Kickin’ It with Jill Forie: Activist, Teacher, and Sneaker Artist
When you look down at your sneakers, what do you see? Are they pristine and brightly colored, or worn in with scuffed-up toes? When Jill Forie looks at a pair of sneakers, she sees a canvas. Combining this unique medium with her natural talent as an artist, Forie started Sink or Swim Custom Kicks, an established custom sneaker company since 2009. After gaining recognition through friends involved in the alternative music scene, Sink or Swim has developed an international base of customers through social media networking. Recently, Forie made use of her passion for shoes and traveled to Haiti to distribute sneakers to those in need. Forie’s go-getter attitude and zeal for life have proven rewarding, and her success is proof that pursuing your passions and pursuing a career can be one in the same. Jill opened up to Teen Voices about her art, her service trip to Haiti, and what it means to sink or swim.
Teen Voices (TV): What inspired you to start Sink or Swim Custom Kicks?
Jill Forie (JF): Shoe painting, for me, doesn’t have a “once upon a time.” Painting on just about anything I wanted to is something I’ve always done—and when I want to do something, I do it. I’ve always had a love for sneakers, but in high school I started to crave more from my footwear. Nothing about the shoes I saw in stores really stood out. I started looking into patterned and printed sneakers, but I was unimpressed. So, I said if they’re not going to make something worth buying, then I’m going to make something that’s worth wearing. Painting the first pair was an interesting and indeterminate process, but at the time, I was satisfied with the result. I still have them; they’re awful! But the more shoes I made, the more requests I got from onlookers.
TV: Is there a story behind the company’s name?
JF: I actually went through a bunch of names before I settled on Sink or Swim. They all had the similar “do-or-die” attitude. I chose Sink or Swim based on a natural instinct. It just felt right and described me as a person. It is a simple, but important philosophy that I live by. If you want to do something, get up and do it with all of your heart, and don’t regret it. I’d rather take the risk and fail, than play it safe. At the end of the day, it’s your choice to sink or to swim.
TV: What made you choose painting sneakers as your primary artistic medium?
JF: I actually ask myself the same question! It started as a distraction in high school. I’d sit with my legs crossed so I could reach the side of my shoe and start doodling so I wouldn’t have to pay attention in chemistry. And now, at this point, I’ve gotten so used to painting on shoes as my primary canvas that I have trouble finding a starting point on a regular flat canvas or piece of paper. I enjoy the limitations that the shoes offer. I appreciate the challenge of creating the design around the shape of the shoe.
TV: Who are your customers, how do they find out about you, and how do you decide what the theme is for each pair of sneakers—is that your choice or theirs?
JF: The coolest thing about my customers is that they come from all over the world. The theme is their choice. After all, it’s a custom pair of shoes made just for them.
TV: What are your favorite things to paint? Do you have a favorite pair of sneakers you’ve created?
JF: I love horror movies, so anything in that genre I’m stoked on! I’d have to say, my favorite pair is based around the movie The Shining. I also love when people give me a general theme or a song lyric and tell me to just bring it all to life. I enjoy giving customers their exact requests, but the true joy of this business comes when they trust my artistry enough to work from their general ideas. I feel my best work comes out when I can be connected to what’s going on with the shoe.
TV: Have you seen your sneakers featured in unusual places? What’s the most exciting thing to come from your business?
JF: Yes, actually! The most recent exciting feature was in the Glee movie. Josie, a repeat customer, had a pair of Glee shoes made and because of her dedication to the franchise, she made it into the movie and showed off her kicks. Glee is my guilty pleasure (shh!); so you can imagine my excitement! There have been numerous times when I’ve spotted someone wearing the shoes I’ve made or I’ve received a call from a friend saying that they saw someone wearing a pair.
There was one particular incident where I was at LAX [the Los Angeles International Airport] visiting a friend in California, and a girl walking through the terminal was wearing a pair of shoes I had made her. I freaked her out when I came running over to her while pointing at her feet and yelling, “I made those!”
The most exciting thing to come from all of this is the many people I’ve gotten to know. I’m based in New York, but I’ve shipped shoes all over the world from California to Chile, and even all the way to China. I try to talk to my customers as more than customers. I like to hear about what life is like for them. Most of the time, their stories inspire me to one day visit their country.
TV: What’s a typical day like for you? Is it hard to balance your career as an art teacher with the upkeep of your company?
