At a recent Georgetown exhibition opening, Quintin “Q” Jefferson’s Pollock-inspired splatters, colorful graffiti explosions, and bright acrylics hung on a large white wall as music blared and free drinks were passed out. The scene was typical of a gallery show, except for the unusual nature of the blank canvas that Jefferson paints on—all of the D.C. artist’s creations are rendered on pristine white sneakers.
The event, in celebration of the 3rd anniversary of the Adidas Originals store in Georgetown, featured exclusive shoes on loan from area collectors and original pieces from Jefferson—who has covered sneakers with everything from camouflage to glow-in-the-dark paint. Along with partner John Richards, Jefferson formed the area-based sneaker customizing business Grand High in 2000; Southeast resident Jefferson is the artist and Richards, who lives in Brookland, handles the company’s operations. Initially, Jefferson’s medium of choice was T-shirts, but high upfront costs and small profits pushed him toward shoes. Now he goes into Foot Locker and buys the white kicks he transforms into wearable works of art. Among the materials Jefferson uses are acrylic paints, various fabrics, and skins. “Frog, crocodile, snakeskin, those stingrays that have been killing everybody—I’m glad to be using them,” he jokes.
The shoes have found their way into the hands of collectors and onto the feet of sneaker enthusiasts around the world—including celebrities. ?uestlove, Fat Joe, and Dave Chappelle are among the stars who have dropped $300 and up to sport a Grand High design. But, unlike other wearables, customized sneakers are not entirely about looking fly. People often buy Grand High works not to wear them but just to possess them.
“We have some rattlesnake skin [shoes] that I wouldn’t want anybody wearing while they’re running to the bus,” says Richards. “We stand behind our work. The shoe will wear out before the paint will, but…you gotta make it special.”
All of Jefferson’s designs are one-of-a-kind—unlike the mass-produced forms he works on. “Q is not in a sweatshop—we don’t have people working an assembly line,” says Richards. That exclusivity has also helped establish Jefferson’s work as art. Grand High has participated in Sneaker Pimps, a touring street-based art show that has hit cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Cape Town, South Africa. During the events, Jefferson does live custom “installations,” creating a shoe in a display that is part demonstration, part performance art.
Grand High is hoping that the successful Sneaker Pimps event will soon make a D.C. stop. Although the District is not traditionally a town of sneaker freaks, “the D.C. sneaker scene is gonna change,” says Richards. “People are clawing for the exclusives,” adds Jefferson, mentioning several sneaker boutiques set to open over the next few months, such as Major and Kickballers.
Next up for Grand High is a limited run of shoes Jefferson is designing with K-Swiss. The project is the result of his participation in the shoe company’s K-Spray sneaker tour. Though part of the work of custom sneaker designers is grabbing the attention of shoe makers and making the field ever more lucrative, Jefferson hopes that the art of stripping commercial apparel of its cookie-cutter look and creating something unique won’t become compromised. “Once companies start to cut checks to artists, it becomes legit,” says Jefferson. “But I think people are doing it because they love it, not just to get a check.” —Sarah Godfrey