Dozens of colorful sketches line the walls of Jennifer Ireland’s art and fashion class at Indio High School. In an apparent homage to Roy Lichtenstein, a blonde woman kisses a square-jawed man with sleek black hair. Next to it, a series of repeated portraits in shades of red and black could allude to Andy Warhol.

Maybe some Irish students are inspired by famous artists. This spring, they are the inspiration for their high school and the city of Indio.

Six of the Irish students worked together over the weekend for two months to design two pairs of custom Vans skate shoes in a bid to raise money for their high school arts programs.

Vans High School Custom Culture was created to empower students to express their creativity through art and design and bring attention to shrinking art education budgets. It’s an important cause for Ireland and Indio High School principal Derrick Lawson, who sets a discretionary arts budget to be used “where and when he can”, according to the Desert Sands Unified School District.

Team Indio’s designs have been selected from 50 national finalists, and the public has until May 6 to vote for the contest winners. One school will take home a grand prize of $50,000 and several others will win $15,000. People can vote online at

“They represent us very well nationally,” said Indio Pro Tem Mayor Oscar Ortiz, who also works as an educator at Indio High.

If Indio High wins the competition, Ireland said it would like to use the money to buy new digital equipment, organize field trips out of the valley and set up a scholarship for art students.

“We have students accepted into top art schools, but they can’t afford to go,” Ireland said.

The themes of the contest are hometown pride and the four pillars of Vans: action sports, art, music and street culture. So the Indio team hand-crafted a pair of sneakers for each theme – hometown pride and the four pillars of Vans.

Their designs offer a romantic vision of Indio as a festival city, an apt moniker following three straight weekends of song and dance at the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals.

A sneaker features the festival’s signature sculptures, “Colossal Cacti”, by Andrew Kovacs. The seven bright and colorful cacti once appeared at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and now adorn downtown Indio.

Indio High School students design and paint blank vans for the Hometown Pride-themed Vans High School Custom Culture contest, Indio, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. Victor Mariscal holds a shoe depicting the art installation ÒColossal CactiÓ by Office Kovacs.  The art installation is now on public display in downtown Indio after premiering at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

Another sneaker depicts a hot air balloon soaring in orange and sky blue skies over purple mountains (although nearby Cathedral City hosts an annual hot air balloon festival). The heel of this shoe is painted in full-bodied shades of red and blue, the colors of Indio High School. Students also reference the Date Festival and the Coachella Valley’s signature palm tree.

The contest’s mission resonates with Ireland, a self-proclaimed introverted artist, who, after years of teaching in high school, recognizes when an anxious teenager may feel more comfortable expressing themselves through art than face to face. with another person.

Indio High School students designed and painted blank vans for the Hometown Pride-themed Vans High School Custom Cropping Contest, Indio, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

“When you’re an art kid, a lot of schools don’t match who you are,” Ireland said.

Thus, she treats her classroom as a sanctuary – a place where she encourages students to practice freedom of expression and think outside the box – skills that are not necessarily nurtured by other elements of a learning system. public education that relies heavily on standardized test scores based on a standardized curriculum to measure student achievement.

“Being able to work on creative expression in a group is so important,” Lawson said. “We’ve moved into a market with a lot of collaborative skills, and the arts are really about developing those skills.”

Unlike many schools, Ireland says art is not about doing things right or wrong. But she has a critical eye and she has mastered the art of gently conveying constructive feedback to young artists by honing their creative voice.

During the design process, she marveled when seemingly shy children spoke up to defend their sketches, collaborate with teammates, and fill blank canvases with splashes of color.

Turns out the kids aren’t shy at all.

“They’re not a quiet group when given space to be themselves,” Ireland said.

Indio High School students Alexa Lerma-Diaz, left, Betsabe Soria, Marlene Arriaga, Victor Mariscal and Jose Ortiz-Patraca pose for a photo with their blank designed and painted vans at the school in Indio, Calif., on Wednesday April 27, 2022. The custom designs were for the Hometown Pride themed Vans High School Custom Culture contest.

Initially, the band’s designs did not gel. They repeated over and over again. They knew they could do better.

“Having the strength to start over is quite a rare maturity,” Ireland said.

Early on, rookie Alexa Lerma-Diaz said she was “terrified to join” a team with upper class men. Then another freshman, Betsabe Soria, gave her the encouragement she needed.

Despite her young age, Soria exudes a nonchalant assurance. When the band’s designs didn’t work out, she said, “We stopped thinking about it and everything fell into place.”

That laid-back assurance rubbed off on Lerma-Diaz, who ended up leading the design with an oasis of palm trees and a humming hummingbird featured prominently on one of the sneakers. The team also includes a third rookie, Ashley Cortes Torres, as well as juniors Victor Mariscal and Jose Ortiz-Patraca and senior Marlene Arriaga.

Nature played a big role in their designs.

Indio High School students designed and painted blank vans for the Hometown Pride-themed Vans High School Custom Cropping Contest, Indio, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

The San Jacinto Mountains are visible from a large window in Ireland’s classroom. Over many evenings, the team studied the pastel hues of sunsets. Earthy beiges and browns of the mountains have made their way onto hometown pride shoes while cosmic blues and purples dominate the Vans culture pair.

“To see students able to conceptualize at this level is pretty amazing,” Ireland said.

Whatever the outcome of the competition, the group is satisfied with its work.

“It makes me happy that we did all of this in two months,” Mariscal said. “We’ve created something that makes me really proud of what we’ve done.”

Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Contact him at [email protected] or @Writes_Jonathan.