Josh “Wisdumb” Spivack has been a professional artist and sneaker customizer for over a decade. After customizing an Air Force I using his own experimental techniques, Spivack was approached by New Balance during his last year at The Museum School of Fine Arts, Boston to create a limited-release Artist Series sneaker. The result was the New Balance x Josh Wisdumb 574, nicknamed the Wisdumb Icicles, a pair of which is currently included in the touring exhibition, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture. Since his first collaboration, Spivack has created a critically acclaimed Air Jordan I custom, the Airwisdumb.
In terms of his studio practice, Spivack’s artworks range from large-scale gestural paintings to finely detailed pen-and-ink drawings, which he exhibits in group and solo exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world. In his most recent series, the artist layers thin washes of color and controlled ink renderings to create semi-abstracted, emotionally opaque figurative images.
In our studio visit, Spivack discussed his history of sneaker customizations, his artistic process, and how his recent move to Sweden has affected his work.
When you received the New Balance commission you were still in school. How did that come about, and what was it like to work with a major brand like New Balance so early in your career?
I have always had a strong liking for sneakers. Before receiving the New Balance commission, I customized an Air Force1 high-top by using a special technique that I developed. I was in my last year of The Museum School of Fine Arts back in 2004. A few representatives from New Balance saw the shoe and approached me to design a sneaker for them. I remember going to the Boston-area headquarters of New Balance where I really enjoyed seeing what the company had to offer the sneaker world. I was 21 at the time, so this was extra exciting.
What inspired the Airwisbumb custom, and what can you reveal about your customizing process?
I made one of the Airwisdumb custom shoe. It was a Jordan I that I customized and auctioned off on eBay. I have customized many different sneakers. When customizing sneakers, I use several different techniques. At times I use a special ink and sealant, other times I combine them with leather paint.
Do you find that there is crossover in your sneaker designs and your formal art practice? Do you distinguish between design and fine art?
I believe my training in fine art has helped me develop certain design skills, which I use when working with a sneaker. Most of my techniques have been the result of trial and error, and I have learned from my mistakes. Finding the right materials and methods for applying them to an object, such as a shoe, requires a lot of mistakes, especially since when I began customizing sneakers it was almost unheard of. Certain technical tricks/techniques that I picked up while painting a canvas or drawing on paper I found could be used when enhancing a sneaker’s appearance.
How is your move to Sweden informing your practice? What is it like to be a practicing artist in the U.S. versus Europe?
I moved here to live with my wife, who is Swedish. Sweden has been an inspiration in many ways. The landscape and architecture here are very beautiful and unique. I feel like my surroundings inspire my work. The change in atmosphere plays a huge role in the artwork I create. This experience has opened my eyes.
In your paintings, you claim to be transferring your thoughts to a surface. Would you say your work is stream of conscious and improvisational, or are the details of the composition pre-planned?
In most cases, the process is a stream of subconscious thought relayed onto a surface. However, there are times that I plan a piece out by using a reference, and that process becomes less improvisational and more pre-planned. After the initial orchestration, I tend to go more abstract and elaborate on the beginning sketch, especially in my drawings and paintings.
Your paintings are very loose and gestural while your drawings are incredibly refined and controlled. How do you explain this dichotomy, and how does this affect your work when you’re painting directly onto a wall?
When drawing, I use mostly pen and ink. When painting, most of the time I choose acrylic on canvas. The acrylic takes a longer time to dry on canvas, but the ink out of a pen on paper dries almost immediately. I feel like time is the ultimate decider when working on a very detailed piece as opposed to a canvas piece that is more gestural.
My paintings are also layered with different applications applied. This is different from my drawings that are mostly one layer. When painting on a wall, I will usually combine ink, acrylic paint, and spray paint. The way I draw and paint effects the way I will do a wall mural by helping me understand different techniques. Usually, but not all the time, when working on a larger wall piece, I will map out the way it will look on paper. However, when finished, I usually realize that it turned out completely different because I get caught up in what will look right at the time of creating the work as opposed to what was mapped out. I prefer going with my instinct.
Talk about your most recent body of work. How is it different or similar than previous work?
I am currently working on a large series of drawings on paper with similar dimensions, under 42cm. These pieces are mostly pen and ink on paper as well as gouache and watercolor. I would say that the difference between the work I am doing now as opposed to work done in the past is a difference in feeling. I work with emotion as well as what happens when I translate the 2D onto a more 3D surface. The emotion stems from stream of consciousness and thought. Becoming a more mature artist/human enables my decisions in making my artwork to reflect that.
Externally, what is informing your work (visual information, books, music, etc.)? What questions are you asking/stories are you telling in your work?
The things that inform my work are related directly to my surroundings. I usually have music on in the background, which definitely plays a role in my process. Taking a walk through the city or in nature will also determine the creation at hand. I enjoy taking photographs and using them as a reference of inspiration for a new work. The main story told through my artwork is to use your mind and be creative.
Do you have any future plans for a sneaker customization or collaboration?
I would love to work in collaboration with inspirational companies or organizations regarding my artwork. Seeing my work on the NB sneaker was great and I look forward to working with more companies in the future.