Jacqueline Thomas and Gabrielle Rudolph spent the last month transforming shoe tongues into waves, sneakers into sharks and footwear into flavorful art.
Both students at Northside Christian School, the girls have had their project selected as one of 50 semifinalists in the Vans Custom Culture shoe customization competition. Each year, high schools across the country paint and sculpt shoes to reflect four categories: action sports, art, music and local flavor.
"For local flavor I thought fishing because everyone does that in Florida," said Thomas, 17, a senior.
She designed one shoe to look like her grandfather's fishing boat, and another to look like a black tip shark. Gluing real shark teeth to the shark shoe proved to be the most challenging part of the project, she said.
Thomas also turned a pair of high tops into a surf scene for the action sports category and another pair of sneakers into a dread-shaking reggae dance scene for the music category.
For the art category, Rudolph, a 15-year-old sophomore, painted the Dalí Museum, beach scenes and the 727 area code.
"I definitely had the natural and the artificial in the back of my mind," she said. The shoes reflected Rudolph's personal connection to the Dalí, where her brother was married and her artistic style.
As for painting the waves, she said: "I like doing things that don't have structure but that have a lot of contrast."
The first 1,500 schools to register are sent four pairs of Vans sneakers to decorate and submit for consideration. Vans chooses 50 submissions — five from each region — for the public to vote on. Northside Christian is the only school in the final 50 from Central Florida.
"This was a cool opportunity for something different," said Bethany Sweeney, the school's art teacher. "They got so creative with (the shoes), and they look awesome."
Sweeney registered for the competition online, thinking it would be a good opportunity to promote her students' work.
The competition comes with significant cash prizes. The winner will collect $50,000 for the school's art program. The first-place school for each region could win at least $4,000, and the best local flavor design out of the top five contestants will get $10,000.
Sweeney said she hopes to spend any prize money on art supplies and equipment, including a dark room for photography, a kiln for 3-D projects, and tablets and computers for digital design.
The winners also will have their designs printed on Vans shoes.
"If we won, I would just have all four pairs and wear them every day," Sweeney said.
The designs also drew interest from St. Petersburg residents.
"I went around downtown and people said they'd wear (the shoes) because they were very Florida-y," Thomas said.
The top 50 contestants also have the opportunity to compete in a followup competition. Vans partnered with Truth, a group critical of the tobacco industry's marketing practices. The group sent each of the 50 schools a skateboard deck to paint based on an "ugly truth" about the industry.
The winner of the Custom Culture skate deck competition will win $10,000 for their school's art program and expenses for one teacher and three students to fly to New York for Vans' final event June 10-12. Thomas is painting a skate deck for submission on May 17.
To vote for Thomas and Rudolph's shoes, go to vans.com/customculture/vote. The vote closes Monday at midnight.
Jessica Floum can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8340.