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Wrangell students’ shoe designs win their high school $15,000, with a chance to triple the prize

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Vans shoes designed and painted by Wrangell High School art students on display in the front window of a downtown Wrangell business. (Photo by: Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Along Wrangell’s Front Street, almost every store has the same sign in its front window. “VOTE TO HELP WIN $50,000 FOR THE WHS ART PROGRAM,” it says. “VOTE FOR WRANGELL EVERY DAY UNTIL MAY 6.” The signs have pictures of two pairs of painted Vans shoes. The signs are miniaturized and taped to every till at the grocery stores in town.

“I’m so excited. I’m just…” junior Paige Baggen buries her face in her hands and groans. Her classmates laugh. Baggen led the group of Wrangell art students that entered this year’s Vans Custom Culture Contest, where high schools design shoes to represent hometown pride and the legacy of one of the Vans founders.

The endeavor paid off: Wrangell was first accepted into the group of 250 competing schools, then the Top 50 schools nationwide, and after a public vote, made the Top 5 designs in the United States.

“It feels really, really good that everybody else in the community also thinks that art is just as important as I think it is,” Baggen says. “All the community support… It’s really easy when you’re in the bubble of just going to school, going home, doing homework, going to school, and the art program is suffering so much, it’s really easy to be like, ‘Oh, no one cares about art.’ But no, so many other people feel exactly the same way I do. So many people think it’s so important.”

Wrangell community members made social media groups to remind people to vote each day for the Wrangell students’ shoe designs, and posted those “Vote Wrangell” signs all over town.

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A Vans box in the Wrangell High School art room. (Photo by: Sage Smiley / KSTK)

The two pairs of shoes – one pair with Wrangell sunset scenes, another with Tlingit-inspired formline art, beading, marten fur and buttons – are proudly displayed in the window of a downtown Wrangell business.

“Just to see how the community has come together, all the support was really, really exciting,” Baggen says.

Former Wrangell students and community members spread the voting link coast to coast. Southeast’s regional Native corporation Sealaska and Alaska-grown rock band Portugal. The Man shared Wrangell’s shoe designs. News organizations all over the state shared stories about Wrangell’s shoes. Some students even got to meet U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who posted a video with them on her social media.

The students say they feel like Wrangell’s success in this nationwide competition is an underdog story. Some of the Top 50 schools come from communities of hundreds of thousands of people. Generously, Wrangell has about 2,300 people on the whole island. Here’s senior Rowen Wiederspohn.

“It’s great to see that even with a small community, you can win a people’s vote,” Wiederspohn says. “It really just shows that all you really have to do to succeed in life is to try.”

Art teacher Tasha Morse agrees.

“You have to dare to try, you have to dare to make mistakes, you have to put your neck out there. And that’s what all of us have done,” Morse says. “Nationwide to be in the Top 5 is astronomical. We have a high school population of 62 children.”

The art students spent hours brainstorming about what makes Wrangell special, then poured that into the design of two pairs of shoes, and Morse says she thinks it shows. The painted shoes have gained the school and the students wider attention than she ever thought was possible. She says when she got the email that Wrangell made the Top 5 schools, she burst into tears.

“It’s really, really exciting. Completely surreal. This is probably like the most surreal thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Morse says. “These kinds of things happen to other people, other people go on game shows and when many other people win contests, other people do this. It’s not something that happens to people like us here at Wrangell, you know, it just feels really surreal.”

Baggen, the lead artist for the shoes, says that she doesn’t feel like it’s a competition, really, now they’ve made the Top 5 schools – all of them deserve to be there. Plus, each Top 5 school wins $15,000 for its art program.

“$15,000 is an astronomical sum,” Baggen says. “We get $500 a year [for art supplies], if we wanted to save up $15,000, it would take us 30 years. So having this much money right now is literally a dream come true. It’s crazy for us.”

Baggen continues: “I was reading all the impact documents from the other schools and they were like, ‘We’re gonna build a new computer lab filled with iMacs, and we’re going to create a new department and blah, blah, blah.’ We set out being like, ‘I hope we get some money so we can buy some new paints, or some new paintbrushes.”

High school senior Sophia Hagelman says one of the best parts of the experience is the opportunity to feel like they’re giving back to the school in a meaningful way.

“I’ve seen where teachers had to use their personal money to buy new products and items that the school just can’t afford,” Hagelman says, “So this would be really good to have because then they don’t have to use all their personal money on things they shouldn’t have to buy.”

Junior Cassady Cowan says she feels like the Vans Custom Culture competition has put Wrangell on the map.

“You have to tell someone where we are, point us out [on a map],” Cowan says, “Just a little island turned into something bigger, look where we ended up.”

As one of the Top 5 schools in the Vans Custom Culture competition this year, Wrangell has already won $15,000 for its art program, and is still in the running to win the $50,000 grand prize. The top school also will win a visit from Vans officials and a school-wide barbecue, among other prizes. The winner of this year’s competition will be announced next week, the week of May 16.

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