The Somewhere Project: Someone Else’s Shoes
The Park Avenue Armory’s Youth Corps is a group of New York City public high school students and graduates who are immersed in the art and creative processes of the Armory’s artists. The Armory, along with 14 other community partners across New York City, have adopted the themes of The Somewhere Project, Carnegie Hall’s citywide exploration of West Side Story, into their own programming this season. Youth Corps intern Biviana shares her group’s project, in which teens have created original graphics, visuals, and tags on white Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers for the major characters in West Side Story. These shoes will be displayed in an art exhibition at the Knockdown Center to depict a kind of scenographic “footprint” of iconic scenes from West Side Story.
Starting out the New Year on the right foot (literally), Youth Corps participated in Carnegie Hall’s The Somewhere Project. The Somewhere Project culminates in three productions of the well-known musical West Side Story in March at the Knockdown Center—the events will part-performance and part-visual art / installation, with we Youth Corps contributing to the installation aspect. At the events, there will be an exhibit that features works from many institutions inspired by the musical.
Our visual art piece was inspired mostly by the opening scene of West Side Story that shows the Jets and the Sharks gangs taunting, teasing, and chasing each other in an extended dance sequence around New York City. We noticed that in this scene, many of these young men sport the classic Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, which are still popular to this day, and so for our Somewhere Project installation, we decided to each make a pair of plain white Converse All Stars into a piece of original artwork that reflects the characters and relationships in West Side Story.
Youth Corps interns are young students from New York City who work with Park Avenue Armory’s Education Department and artists from all backgrounds, talking and learning about the art that enters the Armory doors and creating art based on their experiences. Youth Corps enter as high school students and remain a part of the Armory family upon graduation. Students grow as they are pushed outside their comfort zones by participating in unconventional artistic programming that the Armory is well known for. The Youth Corps program is dedicated to bringing art to inner city students who otherwise may not be exposed to it, as they believe art is essential to education and personal development. I’ve been a Youth Corps member since 2013.
Since the 1960s, Chucks have been a feature footwear for basketball players, punks, hipsters, nerds, and other subcultures. They’re iconic for the way they allow people to show off individuality and style. No matter who you are, you can rock Chuck Taylors your way. I for one wear my Chucks only in the summer with shorts and a t-shirt because I like their laid-back look, but Shar, my fellow Youth Corps, wears her chucks year round as a staple in her wardrobe. My style is more urban comfy and hers is more punk, but we manage to rock our converses in unique ways. When I was in high school, I had three pairs of converses in different colors that I circulated around depending on the occasion. That’s what I love about them: They’re simple yet versatile. So I think using Chucks as the basis of our installations allow these sneakers to serve as a visual footprint of iconic scenes, characters, and themes from West Side Story.
Like any creative process, research is always required. Rewatching the West Side Story film with popcorn and chocolate was our way of doing research. But of course, afterward, we discussed what we saw: themes, character development, and connections between characters, scenes, and songs that we found to be important to fully understand the story. Also, individually, we researched a little more to see if we could find anything new that we may have missed and shared that with each other. Then, we brainstormed ideas for sketches and practiced our designs on scrap material. For the rest of our sessions, we worked on our final product. Each of us added our personalities and flair to our sneakers while staying true to the main ideas behind the West Side Story narrative.
For example, my sneaker design is based solely on the character Maria, who I find to be troublesome because of the way she makes decisions and how that affects the other characters. I found her to be naive and selfish, yet I understood where she was coming from and how hard it must have been for her. Her character is impressionable, like the Converse sneaker that is able to be changed and styled according to you. My shoe is split into both aspects of Maria’s story. One side depicts Maria’s need for finding true love and peace, while the other side depicts the tragic realization that the world is full of violence and life is not a walk in the park.
All in all, the process of finding how we identify with a theme, scene, or character in the film, and then sharing that through visual art was something I’ve never done before. It was rewarding to watch my fellow Youth Corps artists create and express their experience with the production from start to finish. Most of our conversations revolved around the film and story. More often than not, one of us broke out singing our favorite West Side Story song and it was always fun to have a spontaneous sing-along.
Like the Converse sneaker, the story told in the film will always be relatable. I never knew how connected I felt to this narrative and the characters until I worked on this project. I cherish that and I look forward to seeing how other institutions have interpreted their connection to West Side Story in March.