Art has almost always been a major part of Jaden Mitchell’s life.
His father, John, was an early inspiration – Mitchell, when he was young, tried to copy the matching doodles he saw him do.
But as he got older, Mitchell’s interest in art shifted from sketching portraits to painting. And he wanted to make shoes his particular medium.
“So one day I decided to go for it,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, while a freshman at Bethel High in Hampton, pulled a pair of Vans out of his closet and used paint given to him by an aunt to do his first shoe job.
And, with practice, Mitchell turned that hobby into a business, Jays Custom Kickz — using shoes as a backdrop for custom designs for a variety of clients. It’s all about emerging as a talent on the track too.
Mitchell followed his older brother, Johnathan, to VCU as a member of the Rams track team. While at VCU, his business continued to grow, with former Rams basketball star Bones Hyland and Olympic runner Michael Cherry among his clients.
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More than that, painting and creating is a comforting outlet for Mitchell.
“It makes me forget the things that stress me out,” Mitchell said. “So art is something I always fall back on.”
Since starting his business as an upperclassman at Bethel, Mitchell estimates he’s painted some 180 different pairs of shoes.
When he was a junior at Bethel, his father gave him an airbrush machine for Christmas. It was an upgrade from painting shoes with brushes, and it was a catalyst that pushed Mitchell to take his art up a notch and start investing more in the craft.
Mitchell purchased a cutting machine to create stencils to use on various designs. And he posted his work on Instagram, which attracted more eyes. He also bought business cards to distribute locally, in Hampton.
“As I was posting, I got work from people all over the United States…And then I was making shoes for some of my classmates [at Bethel], and they would wear them,” said Mitchell, who considers fellow shoe artists Cory Bailey and Dillon DeJesus among his inspirations. “And people would see them and say, ‘Oh, where did you get them from? And, ‘Who made them?’
“And then they would tell them it was me. So it was pretty cool to get my artwork out there.”
Meanwhile, Mitchell followed his brother’s lead on the track. He learned the sport as a junior in high school.
Jonathan, who is a year older, helped bring Mitchell up to speed.
“My brother kind of dragged me down the track,” Mitchell said. “As if I was making art behind the scenes, of course. And I’ve always been a huge art lover.”
At Bethel, Jonathan was a two-time All-American and a two-time indoor state champion in the 4×400-meter relay before coming to VCU in 2019. Mitchell, who placed third in the state in the indoor 500-meter as an elder at Bethel, arrived a year later.
Since then, Mitchell said he has reached out to people around VCU about his artwork. One of those people was former VCU basketball player KeShawn Curry.
“I wanted to make a pair for the basketball team,” Mitchell said. “Just to get out a bit and freestyle on one of their shoes. So I did his.
Mitchell’s work caught Hyland’s attention. Hyland saw a pair of Black Lives Matter Air Force 1s made by Mitchell and reached out to ask about this design on a basketball shoe.
The pair Mitchell painted for Hyland featured the words “No Justice, No Peace” on one shoe and “I Can’t Breathe” and “Equality” on the other shoe.
Hyland wore the shoes for a while last season, a campaign in which he won Atlantic’s 10th Player of the Year before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets last July.
“They looked pretty nice on the court,” Mitchell said. “I think it was definitely a game-changer for me.”
Mitchell also did an artist-inspired design KAWS on a pair of track spikes for Cherry. Cherry wore spikes in competition and set a personal best in the 400 meters. Cherry was also an Olympian in Tokyo, winning gold in the 4×400 meters with Team USA.
Recently, Mitchell painted a pair of Air Force 1s with a gold VCU design for VCU athletic trainer Joe Collins to wear at the A-10 Indoor Track and Field Championships last month.
When a typical client contacts Mitchell, he usually secures the shoe for them – most often all white or black Air Force 1s or Vans – and then styles the artwork according to a requested theme.
He can complete between two and nine pairs per month. The implementation of a name, image and likeness policy last summer allowed him to monetize the company freely.
Away from the art, Mitchell, a sophomore, recorded a pair of top-three finishes on the track, at George Mason’s Patriot Games, including third place with a personal best 1:06.87 in the 500 meters last year and second place with a 52.59 in the 400 meters last January.
He also majored in accounting, which may apply to his business, which he plans to pursue, whatever career path he ultimately chooses after college.
One of Mitchell’s main aspirations for the future of Jays Custom Kickz is to run a shoe or cleat design for an entire college team.
He will continue to seek expansion and greater opportunities, one pair at a time – his own artistic escape.
“I can definitely say it has always kept me in balance with everything I do in life,” Mitchell said. “Whether it’s too much schoolwork or track work, I’m heavy-headed.
“I fall back on art and just feel free.”