By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Every artist has their favorite medium, maybe even a favorite canvas. For Peoria, Illinois artist Justin Fenwick, his chosen “canvas” is the leather uppers of Nike athletic shoes. For the past eight years, Justin (who goes by the professional name “Donk’e Punch”) has channeled all of his creative energy into transforming simple sneakers into one-of-a-kind works of art.
Justin grew up in Peoria in a family rich with creative people. His father was an early adopter of video and was one of the first in the area doing wedding videography. A number of Justin’s uncles are also in creative businesses. His closest influence may have come from cousin Darius Donaldson, a local artist and car customizer. Justin remembers “doing art” of one type or another from as early as first or second grade. “Art helps you develop,” he said. “It makes you who you are.”
He first got interested in the sneaker culture when the Nike Air Jordan came out. Most shoes were only available in black or white, but he’d occasionally see other colors or shoes with decorative designs. He wondered where they came from, at first assuming that they were only available in big cities like Los Angeles. When he started learning about people who specialized in customizing shoes, he decided to apply his artistic talents to shoes.
There weren’t any instruction manuals, so he learned through trial and error. Most of the materials and processes he uses today aren’t related to shoes or leather at all, but they work exceptionally well for Justin. Lately, he has worked on expanding his techniques to be able to do some disassembly and reassembly of the shoes, such as removing the tongue in order to work on it separately.
Justin’s work has received quite a bit of notoriety, including commissions for some high-profile clients such as boxer Floyd Mayweather. But one of his most unusual experiences happened while he was visiting friends in Los Angeles. He and his friends went to a restaurant for supper and he noticed a store next door advertising custom shoes. When he went to check it out, he discovered the store was displaying photos of two of his own shoes as if they were their own. Considering the theory that imitation is the greatest form of flattery saying, “You’ve got to be on the right pathway if people steal your stuff”. He also learned to be more careful to include his “Donk’e Punch” credit on any photo’s he posts online.
Justin is meticulous in his art. He doesn’t use any masking in his designs, preferring instead to just work carefully. His approach to art echoes his approach to life. “I load boxes on trucks at work and I take pride in my work,” he said. “When I stack boxes in a truck, they’re all aligned. That’s art crossing over into my everyday life. I try to be as good a person as I can be every day. Anything you put yourself into, strive to be the best.”
When he first started working with sneakers, Justin set five goals for himself. Today, he feels he’s achieved three of them. One of his remaining goals is for his work to be recognized as art instead of fashion. “I’d love to see them sitting in a gallery and presented as art,” he said.
“I used to have elements of depression,” he said, “but art pushes those things off. If you’re only doing things for money, then there’s always going to be an up and a down. Art takes out those roadblocks. I don’t think about things like “I can’t do that.” I think about making it.”