BY KATHY CHANG
EDISON — After not getting many entries into the annual Vans Custom Culture Design Competition this year, art teacher Alison Paolello at John P. Stevens High School approached some of her art students with a challenge.
“I said ‘If we want to win this, we have to get it together’,” she said to the students in January.
Ten senior students — Ethan Chang, Ingrid Chou, Angela Jiang, Yixin Jiao, Elizabeth Lee, Eunice Lee, Alexandra Maris, Chand Patel, Jessica Sun, and Ziheng Jessica Xu — obliged and took the challenge.
On June 8, the students with Paolello by their side were crowned winners of the 2016 Vans Custom Culture Design Competition at MAMA Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, California.
For the championship, Vans, the original action sports and youth culture brand, awarded J.P. Stevens a donation of $50,000 for the school’s arts education programs to help foster the students’ #RightToArt and support the next generation of creative individuals.
In partnership with Americans for the Arts, Journeys, truth®, Laguna College of Art and Design and Blick Art Materials, Vans served as the host to the top five high school finalists at a final event held on June 8.
To say Paolello and her students were surprised of their first-place finish would be an understatement.
“They called our name and I was just standing there in disbelief,” said Paolello.
Nearly 3,000 high schools registered for this year’s competition, designing four pairs of blank Vans based on four themes: Action Sports, Art, Music and Local Flavor.
Elizabeth Lee said she had contributed ideas in the past; however, never physically worked on the shoes.
Lee said she came up with the idea of diners for the local flavor theme last year and presented the group with her idea again this year.
This year barring deadline mishaps of last year, the idea stuck and became the central theme for the shoes.
“New Jersey is known for its diners,” she said adding that it was a unique theme.
Lee said they came up with a list of idea after idea at pow-wow sessions held at the library.
All 10 students worked together on all the themed shoes. For action sports, Lee said they made a diner dessert specialty in the banana split and milkshake with snowboarders flying and sliding.
For the music theme, the students came up with the jukebox, which has been a symbol and staple in diners. The students incorporated quarters and Lee said during their final display in California they slid in a cell phone and speaker phone playing music, which added to the jukebox flavor.
For the art and local flavor themes, the students built upon their diner theme by flipping over one of the shoes to act as a grill with flaming burger patties on it.
Lee said they utilized the imprint of the bottom of the shoes for the waffle fries. One shoe symbolized a mouthwatering cheeseburger with regular fries on the side.
Another pair of shoes symbolized the table accessories of forks, knives and napkins.
Lee along with her other group members said the challenging part of the whole project was the timing.
“We came to the school and worked on it during spring break,” she said noting that one of those days, an announcement came over the loud speaker stating that everyone needed to clear the building because the alarm would be activated. “We shut all the glue guns down and left everything.”
The students received four pairs of blank canvas shoes to create a design around the four themes in February, and had between Feb. 29 to April 8 to submit their final shoe designs.
Once Paolello submitted her student’s final project to Vans in April, Lee said they were slowly getting excited when they made the top 50 out of 3,000 entries and then the top five.
“We worked really hard,” she said adding that part of the project was getting public support for their project.
Lee said their first place brings fame and success not only to their school but awareness of the value of the arts in the schools and that art can be incorporated into math, science, technology and business.
Chand Patel said this was her first time participating in the contest and called the process stressful at times.
“It was a time crunch,” she said adding that the experience was fun traveling with her classmates and working together with them on the contest.
Alexandra Maris said for them to be recognized on a national level is really amazing.
“The time constraint was difficult, but coming up with all the ideas together and sculpting the different shoes was fun,” she said.
Eunice Lee said the whole experience was fun working together on the contest and traveling to California together.
“I really didn’t think we would win because I always thought we had to design something that people could wear … I was surprised,” she said.
Jessica Sun said she didn’t think they would get done in time.
“I was really surprised because we have never gotten this far,” she said.
Jessica Xu said they believed their concept was good, but they became wary when they got to see the shoes of the other top five finishing schools.
“They were really good too,” she said.
Paolello said she is proud of her students who put the time and effort into the contest.
She said the $50,000 will go toward much-needed supplies for the arts department at J.P. Stevens and of the $50,000, $10,000 will go toward scholarships for the students.
“We’re always last,” said Paolello of getting funding.
Now in its seventh year, the Vans Custom Culture competition continues to inspire and empower creativity among high school students across the country. Since the inaugural competition, more than 10 percent of high schools nationally have participated in Vans Custom Culture and more than $600,000 has been contributed to support arts programs.
This year, YouTube personality Maddi Bragg, Vans professional surfer Dylan Graves and top chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo behind Los Angeles restaurants Animal, Jon & Vinny’s and Son of a Gun, as well as special musical guest Echosmith, selected the winning custom Vans shoe designs.
The remaining finalists — Eastern High School in Louisville, Kentucky, Moanalua High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, Orange High School in Orange, California, and Sandy High School in Sandy, Oregon, were each awarded $4,000 on behalf of Vans toward their arts programs.
“Art has always been an essential ingredient of the Vans DNA. Whether it was through creating custom footwear for the skateboarders of the Dogtown era or young kids doodling checkerboard across their sneakers, Vans have been a canvas of expression for 50 years,” said Kevin Bailey, president of VF and Vans Global Action Sports and Outdoor Brand. “We created Vans Custom Culture to not only raise awareness of declining arts education budgets across the country, but because we also inherently believe that today’s youth deserve the Right to Art. As such, it is our duty to provide a platform that enables creative expression for generations to come.”
One of the designs from the grand-prize winner, J. P. Stevens, has the opportunity to be produced and sold in select Vans retail stores, as well as online.
For more information visit http://sites.vans.com/customculture.