Tunde Olaniran who has created a modern contemporary horror film, "Made a Universe," and an entire exhibit that's built around replicas of the film's sets.

Julie Fracker, Director of Communications, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Cranbrook Art Museum, looks at Tyrrell Winston's "Tiger Stripes" exhibit includes “Physical and Arrogant” used and deflated basketballs at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

"I never thought I was going to use sport as a medium," said Winston, who said it was actually a European gallerist who saw the deflated basketballs in his New York studio and encouraged him to create something. "It was a happy accident."

For Winston, creating art out of sports materials is in many ways about "poking the bear." He also creates paintings with linen house paint and chalk based on the signatures of famous sports figures such as Ty Cobb and Muhammad Ali.

"I think at first people were like 'This is ridiculous. We don't understand. You're painting autographs? What's special about that?' It was the idea of like Bart Simpson, 'I will not talk in class.' Or John Baldessari had done this piece with students in the '70s 'I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art,'" said Winston, standing in his studio at the Russell Industrial Center with a New York Yankees hat on. "I started to think about fame and how these heroes of today become an asterisk of yesteryear."

Tyrrell Winston's "Tiger Stripes" exhibit includes "Rainbow Fall"  at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

Winston, who actually grew up in southern California and is self-taught, said he started using old basketballs in his art almost by accident. Before his cigarette butt sculptures, he made collages out of drug paraphernalia but didn't like how the material turned away a large portion of his audience.

"I think I was trying a little too hard to say something," said Winston. 

Around that time, he started noticing discarded basketballs in gutters. And when he overheard a conversation between some kids about how basketball nets were never changed, an idea hit him: He could take down the old nets, replace them with new ones, and use the old nets to create something.

"It was a lightbulb," he said. "I didn't know exactly what it would look like but that day, I went out and got 10 nets. I wasn't even using a ladder. I'd take a trash can" and stand on that to replace the net.

Tyrrell Winston's "Tiger Stripes" exhibit which includes sculptures made from deflated basketballs and nets at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

At his exhibition at Cranbrook, there are two freestanding sculptures made out of hundreds of basketball nets, many taken (and replaced with new nets) from Detroit basketball courts. Another sculpture, inspired by John Chamberlain, a sculptor who used to make art out of old car parts, is made from bleachers. 

The standout piece of the exhibit, though, is a massive collection of deflated, used basketball balls, 144, mounted to the wall in a grid pattern. The balls are aged from weather and use. A rod runs through the balls to connect them and Winston fills them with an epoxy so they keep their shape.

Laura Mott, the museum's chief curator, said she's really intrigued by artists who use found objects, particularly from the city.

Artist Tyrrell Winston, pictured in his Detroit studio, likes to use found objects in his work.

The objects are "measures of time and history," she said. "...It's a visual kind of storytelling."

And sports are one of the most community-driven acts society has, said Mott.

"As someone who is interested in visual culture, Tyrrell touches on all of these things with his practice," Mott said.

For a guy who dreamed of playing in the NBA as a kid, Winston, who has the words "Slam Dunk" tattooed on his neck, now he's achieving sports glory in another way.

"The funny thing about my journey is that I wanted for so long to make an impact in the professional sports world and now I'm doing that through my work, which is really, really cool," said Winston.

Tunde Olaniran

Olaniran has made a name for themselves as a multidisciplinary artist, musician, singer and performer based in Flint but their latest project, a contemporary horror film they co-wrote, co-directed and co-scored for Cranbrook Art Museum, pushed them in new ways and may be their most ambitious project yet.

The 26-minute film, "Made a Universe," required Olaniran to act, write, compose and edit. They portray the central character going through various portals, using their perceived weaknesses, which actually turn out to be their strengths, to defeat "the state," or enemies.

Tunde Olaniran, center, a multidisciplinary artist from Flint, plays the central character in "Made a Universe," a film they co-wrote, co-directed and co-scored with Paige Wood. The film, filmed mostly in Detroit, is part of a new exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

Inspired by archetypes found in comics such as the New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off, it was filmed largely in Detroit in 2021 with Detroit-based crews. And Olaniran collaborated with some serious heavy-hitters, including star cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who provided some of the music. Other collaborators included Ellen Rutt, Natasha Beste and Lisa Waud among others. Paige Wood is the producer and Olaniran's co-writer.

"It's reflecting on experiences of being queer, being poor, being Black, in a place like Flint," said Olaniran. "Not just living through the water crisis but anyone who lives in poverty, there are very dramatic things that can happen. But there are also these small, daily, weekly, monthly occurrences that I experience just from the economic element."

Olaniran had just finished a music video in 2018 with Rutt when the artist started having conversations with Mott about a possible collaboration at Cranbrook and what that would look like.

Artist Tunde Olaniran  exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

Had COVID never happened, it might've been a different project, said Olaniran. But the pandemic gave them and Wood, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-scored the film, more time to really flesh out the story and create something they'd never done before. The Knight Foundation funded the project.

"Usually my work was very 'This is the song. Here's the visual for the song,'" said Olaniran, who said they learned a lot about collaboration. "...It could've very easily been just a music video. If COVID never happened, we might have never taken the time to develop a longer story."

For a museum, Mott said they've never done anything like "Made A Universe."

"Essentially we've created a film that has little nods to campy horror but also superheroes. It's sort of hero's journey," Mott said.

Ultimately, Olaniran, who said the film also includes two new unreleased songs of theirs, just really wants viewers to see it and "take what they want to take from it."

"That's the case with any artist — you have a song you write with your own intention but it has a million different meanings for people and how they respond to it," they said.

Cranbrook Art Museum Summer Exhibits

"Tyrrell Winston: A Tiger's Stripes" opens to the public Saturday and runs through Sept. 25.

"Tunde Olaniran: Made a Universe" has a red carpet premiere for art museum members at 6 p.m. Friday; tickets are $20 for the public to attend premiere. Exhibit opens to the public Saturday and runs through Sept. 25.

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