Live event painter Christina Pappion counts canvas, acrylic paints, an artist’s eye and a sprinter’s speed among the tools of her trade. When the NFL tapped her to custom-paint cleats for New Orleans Saints players as part of the My Cause, My Cleats campaigns, she learned to use that skill set in a whole new way.
“I had to turn (the cleats) around fast,” Pappion said. “I’ve always been a fast painter ... (and) I do a lot of custom work, so it was a natural fit.”
Pappion had painted at past NFL events, which led Elicia Broussard Sheridan, director of community affairs for the Saints, to recruit her for the cleats initiative. During the week 13 game, players donned cleats customized to reflect a good cause of their choice. Cleats were auctioned off after the game, and 100 percent of proceeds benefited the player’s cause.
The project was rife with challenges — short turnaround times and small cleat “canvases” among them. But collaborating with Saints players to create designs that reflected both the charity and the player’s aesthetic sense was a rewarding part of the process for Pappion.
“(Saints players) are a pleasure to work with — they know what their cause is; they have their idea; they’re very passionate and creative about it,” Pappion said.
Pappion held hourlong consultations with each player to learn about their personal connection to the cause and any stylistic preferences.
“What they showcase in their cleats is according to each player’s tastes and preferences,” Sheridan said. “Some guys want to keep it simple, but some people want to tell the whole story.”
A few players brought highly refined concepts to the table, which Pappion rendered on the spot using an iPad Pro. Some designs required multiple meetings and rounds of revisions.
Linebacker Michael Mauti, who supported the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, came with a clear vision. He wanted to depict the Colitis Ninja, a cartoon mascot with a toilet-paper headband who raises awareness in a lighthearted way, and he wanted a purple and lime-green shoe.
“Mauti knew exactly what he wanted,” Pappion said. “I asked if he studied art in high school because of the way he articulated how he wanted his shoe, and he did. He was in an art program (for talented students).”
Sometimes, technical constraints influenced the shoe’s design.
“Thomas Morstead is a kicker, and he was serious about me not touching the front part of his cleat,” Pappion said. “’I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t want to be the girl who caused you to make a horrible kick.’”
Pappion left the toe untouched. The plain black toe makes a dramatic counterpoint to the rest of the shoe’s gradient orange and Triumph Over Kid Cancer logo.
While the NFL relies on a handful of artists to create customized cleats for the league, Sheridan wanted to put a New Orleans spin on the Saints’ cleats by using a local artist. That decision paid off when CBS Sports named two of Pappion’s creations among the top 30 designs out of more than 500.
Among the winning designs were safety Marcus Williams’ cleats, which featured portraits of his cousin and aunt and supported breast cancer awareness.
“The colors were vibrant, the detail work she was able to do in the faces, the look and placement — it flowed very well and I think that’s why it was chosen,” Sheridan said. “It’s a striking cleat.”
Though Pappion had refined her process from working on the cleats initiative in 2016, the year it was launched, the project was still a grueling one. She had two weeks to complete 15 pairs of custom cleats, which took about six hours a pair to paint. She closed her Mandeville gallery while she worked on the shoes, pulling several all-nighters.
“I had my Keurig (coffee maker) and I had my Bible, because Lord knows I needed those two things to pull off this miracle,” Pappion said, laughing. “Sometimes I drove to the Saints facility with Elicia at 2 a.m.”
Pappion donated her time and talents to the cleats project. Though it was difficult to turn away customers, Pappion’s clients, husband, Isaac, and daughters Sophia, 7, and Isabella, 4, supported her commitment to the cause.
“I like to do an annual giving, so what better way for me to give my talent than to a team that has given so much joy to New Orleans and ourselves?” Pappion said.