JF: It can definitely be tiresome, but there’s not a single day that goes by that makes me question what I do for a living. I teach art at the Carle Place School District on Long Island. My day starts in the elementary school teaching second graders, and then the rest of my day is spent in the high school. I lucked out on being able to teach opposite levels. I absolutely adore all of my students. After work, I try to hit the gym a few times a week, relax for a few, enjoy a cup of
TV: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work as an artist?coffee with my best friend, play with my dog, and then I begin Sink or Swim work. Some days, I’ll drop all responsibility and go on an adventure. It’s important to take a break once in a while.
JF: That people care! Something I never thought I’d receive in life is “fan mail,” and I get it fairly often. I don’t think I’m doing anything special here. I find that it’s really important to work hard, but it’s more important to stay humble. I’d say the most rewarding aspect thus far is when I’m told that I’ve inspired someone.
TV: What made you decide to visit Haiti in April, and what did you hope to accomplish during your trip?
JF: Curiosity, I suppose. I love to travel, but I’m not the “lay-on-the-beach-at-a-resort” type. I wanted to experience the lives of others and help if needed. I felt that going to Haiti would be really rewarding for me, as well as anyone I could help. The objective of my trip was distributing donated shoes to the local people. I sized them and found each person a suitable pair of shoes. Unfortunately, certain diseases are common in Haiti and being barefoot increases the risk of contracting these diseases, so I wanted to help by decreasing the risk. I especially looked forward to working with the children and interacting with them.
TV: Was this your first service trip? Are you planning on making more visits in the future?
JF: Yes, this was my first experience, but I can already tell it won’t be the last. I have a long list of places I want to go.
TV: Can you tell us more about your trip to Haiti?
JF: To sum up the experience into one word, I'd have to call it powerful…I was surrounded by physical devastation and poverty, while simultaneously being engulfed by a stunningly beautiful geographic landscape inhabited with beautiful people. The most powerful aspect of my trip was the interactions with locals, especially the children. As a teacher, working with children—whether they’re age five or fifteen—is in my nature. I enjoyed witnessing how vastly similar my students are to the kids I met in Haiti. When I explain to someone what I was doing over there, they seem surprised to hear that our cause was so "small." The reason I call it small is because most groups you hear about that are going to Haiti are building schools or churches, rebuilding the damage caused by the earthquake, or opening medical clinics. In comparison to those causes, no, we are not working on a large scale. But we are still making a large impact.
One moment that I hold dear to me is a conversation I had while on a walk with two of my group members through Fermath, where we were staying. We ran into the principal of the school where we had distributed shoes that morning. His name is France and he is 27 years old. He is making his way through a local college program and admits to knowing nothing about education, let alone how to run a school. He is merely a figurehead and one of the very few who speaks English. His smile was contagious; just looking at him and the animated expressions on his face made me smile back without thinking about it. He told us that what we do seems simple, but the word had spread through the village about how much it means to all of them that we were there.
Even for those who didn’t get a pair of shoes, to spend time and experience a detour in their normal routine was appreciated. These people work day and night to provide the best life that they can to their families. The average Haitian family makes $730 a year. That is a number nearly impossible to fathom, yet most people I encountered there smiled just as brightly as they would in France. This is their life and they are happy to live it. The earthquake devastated Haiti, but it did not break the Haitian people. They are strong, they are brave, and most of all they are appreciative of the help that’s been given to them. France said, “You are our sunshine and if you cannot stay forever, I hope you will always come back to us.” I made him a promise to return to Haiti, and I fully intend to live up to it. The cliché, "You'll never understand it until you put yourself there," is completely true. The trip was only five days, but it impacted my life forever.
TV: What are your ultimate goals in your work as a humanitarian?
JF: I have a love and genuine appreciation for life. I want to see the world, and if I can help people while I do that, I can’t ask for much more. Children are the most important to me. Unfortunately, many children all over the world live in poverty, surrounded by disease and violence. Their living conditions don’t allow for education or opportunity. Innocence and hope are essential in childhood and the thought that these children lose those vital aspects of their youth is heartbreaking. My ultimate goal is to work with children and help maintain their innocence and positivity.
TV: Do you have any advice for teen artists looking to get started on an art project of their own?
JF: I work with teenagers every day and there’s an artist within each of them. One of my favorite quotes that I constantly tell my students is, “The most important aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” As I said before, life is about your ability to sink or swim. You have to first accept how important it is to make mistakes. At the end of the day, I believe that life isn’t about avoiding the storm, but rather, about learning how to dance in the rain. If you have an idea, make it a reality. Never let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough, or that you’re wasting your time. Swim, don’t sink!
For more information, and to see more images of Jill Forie’s art, visit her Tumblr, MySpace, and Facebook pages. Look for more girls who rock their kicks in the Teen Voices Spring/Summer 2012 print magazine.
Photos by Katy Erickson
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