On a sunny afternoon in Wrangell High School’s basement art room, junior Paige Baggen squinted through a camera pointed at two intricately painted pairs of low-top Vans canvas sneakers.
Wrangell High School is one of 250 schools nationwide selected to design a pair of Vans brand shoes that represent the community’s hometown pride. Winning the contest could net the school’s art program up to $50,000 in prize money.
“I guess the important thing was we have our scenery and what’s around us, but also, the other main important thing about our town is like the local art and the Native art,” Baggen explained. “And so we really thought that it was important to represent that like describing our town, we couldn’t leave it out.”
One pair of Vans — the slip-on style — shows orangey-pink sunset landscape scenes on the toes.
“So this is just a picture of the nose that I took in front of Bob’s,” said Baggen, gesturing to one of the shoes, “And I just thought it’s a pretty iconic Wrangell symbol. It’s on so many stickers and art and stuff, so it’s got to be on the shoes.”
That’s some Wrangell lingo: The “nose” is the tip of Woronofski Island, across the strait from downtown. It looks like the nose of an elephant. And Bob’s is the former name of one of the two supermarkets in town, Wrangell IGA.
The sun setting over the Woronofski nose adorns the summer shoe, along with minute fireworks, bursting over the water painted along the heel — the Fourth of July is Wrangell’s biggest holiday celebration. Snowy sunsets and northern lights adorn the other shoe.
“Winter symbols, summer symbols, just to kind of show like the spirit of our town,” Baggen said.
The second pair of sneakers is covered in red and black Tlingit-inspired formline designs — a wolf and a raven. Tiny beaded blue flowers run down the laces, and white buttons line the heels, evoking a Tlingit button blanket. Cuffs made of long brown fur spill out of the ankles of the shoes.
It’s marten, trapped by senior art student Rowen Wiederspohn almost a decade ago: “Behind my house at 3-Mile (Zimovia Highway),” Wiederspohn said. “There’s an old logging trail there, and my brother used to go up on four-wheelers and set a trapline.”
Baggen added: “We had a kind of mangy mink fur that we’re gonna put in there. And he’s like, ‘No, no, no.’ And brought (the marten) in. It’s so much better.”
Baggen spearheaded the shoe-painting project, with assistance from Wiederspohn and other students in the class. Senior Sophia Hagelman helped design the formline wolf, for example.
“I helped with the base painting,” Wiederspohn said. “I didn’t want to mess around too much with any of the top stuff because I’m not the best at drawing in between the lines. But I also helped with the beading, and then brought in the fur.”
Art teacher Tasha Morse said that designing two pairs of shoes wasn’t part of the high school’s curriculum at the beginning of this year.
“We found out about this competition, honestly, through TikTok,” Morse said. “There was a student who was like ‘I found this contest’ and told Paige about it. And Paige was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.’ ”
Morse said that with the help of the school counselor, she filled out the application for the class.
“Well, imagine my surprise when a few weeks later, I got a ‘Congratulations, you’re one of 250 schools in America to be gifted these Vans shoes to paint for a chance at winning $50,000,’ ” Morse says, “And I was like, ‘Oh man, that just got really real, really fast.’ ”
It’s a part of the Vans Custom Culture High School competition, now in its 13th year.
“The requirements are two pairs of shoes,” Morse explained. “One is the hometown pride, which is obviously Wrangell. And the other pair is supposed to be one of the four pillars of the Van Doren legacy (the co-founder of Vans), which I found out are action sports, street culture, music and art.”
For the Van Doren shoes, the students chose to focus on art, specifically Tlingit art. Morse said that boiling Wrangell down to iconic images for the other pair of hometown-focused shoes was a collaborative effort.
“We had some class-wide discussions and my whole entire whiteboard was just filled with ideas like what makes Wrangell Wrangell, why are we lucky to live here,” Morse said. “And everything came out: we have the river, we have glaciers, we have wildlife, we have the Fourth of July, we have petroglyphs …”
The whole project came together on a tight timeline, according to Morse. A lot of students got sick, some with COVID-19, after basketball regionals in mid-March, and the shoes got lost in the main office’s mail pile for a few weeks. Students met every day after school, Morse says, and Baggen took the shoes home over the weekend to continue the work.
“I couldn’t even begin to calculate (the time that went into the shoes),” Morse said. “I’d say there’s over 50 hours of work into the shoes easily.”
Morse says there’s a buzz in the class — they think they have good chances in the competition.
“We’re just trying to be very positive and forward-thinking and keep it light,” Morse said. “We went from not thinking that this was probably never going to happen to ‘Oh my gosh, we have shoes and now we’re in the middle of this.’ ”
Baggen jumps in: “I’m competitive, I’m out for blood.”
“Secretly not so secretly very competitive,” Morse said, “So I’m like: ‘We’re gonna win.’ ”
Baggen continued: “We need the money. Of course, there’s lots of schools across the nation, and everybody is suffering from the same issues: COVID is a problem, it’s hard to get people to work (in schools), but we have really specific issues that apply only to us.”
Morse says Wrangell’s schools have had to cut back on art offerings.
“The last couple of years, I’ve been the art teacher, and I am a trained music teacher,” Morse said. “There are things that I can do in art, there are things that are very similar: mindset and creating and the ‘Don’t give up’ attitude and those kinds of things. But we went from having full-time art a few teachers ago to now it’s just myself and another teacher at the middle school, and that’s our art program right now.”
But it’s not just a personnel issue. Morse kicks a mostly-empty plastic trash can standing by one of the doors: “This is my clay, and we’ll reclaim it for the next time we do a clay project. We are running low on things like — we don’t have any black acrylic, we had to use black tempera (for the shoes) and then use a fixative so it wouldn’t fall off of the shoe. We got really creative really fast.”
Supplies are also expensive to get to an island.
“I just bought a gallon of milk for $9 at the store, and a gallon of paint is more expensive than that,” Morse said. “Add in barge costs or USPS charges, UPS charges or FedEx or whatever, it’s expensive. We do clay, we do glass, we do painting, we do portraits, we do all these things. And those are expensive. They don’t regenerate themselves. You can’t pick up the thing that you made last year and turn it into something new.”
Baggen, who wants to go into animation as a career, says she thinks it’s vital for the community to have art programs in the schools. She believes entering this competition could be a way that she and the other students give back.
“It’s important,” Baggen said. “You want a well-rounded, good, valuable education for your children. And we only have one school. So this is something that we can kind of offer to the community as, you know, we’re trying to improve things and make sure that everybody can get a good arts education, because arts are super important.”
In the next few weeks, judges at the shoe company Vans will determine the top 50 schools, and then open up a public voting period online from April 25 to May 6. There’s more information about voting at customculture.vans.com.
If Wrangell is one of the top five schools, students could win between $15,000 and $50,000 for Wrangell High’s art program.
(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the cuffs of the shoes were made of ermine instead of marten)