Kawhi on canvas: U of T visual artist immortalized history-making Toronto Raptors team in portrait series

paintings depicting Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry
Joanne Tod, who recently retired as a U of T professor, painted every member of the Toronto Raptors, including star players Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry (all images courtesy of Joanne Tod)

The Toronto Raptors are gearing up for the fifth game in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors tonight, bringing the team closer to their first-ever championship trophy.

But before Fred VanVleet lost his tooth and Kawhi Leonard’s now infamous “buzzer beater” moment, you could find the Raptors in an unusual locale: on a gallery wall.

In her exhibition Organizing Principle, displayed at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in April, Joanne Tod painted portraits of every member of the Raptors. The paintings (pictured below) were produced on canvases of varying sizes, depending on the relative height of each player. 

At seven feet one inch, Raptors center Marc Gasol (fifth from right) towers over his team – even on canvas

Tod is a recently-retired visual studies professor in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and a visual artist who regularly uses realist painting as a form of social critique.

Her work has been exhibited nationally, internationally and here at U of T, where Tod has painted some of the university’s most well-known faces, including Bruce Kidd, Michael Wilson, Hal Jackman and Margaret MacMillan.

So what drew her to the Toronto Raptors?

While she was previously a casual fan of the team, it was Tod’s first Raptors game less than a year ago that sealed the deal. Tod said their “amazing athleticism” was like nothing she’s ever seen before.

Little did she know that her tribute would capture a team on a historic run through the playoffs and into the finals.

U of T News caught up with Tod to talk about Organizing Principle and what she’s up to next.

The exhibition was inspired by the first Raptors game you saw in person – what was it like being there? 

I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity – I didn’t know what to expect although a friend of mine said in advance, “Make sure you take earplugs.”

What I really didn’t expect was, when the players were not on court, the interplay extravaganza: the cheerleaders and a guy playing Simon Says and the T-shirt cannon, the beer, people walking courtside – seeing the fashion show. And the sound was so loud. It was amazing, but it was overwhelming. 

Partly for that reason I thought, “OK, I need to take a look at these individuals who are playing this amazing sport,” because, really, the kernel was this amazing athleticism that was just phenomenal and like nothing I’d seen before.

You’ve talked in previous interviews about how painting the players is to immobilize them – why did you decide to capture them in that way?

Because of the way I work, which is to engage on a public level in a social critique, I tapped into this phenomenon of a sport that is so universally-loved: men, women, children – all spectrums of races, etc.

It is democratic and is populist in a certain way. I wanted to take a look at the individuals that lots and lots of people in Toronto are really rooting for. But it’s a moment in time, it’s not anything really specific. 

The team that actually went to the finals is the team I painted, so, in retrospect, I think that’s pretty interesting just because inadvertently it captured a moment in history and I couldn't have anticipated that, really. 

Tod’s portraits of Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet and power forward Pascal Siakam

Some of your previous work was inspired by pop culture figures as well – what draws you to that subject matter?

My personal job as an artist is to document and comment on social phenomenon as they’re happening. There’s a long history of that kind of thing. The Raptors’ portraits function commemoratively as well within the very old tradition of portraiture – how the famous, rich and revered were immortalized. 

So that just perfectly, for me, represented an observation of what’s happening right now. The Raptors were already gaining momentum and I just happened to click on at the right moment. 

On the flip side, when photos of Kawhi’s “buzzer beater” moment were released, people were comparing them to paintings in the artful way they captured the moment. What do you make of that?

That image was sent to me. They’re all looking in awe – it’s right out of a Caravaggio. I did think, this should be a painting. But you know, maybe I will [paint it]. 

Are you selling any of the paintings from this exhibition?

I can’t comment at this moment, but it is certainly part of the agenda. 

There must be a lot of interest now ... 

I certainly can’t deny that. There is a lot of interest. 

Have any of the Raptors seen the paintings yet?

TSN made a video segment of me in the gallery talking about the portraits and my goddaughter told me they apparently ran that on the jumbotron, so a lot of people think the Raptors did see it. 

Shooting guard Danny Green and power forward and center Serge Ibaka

Have you heard from any hardcore Raptors fans about the portraits?

I have to say this is kind of sweet and endearing: The director of the Metivier gallery, Sarah, reported that never has she seen so many young men between the ages of 17 and 30 coming into the gallery. So that’s kind of cool.

Someone from that demographic might have discovered a love of art through your exhibition ...

I gave a talk at the gallery, and a woman afterward said, “I brought my son in here and he just loved your exhibition and I feel that that's a turning point for my son.”

Are you a more dedicated Raptors fan now?

Yeah. On the night they cracked the ceiling and got to the finals, it was a beautiful night. I have to admit I don’t have TV, so I said [to my partner], “Let's go for a walk and find a bar that's playing [the game].” Every single possible dive [bar] even, not to mention the good bars, were completely full. People were on the sidewalk, cheering. We were never able to watch the game so we came home and it was about 11:15 p.m. and we were lying in bed and in the distance I heard this great cheer, so I knew the Raptors had won.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a portrait commission for the Faculty of Engineering at U of T and I’m painting Dean Cristina Amon

The unveiling is going to be later in June. 

Going into what could be their final game, do you have a message for the Raptors?

You can see how proud Toronto is of your performance, and we will be with you through thick and thin.

Read more about Joanne Tod in Toronto Life

Read more about Joanne Tod at CBC


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