At the Intersection of Art, Sneakers, and Puzzles
Written by Creative Ruth & Leon Bernard / January 25th, 2023
Pop Culture lives in her single dad’s basement cause she can’t afford rent yet. Down there, the space is unlimited, but there’s not much she can find to entertain herself. The phone reception is bad, so staring at a screen for hours and receiving 30-second shots of fleeting joy is not an option. Instead, she has a bunch of big boxes with old books and pictures lying around. Any other kid would ignore them and avoid the boredom of their parent’s past. But Time raised his daughter to be strong and inquisitive. She would pick up the boxes and sit on them for days, browsing through centuries of human artistic expression. Then, after getting enough information, she would leave the room to present the world with her creation: a new form of cultural obsession.
Isn’t that what Pop Culture is? A defying force that constantly transforms the meaning of art through the eras of our civilization.
Keep that thought on your mind as we travel back in time to discover the intersecting paths of classical painting, Nike sneakers, and global culture materialized in the form of a jigsaw puzzle by Kathy Ager and Soonness.
By the second half of the 17th century, the baroque art style was flourishing all over Europe. The grandiosity of extremely detailed depictions of deep-colored scenes where motion was suspended gained a particular interest in Spain, a place not yet known for bulls and people running from them like crazy; but for being a catholic empire.
Photo above: Vanitas Still Life (1668) by Maria van Oosterwijck, Public domain.
From that point on, the baroque got viral, and the Spaniards jumped on the trend. They created their own theme using techniques meant to evoke greatness but applying them to everyday objects. They called it bodegón. That’s how we got those realistic-looking paintings of fruits, vegetables, and recently killed animals on display. They can also be a little disturbing by our modern standards, but we’re not here to judge.
Meanwhile, in other parts of Europe, like the Netherlands and Belgium, people were being more dramatic. Those guys were expressing their nihilism with vanitas still life paintings; another theme using the same style but representing vanity and the certainty of death. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get too philosophical. We’re getting to the sneakers, I promise.
BTW: The origin of the jigsaw puzzles goes pretty far too. In 1760 John Spilsbury, a British cartographer mounted a map over a sheet of wood, then used a marquetry saw to cut along the border of the countries. The idea was to use it as a learning tool for students, challenging them to put the map back together. Those were the first puzzles, although their original name was dissections. Catchy, right?
The paintings of the baroque era are the fastest to pop into our heads when the term classical art comes to mind. Now, classic is a heavy word; it carries the weight of time. For a lot of people, it is the mark of a frozen piece of history, something so good it should not be tinkered with. But what happens when someone challenges our common beliefs? What if one person could hack our classically formatted brains with a pop culture virus?
That hacker exists. Her name is Kathy Ager, and she’s ready to graffiti the walls of your 11th-century cathedral of preconceived notions about art.
Come on Baby Let’s Do the Twist
Kathy is a late-bloomer artist. She started as a graphic designer, which can be close to art but not necessarily. There was a time when ad agencies recruited illustrators to be designers and writers to be copywriters. Over time, those roles specialized, becoming less about artistic sensitivity and more about mass appeal. That’s the world Kathy knew when she started her professional career. The painting came after about a decade of corporate branding and packaging design. It was a form of distraction while going through a period of health recovery accompanied only by her cat.
Not long after picking up the paintbrush. Ager found herself painting in the classic style of her baroque heroes from Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Then she added a twist. What if a still life painting, with all its crude greatness and frozen motion, was made today? And how would the objects of our fascination be represented if they had existed 300 years ago?
Photo above: Paintings by Kathy Ager- The Emptiest Vessel makes the Loudest Sound (left) / Hard Fruit (right)
The answer was a dead white rooster hanging from a leg over a turntable with unfinished cigarettes and a copy of Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder, among other vinyl records. Or an arrangement of billiard balls surrounded by leaves of some kind in a ceramic bowl. Or a pair of Nike Dunk Low sneakers hanging from their laces over some seashells while a monarch butterfly sits on the right shoe. This last description belongs to one of Kathy’s culture-crossing oil paintings. It’s called Gone Coastal, and since 2022, it’s also been a limited edition Soonness puzzle.
BTW: This is the artist’s first puzzle. It has 1,000 pieces and is made using recycled cardboard. She says it’s “for those days when you just want to lay in the grass, stare into the clouds and drift away.” We all need more days like those.
New York Skateboarding Kids
Ager’s work tells a story about our obsession with brands and how their products infiltrate history and culture. Just like the Nike Dunk sneakers did, although they almost didn’t. Let’s talk a little about this shoe model so central in the Gone Coastal unique puzzle artwork and pop culture.
In 1985, basketball was huge. The NBA was tearing down walls of language and reaching fans in every corner of the world. And by the 90s, everybody fantasized about being a Chicago Bulls player; every kid wanted to be Michael Jordan.
