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Sneaker Sculptures Explore 1990 'Great Shoe Spill'

Two photos of the sneaker sculptures on display at the Brattleboro Musuem and Art Center.
Rachel Portesi, Courtesy
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The exhibit "Overboard" by sculptor Andy Yoder is on display virtually and at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, until March 6.

The Great Shoe Spill of 1990 was the result of a shipping container falling overboard while crossing the Pacific Ocean, spewing more than $7 million in Nike sneakers into the sea. That shoe spill is the inspiration behind Overboard, a new exhibit by sculptor Andy Yoder at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.VPR producer Matthew Smith spoke with Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, about the new exhibit by sculptor Andy Yoder. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. The exhibit is on display through March, with upcoming events including a Feb. 18 talk on oceans, pollution and art, and a Feb. 25 discussion on the cultural history of sneakers

Matthew Smith: Tell me how this art exhibit by sculptor Andy Yoder connects to this unique moment in history.

Danny Lichtenfeld: The reason this spill didn't just fade into history is that the sneakers began washing up on the shoreline, and people began collecting them. And it became kind of, you know, in pre-viral days, it became a viral thing of people communicating with one another. Like, you know, “I found a left foot of this shoe that washed up here.” And so it became this real cultural phenomenon. And in fact, some oceanographers got involved as well.

And so what [sculptor Andy Yoder] decided to do was to begin creating replicas of Air Jordan 5 sneakers (that's the model of the Air Jordan sneaker that was released that year, in 1990), but made out of repurposed consumer packaging materials, in a way of nodding to the impact of consumerism, and packaging and pollution, and the way that's affecting the oceans today.

A photo of the McDonalds Diet Coke Jordan 5 sculpture by Andy Yoder.
Credit Photo: Greg Staley, Courtesy
The McDonalds Diet Coke Jordan 5 sculpture by Andy Yoder.

I saw some pictures that he posted on Instagram, and thought that we could do a really great installation of a bunch of the sneakers here at the Brattleboro Museum, in a particular gallery that we thought we could almost make it feel like you're walking into a sneaker showroom.

Affixed to the walls, floor to ceiling, are these shiny stainless steel shelves. And then on the shelves, wrapped around three walls of the gallery and floor to ceiling, are 240 of these sneaker replicas. Each one is the exact size of a size-13 Air Jordan 5. 

The exhibit is available virtually, online. People can take a look, and you can see ones that look like they're made from fast-food containers, or a poster of birds, you see a beautiful flamingo kind of folded across the front of the shoe. What are some of the more striking designs that resonate with you, and have resonated with visitors?

The flamingo is, I know, one of the artist's favorites, because that flamingo is actually an Audubon illustration. So in a way, it kind of connects back with the idea of preservation, and the effect that humans are having on the environment. That's all very heady and fine — by far the most popular sneaker among our younger visitors is one made from a Harry Styles concert poster. That one gets tons of attention.

The Harry Styles Jordan 5 sculpture by Andy Yoder.
Credit Photo: Greg Staley, Courtesy
The Harry Styles Jordan 5 sculpture by Andy Yoder.

When we made arrangements for [the exhibit] to appear here in Brattleboro, Andy collected a lot of materials from a lot of local businesses and institutions.

And so it's really fun to see people figure out that what they're looking at is a sneaker of like, promotional material from the UVM Athletics Department. Or we have one from Brattleboro Savings and Loan, a local bank, and Landmark College.

And then we have some really blingy sneakers made out of materials that Andy collected from two local breweries, Hermit Thrush Brewery and Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery. So, the local ones have been really fun.

The Landmark College Jordan 5 sculpture, left, and the Hermit Thrush Jordan 5 sculpture, by Andy Yoder.
Credit Brattleboro Museum And Art Center, Courtesy
The Landmark College Jordan 5 sculpture, left, and the Hermit Thrush Jordan 5 sculpture, by Andy Yoder.

And the Air Jordan 5s, it’s like a cultural icon. It has significance to people who are interested in sports and sports culture, and also fashion, and hip hop. The place that the Air Jordan 5 came to occupy in popular culture led to the flourishing of sneaker collecting, and sneaker culture and “sneakerheads” that all began with Air Jordans. 

Why bring this exhibit to Vermont? What do you hope Vermonters can take away from this exhibit that connects to this moment in history that happened hundreds of miles away in the first place?

In the first place, it’s just a totally fascinating and thought-provoking and fun and really well-done art project.

But as Andy says, you know, an important part of the project for him is to bring some attention and awareness to the impact that consumerism and commercial packaging is having on the world around us, and in particular, on the oceans. That's an issue of global importance and one that's really relevant at this moment in time for, you know, especially for all of us who’re ordering packages from Amazon right now, the holidays.

There's never a time to not be thinking about the impact that our consumer habits and practices are having on the world around us. That's a message that we've been hammered over the head with, a lot. And as a result, we kind of, you know, become deaf to it. Because this [exhibit] is so fun and intriguing, and it invites you in, it enables that conversation to begin, and for one to engage with those issues and think about them again, without immediately tuning it out.

As we've mentioned, this is an exhibit that's available to Vermonters both in person and online. How can Vermonters experience this exhibit virtually? And are you worried about making so many of the exhibits available online? Is that going to make people less enthusiastic about coming back in and seeing these exhibits in person, if they're so used to getting them on the web?

Watch Brattleboro Museum and Art Center Director Danny Lichtenfeld host an artist's talk with sculptor Andy Yoder on Dec. 10:

I hope not, and I don't think it will. We, like so many other arts organizations and museums around the world, certainly all throughout Vermont, have scrambled during this past year to figure out how we can continue to connect with audiences. And so we have these really terrific 3D interactive virtual tours available on our website.

We've been getting so much great feedback and gratitude from people, saying, "Thank you for making this available in this way, because I'm just not comfortable going out right now," or, "I'm not able to go out right now." We're getting engagement with people all around the world who definitely would not have known about this exhibit or had any way of experiencing it.

The question you ask is, is that going to have a negative impact on people coming and seeing the artwork in person? I really don't think so. And we haven't seen any evidence of that so far. If anything, seeing it online has excited people, and made them that much more inclined to try to get here and see it in person, if they're able to do so safely and comfortably.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition producer Matthew Smith @MatthewSmithVT.

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