Louie Gong's Mockups: It's Not a Shoe, it's a Canvas
Raised by grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community in a shack with no running water, Louie Gong (Nooksack, Squamish, Chinese, French and Scottish) has overcome considerable odds to become one of today’s most successful shoe artists.
In the past several years, Gong has been an exhibitor at the Indigenous Fashion Show at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, has spoken nationally and overseas, and wasthe subject of the documentary Unreserved. He has amassed nearly 60,000 fans on Facebook, and has hand-drawn almost 200 different custom shoes.
This past December, Gong appeared at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. at an event entitled Design Yourself: IAMNMAI, which involved his Mockups (getmockups.com)—7-inch long replicas of Vans shoes, made of blank white vinyl. Each Mockup is a canvas of sorts for young people to play with ideas about custom shoe designs -- what Gong calls a "sustainable art toy."
Gong recently discussed this project and other recent developments with ICTMN.
What are mockups?
Mockups are a do-it-yourself art toy based upon my work with youth. When I created mockups I wanted to create something that would allow people to experience personalizing a pair of shoes that would be cheaper, less intimidating and more classroom-friendly.
It is less intimidating than if you put a $50 shoe in front of a kid who is not accustomed to doing art, especially a low-income kid. They are going to be very intimidated by the process and they are going to be compelled to just take a perfectly good shoe home, without marking it up. We are lowering the pressure and that threshold of courage that someone needs to have in order to start experiencing what it is like to personalize something that you put on your body.
Why did you make them out of vinyl?
The advantage to the vinyl surface of mockups is that you can apply almost any medium to it; pencil, colored pencil, crayons, or spray paint. You can add sculpting material. You can cut it and you can heat it up with a blow dryer and it is almost like cutting through butter. They are very versatile. You can erase just about anything too.
Where have you done these mockup workshops?
I've done workshops with kids from tribal communities all over the United States, kids from Mexico, in March I will be doing this with students in Indonesia, and in Germany. I have done close to 50 custom shoe workshops with youth all around the world.
How is your artwork influenced as an artist with a diverse cultural heritage?
Before I ever started doing art, I was an educator and activist around racial identity. For the last 10 to 12 years, I have been a nationally recognized activist in this work. I have very much been the voice of the low income and community-based mixed-race experience. It was through that leadership role in the mixed-race community that I became bolder about expressing what I feel is my natural cultural inheritance from my grandparents. That’s what led to me sitting down, takinh a blank pair of shoes, and personalizing it in a way that reflected who I was as a person.
And for kids who may or may not be mixed, it is the first time that they have been really encouraged to express pride in their heritage. It doesn't matter what your heritage is, mockups provide that opportunity to express pride.
The works are an alternative to more traditional art forms like a drumming class or beadwork class; in a lot of ways it is a better match for the reality of their contemporary lives. For a lot of kids it ends up being a gateway to explore and their traditional art.
How did you produce these art toys?
I produced them over a three-year period and went through a lot of trial and error. I had no one to guide me through the process and I also financed the development of the product myself through money I had earned through public speaking and my workshops.
There were various times where I had to stop development because I was waiting to earn more money so I could continue to push forward. I sculpted the original model myself and then I hired a CAD illustrator to do both the 3-D renderings and the initial prototypes. I went through nine physical prototypes of the actual shoe. When we started working on the packaging, I had to go through at least that many innovations of packaging. The final piece to come together was the manufacturing.
How are you able to maintain success as a Native artist when so many others cannot?
By embracing the business and marketing aspect of what I do, I am finding ways to make my traditional art sustainable. I think that it is something that other native artists should be looking at. Because, right now we sort of have tunnel vision in terms of working with galleries. For me, working with galleries represents an eventual glass ceiling because although we can generate income that way, the pathways to sustainable wealth are blocked.
A lot of times the relationships and the know-how are held by the people selling art. We relegate ourselves to the status of craftsperson—there is nothing wrong with that—but I think that we should be blazing a trail to be something more than just a craftsperson, so that the next generation has the option of being something different.
What I am finding it that these mockups art toys have the appeal and the aesthetic that I put on my custom shoes and the appeal crosses geographic and racial boundaries. My goal is for people to be able to purchase mockups and do the workshops on their own. That’s why I have free lesson plans on my website. Although this is a business project for me, I am pushing forward with the values that have been inherited in all my eighth generation activities. I am wholesaling mockups. They are in a lot of art museums, including the Smithsonian store, which was my initial retail outlet.