“I love basketball,” says artist Omar Vera. “I got to the point where I couldn’t play enough. I couldn’t get out on the court enough and at a certain point I had to start playing in my head, practicing free throws in my mind. It got to the point of an obsession. I was waking up at six in the morning and going to my neighborhood court and shooting 300 free throws a day whenever I could.”

When he moved to Chicago from Seattle in 2001 to earn his MFA from the School of the Art Institute, Vera didn’t know where to find a pickup game. So he channeled his passion into a 2002 video and performance piece called The Pascual-Leone Postulate: while a video conveying the visualization of free throws played inside the Art Institute’s Gallery 2–shot from the athlete’s perspective, it shows hands dribbling a ball and sinking basket after basket–Vera shot 200 free throws a day in the gallery’s window. By the end of the 2002 show, he reports, he had reached 88 percent accuracy.

Athletes were revered in Vera’s family. His grandfather, father, and uncles were all professional cricket players in Pakistan, and Vera’s own athletic prowess was encouraged, although his parents have now embraced his interest in art. “I want to make these athletes look like legends or heroes because that’s really what they are. Not everybody gets [to the top],” he says. “It’s really only the elite pantheon of athletes.”

The focal point of his studio is a terra-cotta bust of Shaquille O’Neal, another athlete who famously improved his free throw through visualization and practice. Shaq, resting on a podium, appears smooth, noble, and beautiful. “I wanted to make [Shaq] look like a philosopher, like a great mind,” says Vera. “It’s funny actually, because one of his nicknames that he’s given himself is ‘The Big Aristotle.'”

Through sculptures with titles like Shaq Slays the Devil Goat Vera says he’s examining the glorification of athletes and how a hero is created. “They’re kind of these larger-than-life figures, not just physically but in terms of their personalities and their public images, and I wanted to see if I could take that a step further with sculpture through creating these comparisons with classical heroes and even gods.”

But he acknowledges that his latest piece, Ionic Mike, a clay bust of Mike Tyson atop an Ionic column, may be controversial. “He’s a fallen hero, absolutely,” says Vera. “But for a long period of time, when he was heavyweight champion, he was the most feared boxer ever. People were afraid to step in the ring with him because he was so strong and so aggressive….What happens when we see him as a great mind, a great thinker?”

Vera’s work will be featured through November 9 at the Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood, where he’s currently the artist in residence. On Saturday, October 18, the center’s holding a free open house from 4 to 6 PM as part of Chicago Artists’ Month. For more information call 773-769-4226.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.