Vincent Van Gogh preferred oil paints. Michelangelo's favored medium was plaster and marble.

Vincent Van Gogh preferred oil paints. Michelangelo's favored medium was plaster and marble.

For a group of art club students at Whitehall-Yearling High School, a pair of sneakers served as the canvas during a recent project sponsored by Vans, a national skate-shoe maker.

"Even though the contest is not about fine art, students were engaged in the same critical-thinking skills as they would be in creating fine art," said Mindy Staley, an art teacher at the high school who spearheaded the project. "There is a shift in the way the brain operates when you are engaged in art-making, and this shift connects ideas and provides a relief for students. In the long run, what students need to develop 21st-century skills comes naturally from the arts."

This is the first year the school has participated in the contest, which is five years in the running. After they registered, the students brainstormed, coming up with designs that fit into each of four categories: art, music, action sports and local flavor. Club members voted on their four favorites, then added the designs to four pairs of shoes shipped by the company.

"The students and I were very pleased with the designs that were submitted," Staley said. "The students felt like they were responding to a professional request and were honored to have the opportunity to create a design. The contest seemed to motivate them to want to advance in the arts."

When Staley first found out about the contest, she said she jumped at the chance to enter. As many districts continue to cut away at the arts, often due to budget constraints, Staley said she is pleased Whitehall is not among them.

"I am definitely an advocate for the arts. In fact, it would be great if it was STEAM instead of STEM," she said, referencing the addition of the arts to the science, technology, engineering and math movement in education. "I know that where art programs thrive, students are highly engaged in creative and reflective work."

March is Youth Art Month, a national initiative set up to increase support for the arts in the community, and Staley has taken the opportunity to highlight student artwork at the high school.

"I am always looking for ways to promote the arts," she said.

Once the designs are narrowed down to 50 semifinalists, the shoes will be highlighted on the company's website, where visitors will vote for their favorite.

Five finalists will travel to New York City for an all-expenses-paid three-day trip, including a star-studded event to crown the contest winner.

The grand-prize winner will receive a $50,000 donation to their school's art program, along with other cash donations for the runners-up.

Staley is hopeful about the contest's outcome, but said participating is a win-win.

"Art-making, whether it be fine art, functional, fashion or graphic design, gives students an opportunity to construct, understanding creatively, and practice critical thinking and problem-solving, and communicate visually," Staley said.

The 50 semifinalists will be announced April 25.