'A Shoe Drawing Saved My Life' Interview + Portraits with Demetrius Mensah
Where the Magic HappensI can feel the sweat pooling around my back as I search for the correct apartment number. It’s hot out. I’m in a suburb of Portland, in an apartment complex where all the units are uniform and a generic color of brown. But the conversation I am about to have is anything but generic.
I met Demetrius last year when I took portraits of him at Laurelhurst park in Portland. He has a very calming and grounding presence when you meet him. Authenticity and interest radiate from him. He just moved into his new apartment a few days prior and there are still boxes needing to be unpacked, but his studio is set up.
This is where the magic happens. He thumbs through a folder that houses his drawings of shoes he has dreamed up from his head. He also digs through a suitcase that is filled with custom and original shoes and lines them up one by one on his desk to show me. It’s the beginning of summer, and so we go outside and sit on his deck. I ask him to start at the beginning, how did he get connected with shoes?
"A Shoe Drawing Saved My Life"“It’s a long story no matter what”, he says with a huge grin. The story begins pretty heavy. "Back when I was 12, I moved to a new school district. I was an outsider and faced a lot of harassment. …I found myself alone in the kitchen with a knife to my wrist, ready to kill myself.”
But in that moment he thought about a shoe drawing. “When I was drawing it, I was behind every line. No one was making me cry or telling me I was a piece of shit. It was my happy place.” He tells me how he put the knife down and began drawing insistently.
Soon, his peers began wanting custom shoe drawings and he started selling shoe drawings for 25 cents. It made him feel cool and accepted.
The next year he started to think about making some of these drawings come to life. He tells me he started by putting different laces in shoes. He pauses and walks inside, fumbles through a box and pulls out a 4x6 photo that looks like it’s from a disposable camera. You can easily recognize him, he still has the same wide eyes and pursed lips. “It was an original selfie”, he says as he laughs. He continues to hold onto the photo in his hands for the remainder of our talk, his long fingers bending and straightening the photo. It seems to be a token of when creativity and expression became tangible for him.
From High School Designs to AdidasHe first started customizing shoes at 16 years old. His passion kept growing and eventually launched his own business, Groundbreaker Customs, during his senior year in high school. He moved to college on a full ride scholarship from the Department of the Navy to join Marquette University’s nROTC program for the Marines, but was still customizing on the side. He was getting requests from the basketball team, and eventually people starting calling him “that shoe guy” on campus. That’s his Twitter handle now.
He was so consumed by creativity and shoes that he eventually dropped the marines scholarship, “It’s not where my heart was at. A shoe drawing saved my life and I needed to explore that route to the fullest. I needed to see where it took me. The way i see it, I’d be dead otherwise.”
The following summer he came out to the Nike campus, met designers and fell in love with the idea of Portland. He moved a year later, started attending the Art Institute of Portland and worked as a daycare teacher; but quickly realized he was beginning to get comfortable and complacent. He felt like he needed to make a change. “It’s not what I moved out here for. I was getting complacent and I don't think there is a better time to start making a change than when you first acknowledge it. That feeling is not going to go away.”
He left working at the preschool to devote his time to running GroundBreaker Customs which was in it’s 6th year, but ultimately shut down the business shortly after to focus on building a new structure for the brand. He eventually found himself couch surfing for nine months. Being homeless was a new low for him, but then remembered the lowest point at 12 years old in the kitchen. He glances up at me, and I can see his eyes poking out through his hair, “I’d think about how I had been at that point before and swore I’d never go back.”
He tried to get in at Nike but was told his business was a conflict of interest. Then a door opened at adidas, and he tells me, “I am eternally grateful. They showed me not only that it was ok to keep creating, but they encouraged it, and presented numerous platforms and opportunities for me to do it.” He is currently a freelance artist and is gearing to launch his new design house.
Custom Shoe: Ahustin's LegacyI ask him to tell me about an original design that is special to him, he responds immediately- “Ahustin’s Legacy”. Ahustin Crawford was a close friend of his that he knew from Pensole Footwear Design Academy located in Portland, OR. He passed away from a disease the doctors were unable to identify or treat. It was a blow to Demetrius and he wanted to create a shoe to do right by Ahustin and his family.
He brings the design to life on an adidas Yeezy 750, specifically the famous “Glow In The Dark” base. He tells me, “I’d be looked at as crazy for customizing these shoes, when people would kill for them. But Ahustin was a special person, and I wanted something special for his shoes."
The concept is that one shoe is done, and the other looks unfinished. This is to represent a life that was incomplete. Also, each shoe is hand painted with the pattern of a fingerprint. It took him over 60 hours to complete the painting alone, but he wanted to create something that speaks to individuality because no two fingerprints are the same. He plans on selling the design and donating money to research the mystery disease that eventually took Ahustin’s life.
The Four PrinciplesAs we chat about his journey, I ask him what keeps him motivated and moving forward. Life in a creative industry is anything but conventional or easy.
He holds out his arm and points to four lines tattooed on his arm, "these represent the four principles that my father taught me and my brothers.
“1. Know who you are
2. Know what you’re about
3. Know what you’re doing
4. Know why you’re doing it."
He says he looks down at this often and it keeps him grounded. Right now it’s a transition period for him, and he always remembers there is a light at the end. “If you know where you want to be, what you have to offer, you know your work ethic, you know what you’re doing and what you’re putting out there, then you gotta be confident that with time your work is going to get you there.”
He hits the nail on the head when he begins talking about the special feeling everyone has when you really like the shoes on your feet. It just makes you feel GOOD, “Being able to provide the only pair that exists and having people tell you how that inspires them- that’s enough to keep going.”
Demetrius reminds me that everyone has a story and everyone has hardships. To the public eye, he successfully customizes and designs shoes. But behind all that amazing, creative work, is a person who has fought long and hard to get to where he is now. He is ruthless in the pursuit of a creative life.