Overboard, and the Great Sneaker Spill

All dressed up and nowhere to go. Artist Andy Yoder was creating new art, inspired by the Great Sneaker Spill of 1990, for an exhibition at CulturalDC Mobile Art Gallery in the nation’s capitol. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans and the show was pushed to the spring of 2021. The delay became Vermont’s good fortune. The exhibition Overboard opened in October at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Brattleboro VT and will run until March 6, 2021.

The Great Sneaker Spill? It occurred on May 27, 1990 in the North Pacific Ocean, when a few dozen shipping containers fell off a cargo ship; at least 4 broke open, and scattered 61,280 Nike sneakers throughout the sea and eventually along various shorelines. The ecological disaster became a sort of cult happening as people scavenged the shoes and sold them as souvenirs. It also spawned at least one scientific study of ocean currents in the spillage area. And there’s this related tidbit, according to an interview with the artist in the New York Times:

It’s such a fascinating story. The oceanographer who started to follow the sneakers used them to collect all this data that led to an important study of ocean currents. It turns out they float. Their shape made them aerodynamic. The left shoes went one way, and the right shoes went another. (emphasis added)

For Overboard, Yoder recreated sneakers from repurposed materials he found in garbage dumpsters. (In the same NYT interview, he says he wears gloves to avoid “cooties” and has found treasures among the dross, like Tiffany boxes—empty, I assume— and Bruce Lee posters). Yoder hopes to address the issues of ocean pollution and consumerism in a visually appealing and accessible mode.

There’s a Vermont contingent among the 240 pieces in Overboard, including one sneaker inspired by Brattleboro’s historic Latchis Hotel (photo, top). The hotel contains a glorious theater from another, more glamorous age, fitting with Yoder’s interpretation in rich blue and gold tassel. Seeing the hotel/theater is worth the drive, but I recommend an overnight stay in this Art Deco wonder for the full effect. Another sneaker (photo, just above), inspired by the University of Vermont, appears to have found a new use for those wholesome college catalog photos.

Unlike most works exhibited at BMAC, Yoder’s sneakers are available for purchase, with proceeds split between the artist and the Museum.

Overboard has generated national and international interest in recent weeks, including the aforementioned coverage in The New York Times, as well as Smithsonian MagazineSports IllustratedMashable, the Italian publication Artribune, and the Austrian magazine Die Presse-Schaufenster. In an Observer article, Helen Holmes described Yoder’s sneakers as “both tongue-in-cheek and deadly serious; they’re as much engaging in consumer culture as they are rejecting it in search of something more meaningful.”

Want to know more? Artist Andy Yoder will be talking about his work on Thursday, December 10 at 7 p.m. on Zoom and Facebook. For further information, or to visit the exhibition online, check out the BMAC website. (All photos courtesy of Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.)

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Susan B. Apel retired from a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.