So it made sense for Nike to spend those R&D dollars on products for the main league and its fans. And even though they were already doing that with the Air Jordan I, the decision was made to launch the Nike Dunk High in the same year. However, the sneakers did not reach the status of fame through the professional league. Instead, they became successful among college students. This was possible thanks to the campaign “Be True To Your School.” The idea behind it was to provide kids a way to show their sense of belonging, offering them sneakers with the color scheme of their schools and teams. And it worked, the marketing move led to some big points. Students were buying Nike Dunks to honor their teams, and some colleges even made them their official shoes.
Photo above: From an article 'An Ode To Nike’s Most Iconic Marketing Campaign' by Ox Street Magazine
The initial push lasted for a while, but by the start of the 90s, they had fallen out of grace. It seemed the Dunks were not going to become relevant after all. Enter the New York skateboarding kids. This demographic was not interested in big corporation brands, they only wanted to skate with comfortable but affordable shoes. Lucky for them, the Nike Dunk Lows were there to meet the demand. They weren’t popular anymore, so they became cheap and perfect for kickflipping, handrail grinding, and annoying older people.
It took a while for the company to understand skateboarding culture; but once they did, by the turn of the century, the door to global culture opened and the Dunks came sliding right in. With regular artist collaborations, the brand stayed fresh. And with the commitment to make every model a limited edition, came a new kind of buyer, the sneakerhead.
A Vehicle for Art
With the sneakerheads, the game changed. They brought a different perspective and a new mindset: the collector mentality. This niche found artistic value and beauty in sneakers, and that made them worth collecting; like baseball cards, books, or music stored on physical media. Remember those? If you do, take a break to feel nostalgic about vinyl records, cassettes, or CDs.
Back to the subject. A sneakerhead I talked to said he has been collecting sneakers since 2013. He finds in them a link to his childhood when the NBA and Michael Jordan were his biggest obsessions. So there is an emotional attachment on top of the cool factor sneakers provided him growing up as a 90s kid. I asked why his collection was almost completely made with Nikes, and he said, “Because that’s the brand I love.” It’s true, he shares their philosophy and likes the way they communicate. He celebrates when sports teams change sponsorship deals from Adidas to Nike and feels sorry for the ones that don’t. But most importantly, he praises the Nike logo as the greatest example of brand design in history. That’s an important insight. It brings us back to Kathy Ager’s work. For better or worse, brands have the power to create cults, but we only follow the ones we love.
BTW: In the 1930s, amid the American Depression, retailers would give away free jigsaw puzzles with the purchase of products like toothbrushes, flashlights, and hundreds of other goods. Not a bad marketing idea to have people build your brand, literally.
Photo above: Gone Coastal Puzzle Packaging by SOONNESS
In the case of Gone Coastal, the shoe model and the title of the artwork are both parts of the interpretation game. You have the still life painting showing that magnificent contrast of old-style scenery and modern objects. A blue sky filled with fluffy clouds serves as the background, while a gray concrete frame sets your eyes in the center, so you can appreciate the seashells and the yellow butterfly matching the color of the logo on a pair of light blue sneakers named Nike Dunk Low “Coast.” There’s no doubt about it, Kathy went coastal.
The treasure-hunting mindset of a sneakerhead reminds me of another term familiar to the readers of this blog. You know where I’m going; I’m talking about the hauls. The proud booty of a puzzle store sailor that, after a successful buying journey, comes home to stack those precious boxes so they can be ready for a beautiful social media post.
We don’t call puzzlers “puzzleheads,” but we might as well start doing it. This is a community of obsessive collectors, all constantly looking for ways to optimize the space in the closet, shelf, or whatever kind of furniture is available to fill with puzzle boxes.
Photo by @puzzlefrenzy: Marching Spring by Helen Dardik, Reflections by Jess Chen, Treasure Hunters by Frenemy, Gone Coastal by Kathy Ager, Good Vibes Only by Humberto Cruz (aka iscreamcolour)
It all makes sense. Jigsaw puzzles provide a vehicle for art, the same way Nike Dunks are a canvas for artistic expressions of identity and community. Art itself is always looking for a new platform, and often, it wants to be preserved. So, why not do it in a deconstructed form inside a cardboard box stored at the house of a puzzlehead?
Get to know the Author: Creative Ruth & Leon Bernard
Ruth is a graphic designer/puzzler. Leon is a writer/musician. Together, they make content for puzzle lovers in English and Spanish under her brand name, Creative Ruth. She builds the puzzles, and he assists her with writing and creative production. In their small apartment; Ruth, Leon, and Michelle (their cat) live a "creatively dynamic life." Meaning their living room is also a music studio, a puzzle building room, and a cat playground at the same time.