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Felt Portraits of Famous Athletes Look as Good as They Feel

Billy Kheel brings craft panache to action shots of basketball and football stars in 'Skyhigh.'
Billy Kheel, Space Randy (Randy Moss), 24 x 24 Inches - 61 x 61 cm, hand cut, dyed and sewn felt/wool, images courtesy of Black Book Gallery

The Black Book Gallery in Denver, Colorado describes the Los Angeles-based subject of their most recent exhibition as “Rick Ross meets Betsy Ross.” This weekend, artist Billy Kheel opened Skyhigh, his new showcase of sports-themed felt appliqué paintings. In his first show at the Black Book Gallery, Kheel's fabric fastened paintings feature trading card snapshots of athletes flying through the air.

The felt appliqué technique is a form of ornamentation where a pattern or shape, cut out of textiles, is sewn on top of another piece of material; basically a collage made from cloth. Each individual piece of dyed wool and recycled felt in these intricate and dynamic portraits are hand-cut and sewn together by the artist.


The show’s description writes, “Kheel uses felt as a painter uses paint: as color to suggest space and detail.” Influenced by shifting perceptions of gender roles in American culture, Kheel’s work juxtaposes the masculine and heroic themes attached to professional sports against the matronly associations of sewing and quilting.

Billy Kheel, Sheed Against the Dying of the Light (Rasheed Wallace), 44 x 16 Inches - 111 x 40.5 cm, hand cut, dyed and sewn felt/wool,

His works are hung in natural wood frames. Their layered surfaces create an element of three dimensionality, pushing the flatness of each painting off the wall so the works can be appreciated up-close, as well as from a distance.

The name of the show was partially inspired by the city of Denver itself. Billy writes, “Geographically the city floats high in the air atop the Rocky Mountains. Denver also has a rich and passionate sports culture which I wanted to reference and explore. And, lastly, the recent changes to the laws governing marijuana use in Colorado are completely new to me.” Kheel aims to draw attention to the amount athletes, playing at the highest levels of their sports, are smoking marijuana and being subjected to game suspensions, and in some cases, even criminal prosecution.

Kheel writes, “I feel that highlighting some of these all-star and champion stoners raises interesting questions about sports and culture and our shifting ideas on what constitutes healthy behavior.”

Check out some images from the show below:

Billy Kheel, Skyhigh (JR Smith), 30 x 42 Inches - 76 x 107 cm, hand cut, dyed and sewn felt/wool

Billy Kheel, No Medicine Like Hope (Hope Solo), 17 x 23 Inches - 43 x 58 cm, hand cut, dyed and sewn felt/wool

Billy Kheel, Eating Greedy (Von Miller), 11 x 15 Inches - 28 x 38 cm, hand cut, dyed and sewn felt/wool

Skyhigh is on in the Main Gallery of the Black Book Gallery through March 12th.


See more of Billy Kheel's work on his website.


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