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Artist Ben Smith takes to a different canvas with his designs

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

It must be something to be in Ben Smith's shoes.

Because people are trying to get into them.

They are scooping up pairs of exquisite, hand-painted sneakers crafted by the 21-year-old Natrona Heights resident.

Men about town have taken notice.

The Penguins' Max Talbot bought "Le Frog" Vans slip-ons. It features a motif of the sleek, nearly neon-green amphibian designed as one image half painted on each sneaker, a hallmark of Smith's designs.

"I love Ben's shoes," says Talbot, who commissioned Smith to design a pair for a friend. Additionally, Talbot enlisted the artist to help with his recently launched foundation benefiting children. Smith, a self-taught artist, describes his painting style as "tattoo-esque yet traditional," which is evident in his brand, Brush Footwear. One of his lines is based on primitive masks.

Talbot discovered Smith's custom shoes about four months ago in the South Side offices of Blue Tomato Design, where Smith left a pair of his painted sneakers for the website design for his shoe business.

Talbot was there for a meeting unrelated to shoes or Smith, but he saw Smith's painted sneakers.

"(Talbot) put them on and he walked out with them," Smith recalls.

And the working relationship between the athlete and artist has thrived.

"Ben was instrumental as my foundation was taking shape," Talbot says. "He worked and reworked to design the perfect logo," he says of Smith's open-hand logo for his recently launched foundation.

But then just as things seemed impossibly perfect, Smith hit a snag with his fledgling business.

Instead of buying the Vans line of slip-on sneakers, Smith ordered 1,500 pair of his brand of Brush line of slip-ons from China.

"When the order arrived, it didn't match the quality of the sample they gave me," Smith says.

So there he was, stuck with 1,500 pairs of slip-ons.

Talbot found out, turned around the mishap and used the shoes for a fundraiser for his foundation to benefit children in Haiti.

After an early November practice, Talbot and a handful of other players hand painted pairs of shoes with the Penguins logo and other designs.

It gets even better.

Smith upped the ante more, and suggested that Talbot not only use the shoes but that he also invite the Penguins and others to paint on them and auction them off.

After an early November practice, Talbot and a handful of other players hand-painted pairs of shoes with the Penguins logo and other designs.

It gets better.

Now Talbot's foundation is working with children who paint their art on the shoes before shipment to Haiti.

This is just the beginning for Smith, whose Brush website was launched last month to showcase his artful shoes that typically sell for $400 to $600.

"It's a luxury item," he says.

Although there are a lot of sneakers customizers out there, Smith says his niche is painting on the Vans slip-ons.

He has been painting his sneakers since middle school, becoming a tattoo artist at Highlands High School, where he offered his skin artistry to willing friends.

But it was the paint on the shoes that stuck.

"I always wanted different sneakers from anybody else," he says. His classic go-to shoe design is a tattoo-style illustration of a human skull with each foot displaying an eye socket.

And it has taken years for Smith to find just the right acrylic-base paints that resist the elements, fading and cracking.

"There's a market out there," he says.

Smith describes his mission as bringing traditional arts like painting to fashion.

Working out of his art studio in Buffalo Township, Smith is getting ready for an art show in New York, with plans to display more of his shoes at future shows.

"I'll be busy," he says. "There's a whole sneaker culture out there."

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