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From sneakers to clippers: a NSCAD alumni’s resilience in the pursuit of art

NSCAD alumni, Kemmy Smith, shares his career shift from sneaker art to barbering, and the realities of trying to make it as an artist.

Sneaker artist turned barber, Kemmy Smith, had to find a balance between his art and his work as he navigates the realities of being an artist. Credit: Kreations by Kemmy

Kemmy Smith’s sneaker art is as bright as his infectious energy.

The NSCAD graduate (BFA 2018) pours his heart and soul into his work, customizing colourful sneaker art for clients across the country and around the world. However, his artistic journey was never linear.

“I was originally going to Dalhousie University, but then I lost my scholarship, and it was too expensive. So, I had to figure out the next steps,” he said. “My mom was an artist, and my grandmother was an artist; so, I decided to pursue my art and see where it takes me.”

Smith’s interest in art started when he was a young boy. And he thought he was pretty good at it – until he got to high school.

“Everyone said I sucked, and one time my teacher asked me if I was blind,” he recalls, laughing. “But I knew I could draw, and I wanted to prove everybody wrong.”

And he did. Smith won the Art Award at his high school graduation ceremony, and he graduated with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Arts from NSCAD.


After graduation, Smith became a sneaker artist. He loved the look and feel of sneakers growing up but couldn’t afford the ones he wanted.

“I got tired of Nike making the same shoes over and over. So, I decided to paint my own shoes to get the designs I wanted,” he said. “I figured I could make some money off it and sell the designs.”

And sell, he did. In the last six years, Smith has sold over 10,000 pairs of sneakers on his Etsy site. His custom sneaker art ranges from paintings of flowers, portraits, textures like denim, to donuts with sprinkles — his most popular design.

“I remember I made almost $20,000 one summer,” he said. “I was able to save up and buy a house that same year.”

Smith’s sneaker art has been worn by Olympic athletes, NBA players, and has even been featured in the Atlantic International Film Fest (AIFF). But like any other artist, he had to stumble a few times before mastering his craft.

“Nowadays, you can just hop on a YouTube video and learn how to make things work,” he said. “But I didn’t have a blueprint for that back then. I kept messing up shoes, I kept buying shoes, and I didn’t have money to invest in the right stuff to make the paint last. I was using a lot of random products before I got the right products. I was trying to make the product work before I could make it into a product I could sell.”

One of his biggest hurdles was finding funding to continue making his art; but with the lack of Black representation on grant committees, that was far and few between.

“I tried to get a bunch of loans and grants, but no one gave me the time of day until I had celebrities wearing my stuff,” he said. “It’s especially hard as a Black artist because we have the talent, we just need the opportunity. But you can’t really get opportunity because there’s not many people of colour in power that can give Black artists that chance.”


While Smith was working on his goal to become a successful sneaker artist, he had another skill that had helped him many times before — barbering. 

“My uncle was a barber, so I was able to learn that skill and use it to make money while I was in school,” he said. “I was making about $25 an hour as a student. So, if the art thing didn’t work out, I can always cut hair and I’ll be alright.”

When his first child was born, financial stability became Smith’s priority, and he needed a stable wage to provide for his family. Though he was grateful for his success as a sneaker artist, he had to pivot and become a full-time barber. He still makes custom sneaker art, but he has also grown a huge clientele as a barber – and he works evenings as a tattoo artist.

“I thought I was going to graduate, and someone would give me a good 60k job,” he says with a laugh. “But when you’re young, you don’t really realize how it works in the world.”

His advice to young, emerging artists is to branch out into different career paths.

“You got to figure out a difference between your job and your work,” he said. “I’m a barber by day and an artist by night, so I have money coming in constantly. You need to figure out a median; there will always be a time where you’re doing more artwork, and there will be a time where you have to focus more on your job.”

Though the journey has not been easy for Smith, he says he would do the same thing all over again if he had to start over.

“I might take a few jewelry design classes to add to my portfolio,” he joked. “But ultimately, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything happens for a reason, and I think I’ve chosen the right path for me.”

Smith plans to return to sneaker art full-time in the future.

To see more of Kemmy Smith’s work, visit his Instagram page.

a pair of kid sneakers painted like a donut with sprinkles
Smith's donut and sprinkles design are his most popular work. Credit: Kreations by Kemmy
Canadian Olympic medalist, Jillian Saulnier, holds up sneakers customized by Smith. She is wearing a black beanie and outfit. The sneakers are painted blue and red with details from her hockey team uniform
Smith’s sneaker art has been worn by celebrities, including two-time Canadian Olympic medalist, Jillian Saulnier. Credit: Kreations by Kemmy
A pair of sneakers painted red, green, yellow, black and white to represent Ghana's national flag.
A pair of sneakers customized for Olympic bobsledder, Cynthia Appiah, to represent her home country's Ghanian flag. Credit: Kreations by Kemmy