Artist, illustrator and entrepreneur Leah Tinari is gearing up for next month’s release of her new book “Limitless: 24 Remarkable American Women of Vision, Grit and Guts.”
A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Tinari has done illustrations for The New Yorker, and painted sets for photo shoots, runway shows and commercials for Creative Engineering. While her fine art can be found in the Chelsea gallery Mixed Greens, the customized sneakers and apparel she does is more commonly found on the streets. Always painting in her studio, Tinari now also customizes a few pairs of sneakers each week. Adriana Lima, Mark Hamill, Caroline Vreeland, Adrian Grenier, The Carlyle’s longtime salon stylist Yves Durif, and “House of Cards” actor Michael Kelly are among those who have commissioned work, which could take anywhere from three hours to a full day to finish. “It all depends on the number of panels,” she explained.
Clients have requested customized apparel and handbags, too, in the past year or so. She painted the likeness of controversial NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick on one pair of kicks recently with “This is what you see when you take a knee” vinyl spackled on one of the soles. Years back, through Wieden and Kennedy, Tinari worked on a Nike campaign called “Delicious” to encourage girls to work out. Her series of eight paintings were used for posters and magazine ads, she said.
While clients ask Tinari to customize their Nike sneakers from time to time, her “main canvas” comes from Greats, a Brooklyn-based sneaker company. Cofounder Ryan Babenzien reached out to the artist after seeing a post of customized Greats. The company flew her to a Vox Media coding conference where she taught chief executive officers how to customize Greats sneakers. She is developing a sample sneaker for a potential collaboration Greats is working on.
Tinari is in talks with a luxury specialty store about opening a pop-up store with Limitless books, her art and customized fashion next year. Depending on the number of panels, sneakers range from $550 to $800. Accustomed to doing everything handmade, she said her goal is to team up with a fashion house for a custom or limited-edition project. “That is where I would like to get. It’s really exciting to me to have the artwork taken out of the gallery,” Tinari said.
The upcoming Simon & Schuster-published book is the second part of a two-book deal. The other is about American presidents, an offshoot of her presidential portraits that were on view in the “I Approve This Message” exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in fall 2016. Her son Mars inadvertently put the idea in motion, after quizzing her about their lives and then requesting presidential décor or posters for his bedroom. Unable to find anything aesthetically pleasing, she decided to paint her own and hand–stenciled text with fun facts like, who wore blue jeans in the Oval Office. (That would be James Buchanan.)
Feeling a little depleted after painting the predominantly white American presidents, the artist focused on trailblazing women after hearing that Carrie Fisher had passed away in December 2016. As a Bronx-born tomboy, Tinari said the actress’ “Princess Leah” character in “The Empire Strikes Back” had always resonated with her, so she did a portrait. That led to one of Louisa May Alcott, and then Dolly Parton and other women who had inspired her.