“It’s an American tale,” Maria Molteni says, describing how often she hears traumatic childhood memories of sports teams and physical education.
“Gym class is really pressurized,” she says. The 33-year-old artist grew up playing sports in Nashville, Tennessee, and vividly recalls that pressure. “You’re having to look at each other’s bodies and prove yourself to each other, so it’s really stressful,” she says. “But when you’re just playing around outside, hopefully that can be a liberating experience.”
So when Molteni, now a Bostonian, installs crocheted basketball nets on naked hoops in urban neighborhoods, she’s not just another yarn-bomber. Along with her collective, New Craft Artists in Action (which artfully borrows the NCAA acronym from college sports), she’s out to reframe sport and recreation, with a view toward inclusion.
Take, for example, NCAA’s Net Works program, which teaches people to knit and crochet, and helps turn drab spaces into inviting places for recreation. In 2016, Molteni painted a multicolored basketball mural at the Clubhouse, once an abandoned auto repair shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. Now, as an artist-in-residence for the city of Boston, she’s working on a similar effort in nearby Dorchester’s Harambee Park.
NCAA’s influence has continued to grow since Molteni founded the collective in 2010, asking a few artist friends for help. The group has installed or inspired nets across the US, as well as in a growing number of international locations – Hungary, the Philippines, and South Africa, among others.
“Now is the time for spectators to leave the sidelines,” Molteni wrote in “A History of Basketball and the Tactile and Tactical Liberation of Recreation,” a 2013 essay that serves as NCAA’s manifesto. “By way of simple DIY and craftivist mediation,” she continued, “we respond to cultural boredom and urban neglect, creative suppression and social repression.”
Molteni’s work is rooted in her experiences playing sports as a kid but winds around a fine arts education in painting and printmaking at Boston University, a beekeeper certification, and a passion for contemporary dance. The common thread? Molteni’s values, with an emphasis on participation and civic engagement. DIY craft, she says, has been a useful tool.
“I was trained as a traditional oil painter, and I was making these huge, figurative oil paintings,” she says. “And I really love and respect that process still, but it can be really hard to respond to things happening in real time.”
Beyond NCAA, Molteni is active in an impressively diverse collection of projects, including performance art, fiber and textile installations, and community-focused work. For Second Hands, her 2015 project at the MFA, Boston, she collaborated with local students using thrift-store garments as fabric to make quilts reflecting their neighborhoods, the global textile industry, and the museum’s artifacts from around the world.
To make connections, Molteni may use quilts, nets, dance, inflatable beehives, or murals, among other approaches; her choice is always rooted in the work’s intended social or creative function. She often remembers the repurposed woven peach basket that stood as the first basketball hoop in 1891 and the legacy it left behind – one that has benefitted many, but certainly not all, and particularly not women and queer people.
“We’ll put up a net, and a bunch of girls will just rush onto the court,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s because of the net, but I’ve definitely watched it play out beautifully many times.”