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 todays
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 was the subject of the documentary
Unreserved. He has amassed
nearly 60,000 fans on Facebook, and has hand-drawn almost 200 different
This past December, Gong appeared at the National Museum of
the American Indian in Washington DC 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
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.
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
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. Thats what
led to me sitting down, taking 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
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
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 craftspersonthere
is nothing wrong with thatbut 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. Thats
why I have free lesson plans on my web site. 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.
Mockups are labor of love over three years in the making. They
were designed, developed, and financed by Louie Gong of Eighth
Generation, one of the nations most successful custom shoe
artists. Louie is a Native of mixed heritage (Nooksack, Squamish,
Chinese, French, Scottish) who was raised by his grandparents,
father, and stepmom in Ruskin, BC and in the Nooksack tribal community.
Growing up in a home with no running water, Louies background
serves as a stark contrast to his current success.
Louie Gong is an educator, activist, and artist who was raised
by his grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community. He is the
past President of MAVIN, co-developer of the Mixed Heritage Center,
and a former child and family therapist. Louie is also the founder
of Eighth Generation, through which he merges traditional Coast
Salish art and icons from popular culture to make strong statements
about identity, such as his highly sought-after, hand-drawn custom
shoes. Louies latest creation is called Mockups,
a DIY art toy based on his work with youth and his desire to a
make the experience of personalizing a pair of shoes more accessible.