Growing up in L.A., Alake Shilling was a quiet and shy kid obsessed with drawing. She doodled on whatever surface she could find — in notebooks, sketchbooks, on her desk. She immersed herself for hours, drawing comics or making dioramas from discarded 7-Eleven Slurpee cups, filled with fake bugs or aliens.
One thing she was not into: sports.
“I still think about, to this day, how hard it was to run the mile,” she says, laughing. “It was terrible.”
These days, the artist is changing her opinion of sports.
On a brisk recent afternoon Shilling found herself kicking around a soccer ball with Los Angeles Football Club player Christopher Jaime, who’s giving her tips on how to kick and pass. The soccer field, at Cal State L.A. across from the LAFC Performance Center, is a vast expanse of emerald green; but the two stick close, passing the ball between them.
“Like this?” Shilling asks, gingerly tapping the ball while swaying her arms left, then right.
“Yeah, that’s it. You’re getting better,” Jaime says. “Use the inside of your foot.”
Shilling is getting a soccer tutorial from the midfielder, who is part of LAFC’s affiliate team in the MLS Next Pro league, LAFC2. But not just any tutorial. They’re playing with a custom, Shilling-designed “Buggy Ball” created for an interactive event to be held at the upcoming Frieze Los Angeles art fair.
During the fair, members of the LAFC will lead free soccer clinics, open to children and adults, as part of the event’s Frieze Projects program, the on-site portion of which was curated by the public-art nonprofit Art Production Fund. The project — the art ball and the activation — is called “Buggy Ball” (2023). Frieze takes place at the Santa Monica Airport this year, and the two-hour soccer sessions will be held on fields smack dab in the middle of the action between the Barker Hangar and the fair’s exhibition tent. Anyone from the public can participate, even without an art fair ticket.
Which speaks to the installation’s buzzword: accessibility. Shilling’s custom art ball features her cuddly, pink Buggy Bear character, a recurring image in her paintings and ceramics. This rendition of the bear sports a cowboy hat and grips a wilting daisy. That counterintuitive pairing of sports and art, in such a playful way, is meant to draw athletes into art and art nerds into sports, says Casey Fremont, the Art Production Fund’s executive director.
“The idea of putting art on a functional object is meant to be a tool to make art less foreign for people who might not feel comfortable [with it],” Fremont says. “It gives them a way to approach the work. The art world can be intimidating, maybe by design in some ways, but public art is meant to break down those barriers.”
Soccer, she adds, is the perfect sport to execute this particular public art installation. The Art Production Fund had wanted to engage existing space at the fair site — the Airport Park Soccer Field — in an “interesting and artistic way.” And the sport especially lends itself to camaraderie.
“I think soccer, specifically, is something around the world that brings people together, and this is about people coming together,” Fremont says. “And Alake’s work is really fun; this idea of bringing happiness and joy through the Buggy Bear character — it’s not elitist. So it’s perfectly suited.”
“Wow, what a workout,” Shilling says after her tutorial. “Normally, I like sports about as much as doing dishes. But this was fun.”
A pile of about a dozen new Buggy Balls, resting on the grass nearby, shimmers in the mid-afternoon sunlight. “Cute, right?” Shilling says of the cherubic-faced, smiling bear. “I hope he draws people in.”
Inclusivity, Shilling says, is central to her practice and a large part of why she wanted to partner with the LAFC and Frieze on this project.
“I always tell people I wish art was as popular as sports,” she says. “Everyone knows who Michael Jordan is, but not fine artists off the top of their heads. That’s always been my bone to pick — art and sports are both entertaining, but they don’t hold the same weight in pop culture. I feel like public objects are great for community engagement, and I hope this project opens a door for people to become interested in fine art.”
Shilling’s joyful design aesthetic was heavily influenced by the glimmer of disco culture, which she was a fan of as early as she can remember, as well as classic cartoons and the colorful, poppy imagery of Lisa Frank. Shilling, now 30, collected Lisa Frank stationery and stickers from kindergarten through middle school. Her paintings and ceramics also weave in elements from nature and pop culture. A recurring cast of adorable, imaginary characters — the Buggy Bear among them — populate her brightly colored, textured works, which may feature nail polish, sand, glitter, cooking flour or bits of dried pasta.
Shilling’s upcoming solo exhibition of paintings and ceramics, “A Bug’s Life” at Jeffrey Deitch Los Angeles in April, will feature “spring themes” such as frogs, flora and fauna, ladybugs, caterpillars and butterflies. Her process is meticulous: The artist, who works out of her West L.A. home studio, says her sculptures may take nearly a month and paintings up to a year.
“I like to interact with the work,” Shilling says, “and sometimes I have to wait for whatever I’m painting to tell me what it looks like.”
She chose the Buggy Bear for the art ball, she says, because he’s a relatable character. Sure, he may not be a typical jock. But that’s not the point. “He doesn’t have an athletic body, but that doesn’t stop the bear from trying,” Shilling says.
The LAFC, the reigning MLS champion after defeating the Philadelphia Union in November, debuted in 2018 and is based at Exposition Park’s newly named BMO Stadium. The club is expanding its community engagement, says Director of Community Relations Chelsey Oeffler. Over the last year, it’s hosted more than 40 events, including drive-through food distributions and book fairs at LAUSD schools.
“We know that sports can be a major vehicle for social change and don’t take that lightly,” Oeffler says. “LAFC aims to serve underrepresented communities through equitable access to play, health and STEM education while addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community.”
Frieze is LAFC’s first foray into art.
“Though you wouldn’t traditionally find soccer activations integrated into art, we see so many intersections,” Oeffler says. “Both soccer and art celebrate and impact culture, evoke emotion and are seen on the international stage.”
During the fair, the LAFC will hold two soccer clinics — one on Thursday, one on Sunday — accommodating about 40 participants each. They’ll include soccer drills and scrimmage games. Attendees are encouraged to register online in advance, but walk-ins will be accepted if there’s availability.
The goal, however, remains outside the net.
“Art,” Fremont says. “We’re united in that common goal — pun intended.”