Bud To Blossom: The Story Behind Louis de Guzman's New Balance 574 'Ma Divina'
Chicago-based fine artist and designer Louis De Guzman uses his signature 'geometric abstraction' style to reimagine cartoon icons like Bart Simpson, SpongeBob SquarePants and Bugs Bunny as striking paintings and sculptures. However, his first artistic spark didn't come from Saturday morning cartoons: it came from his mother's love of floral arrangements and bouquet-making.
As a young child, De Guzman would accompany his mother to craft shows around the Chicago area. He often speaks of his visceral memories from those shows – his mother's artistry, the bright colours of the flowers and the drawings he'd create to try and replicate her bouquets. Now, he's telling that story through his latest New Balance colab: the 574 'Ma Divina,' both a deeply personal story for the artist and a physical acknowledgement of his belief that his work is for everyone.
Sneaker Freaker spoke to Louis De Guzman ahead of the 'Ma Divina' release and touched on everything from his history with New Balance to the parallels he sees between footwear design and fine art. See the full conversation below.
You grew up in Chicago, which is a big Air Jordan and Air Force 1 city. How did you first get introduced to New Balance?
I actually started wearing New Balance in middle school. My parents would take me to ,Foot Locker for back-to-school shopping, and we were on a budget so expensive sneakers like Air Jordans were out of the question. This was the era when Foot Locker had the famous 2 pairs for $90 deal going, so I'd always get two pairs of 574s: navy blue and black. Those would be my shoes through the school year and into the summer, and I grew to really love the model after a while. It's funny, because sometimes when I go to visit my parents I'll still see an old-school red and black box chillin' at their house – it takes me right back!
The 'Ma Divina' is heavily inspired by your family, specifically your mother and the flower bouquets she made to sell at craft shows. Tell me why those memories of the flowers and the craft shows are so seminal to you.
My mum arranging those flowers was my first introduction to a creative outlet. She'd be prepping her bouquets by making custom ribbons and arranging her flowers. I was five, six years old at the time – so she'd keep me busy with stacks of paper and boxes of crayons and I'd always be drawing my own floral arrangements. Seeing how she put different colours together and watching her attention to detail as she worked always stuck with me, and now it really resonates in my own practice. My attention to detail definitely comes for her, as does my desire to have fun with my work.
Is that your mother in the video that accompanies the 'Ma Divina' campaign?
Yes! She's in it, and my nephew plays five-year-old-me.
What did your mother think when she saw the shoes? Did you tell her the inspiration in advance or was it a surprise?
When I started working on the campaign, I told her I wanted her to be the source of it all. The 574 colab I did before this one was inspired by places I'd been and parts of my early adult life, like Columbia College in Chicago, the home I grew up in and my studio. This pair was supposed to be the prequel before the sequel, so it was only right to be sure my mum was involved.
This feels like one of your most personal projects yet.
Yeah man, it's really personal. As a visual artist, you tend to put your heart on the table by sharing things that inspire you in your artwork. Whenever I have a speaking engagement, I always talk about these craft shows because they provided my first spark, and to be able to go back to the root of it all with this project is really cool.
How does it feel to tell such a personal story on a large scale like this?
It's still kind of sinking in! My team and I are always wrapped up in so many projects at once, but with this project, we were able to stop time for a second. I was able to remind myself where I started, where I'm going and why I'm doing what I'm doing. Telling a story this personal on a scale as large as a footwear colab is definitely a 'woah' moment because you're able to bring the nucleus of your practice to a larger audience. I've always wanted my work to resonate with everyone.
Many of your most famous works include figures like SpongeBob SquarePants or Bugs Bunny, Saturday morning cartoon staples that resonate with a wide array of people. The 'Ma Divina' is a little different because it's so specific to you and your story! Did you approach the storytelling from a different angle than you would with something your audience might already be inherently familiar with?
What's cool about the 'Ma Divina' is that it's personal to me but it's also a wonderful moment to share. Like for you, when you got into sneakers, you probably shared your passion with your friends and family, right? They're the people who know about what you're doing before you share it with the world.
Sharing these childhood stories and memories and also being able to turn them into a meaningful story for a product means that the 'Ma Divina' is more than just a shoe: it's a genuine source of inspiration. These shoes are a representation of everything I was raised on, and everything that I want people to know about me when they see my work! Even though having a shoe is dope, I don't view it as a 'cool kid' thing so much as I do an opportunity to share a story and encourage others to share their stories as well.
Does your creative process change when you're working on footwear as opposed to fine art or home goods?
That's a good question. I'd say I segue them all into a similar line of thinking – namely that I love little hidden details. When you look at my sculptures and paintings, they're both line-work oriented and abstract with little embellishments that you have to find. For example, the N logo on the 'La Divina' isn't the same one you'll find on the OG 574: we swapped that out for the logo application from the 990v2. The suede panels on the toebox are different too, they're stacked instead of single-layer. Those are things you might not catch the first time you look at the shoe.
Those hidden details remind me of how people will love the look of the artwork they buy from me at first glance, but as they inspect it over time they find more and more little details. I always want to give someone something to unwrap.
Do you view a sneaker as a piece of art?
I definitely do. There have been so many colabs that paved the way for sneakers to be looked at as art. I remember when KAWS dropped his first Air Jordan 4, for example. That shoe was crazy beautiful, and years later it wound up in one of his retrospective shows around his other artwork. Daniel Arsham's old adidas colabs though his Arsham Studio brand come to mind too, as does Joshua Vides' work with Converse and New Balance. These shoes are art: they're constructed, designed, tailored, colour paletted, everything.
New Balance seems to let their collaborative partners establish a strong visual identity on silhouettes that mean something to them instead of forcing a focus on whatever the 'latest and greatest' is. What have you learned about the 574 over the process of your colabs? Is there anything that sticks out to you now that didn't before?
The 574 is a sponge, and it can soak up inspiration from whatever it's around. The classic grey colourway is its benchmark, but it can be reimagined in so many ways – even a wildly-coloured one like ours! I'd say what I've learned about it is that it's a shoe for anyone and everyone, super accessible and versatile.
The Louis de Guzman x New Balance 574 'Ma Divina' will release via Foot Locker and Champs Sports on March 24. It's priced at $90.