Custom Transport

A Tale of Two Cousins
by Maegan C.M. Gilliland

From custom sneakers to car culture, the distinctive artwork of Justin Fenwick and Darius Donaldson…

Conventional, practical, functional… In the Midwest, shoes and cars are often simply a means to get from one place to another. Though you might see someone sporting designer loafers while cruising down Peoria’s Main Street in a pristine ’63 Corvette Stingray, you would not expect to see purple sneakers with metal spikes—or Richard Pryor’s visage etched onto the hood of a ’78 Lincoln Mark V. In other words, you wouldn’t expect the artwork of cousins Justin Fenwick or Darius Donaldson.

While their mediums are unusual, their talents are indisputable. Fenwick’s bold shoe designs have found their way into the hands of celebrities from rapper Kanye West to boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr., while Donaldson’s customized cars, trucks and bikes have been featured in national magazines. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that there’s something inextricably Midwestern about their work. Maybe it’s the ability to preserve function while transforming the mundane into the spectacular, or perhaps it’s their family values, humble roots or years of hard work. Either way, their distinctive art has begun to grab the spotlight in Peoria.

Kinship in Youth
This story begins around a grandmother’s kitchen table—with grilled cheese sandwiches and the sound of two boys laughing at the shapes they create in the crusts while munching away at their lunches. The sons of working-class families, they were sent to their grandma’s house while their parents were away at work. “We would make the other one guess what shape we were trying to make in the sandwich,” Fenwick recalls. “We were always creating something.”

As the young boys grew, so did their kinship. “I was able to feed off his creativity, and he was able to feed off mine,” Fenwick notes. Separated in age by two years, the boys attended Peoria High School, where they both discovered a talent for art. “I was a horrible student,” Fenwick laughs. “I actually said I was allergic to chlorine just so I could get out of gym class and get into art class instead! But I always excelled in art, and that gave me the confidence to keep going.”

Donaldson had a similar experience, though he was also very good at chemistry—a background that would come in handy when he began to create custom paints. “Anyone could paint a car, but when something goes wrong, how do you fix it? That’s the art. That’s the chemistry in the painting. So you make your own colors, figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

After high school, they found themselves enmeshed in a subculture of breakdancing and hip hop. The pair teamed up, going to clubs two or three nights a week, in unspoken competitions with the other dancers. Breakdancing was more than a hobby—it was performance art, an expression of creativity. “When we get into something, we are intertwined in the culture of it,” Fenwick remarks. “You learn the lingo.”

But after years of dancing, they were faced with a decision: continue breakdancing or return to the visual arts. “I had to make a choice,” Donaldson explains, “Either you have to make a career out of this or you have to move on.” For him, it was an obvious transition. Fenwick, however, did not yet have an obvious artistic direction.

Bright Colors, Bold Shoes
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Michael Jordan ruled more than the basketball court—he was a cultural icon. When a then-struggling footwear company teamed up with the rising star to create a product for his growing fan base, it was hardly a surprise. In 1985, just a year after he joined the Chicago Bulls, Nike introduced the “Air Jordan” sneakers.

That, Fenwick recalls, is when sneakers became more than just a pair of shoes. “That’s when tennis shoes meant something else. They were special.”

As a sixth-grader, he saw the Air Jordan 5 for the first time. Filmmaker Spike Lee was the pitchman in TV commercials, waving images of Jordan’s sneaker-clad feet flying high above the world. Like so many others, Fenwick was hooked. “I had never seen anything like that before.”

The fascination never left him. Nearly a decade after leaving the breakdancing circuit, he decided to combine his love of early-‘90s sneaker culture with the loud designs that would become his trademark. He quickly realized he had found something special. “I made a pair of shoes for a buddy, and from there, I had 36 more orders in a month. It blew up out of nowhere.”

Soon, Fenwick’s designs had reached as far as London, England and Athens, Greece. As the calls grew, he realized he needed a professional name to match his unusual product. Combining his two favorite Nintendo games from childhood—Donkey Kong and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!—he hit on the moniker he still carries with him: “Donk’e Punch.”

Fenwick’s use of bright colors, metal spikes, splattered paint and unusual laces are impossible to miss. His recent designs range from a pair of sneakers celebrating the military to a “monster” shoe for children, complete with jagged teeth, scary eyeballs and gold spikes. “I want to be completely unique and different… I try to stay away from anything I’ve seen before. Many of the products I use were never intended to be on shoes—I am always looking for new approaches, new tools and new chemicals. It’s all trial and error.”

The approach seems to be working. When his shoes appeared in a Las Vegas consignment shop adjacent to Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s gym, it didn’t take long for the boxer to learn of Fenwick’s work. “They contacted me and told me he wanted to wear my shoes at a VIP event.” Smiling, he adds, “It just keeps rolling and rolling.”

All or Nothing in the Arts
Darius Donaldson’s love for cars can be traced back to rides in his uncle’s customized 1967 Camaro. “He had big rims on the back and front… That was my first introduction to custom cars. I didn’t understand what it was; I just knew I felt cool when I was in that car.” Later in life, with the artistic skills needed for custom work, he dedicated himself to perfecting his technique. “I made a decision to go full time into learning cars.”

That determination paid off. Presenting at his first car show in 1994, Donaldson took first place. And just like his cousin, he was known for his distinctive designs. “The first thing I built was completely different than what everyone else had.” Over the years, he continued to earn awards from major shows across the country. “People liked my ideas, and that’s enough to keep you going.”

In 2001, Donaldson, along with Fenwick and several others, formed Peoria’s Animosity Car Club, and soon their work was being featured in national car magazines. “To compete on that level is a pretty big accomplishment,” he notes. Yet something was missing. Though Peoria had its share of car cruise-ins, the events typically prized antique restoration over customization work. Donaldson knew that if his art was ever to gain stature in his hometown, he would have to bring the customization culture to Peoria. “That was my whole endgame.”

To that end, the Animosity Car Club created the “All or Nothing Car Show” in 2008. “We used to have to travel to get on a magazine cover,” Donaldson says. “Some guys build cars their entire lives and never make a magazine. What I set out to do, though, was prove that we can get magazine covers here in Peoria. You don’t actually have to go to Chicago, Indianapolis or St. Louis—we brought magazines here.”

It wasn’t easy, at first. Donaldson and his team put innumerable hours into organizing the show. “At the time, people did not understand what I was doing.” But as he encouraged local enthusiasts to bring their cars to the show, the feedback was phenomenal—and he knew it was worth his time and energy. “I’m the guy who can pull these people out and get them to a car show—and they’re a star. Their kids are like, ‘My dad is cool!’ You can’t put a price on that.”

As Donaldson organized these shows, he continued to develop his drawing and painting skills as well. When Fenwick saw a portrait of the late Richard Pryor that Donaldson had drawn for his father, he encouraged his cousin to enter it in the CIAO and Friends Invitational, an exhibition of local artists held in conjunction with the opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum in October 2012. A short feature on Donaldson was also included in Art Lives in Central Illinois, the book that accompanied the exhibit. This, he recalls, was a turning point: he now had the attention of Peoria’s arts community.

In 2014, Donaldson was asked to organize a custom car show for ArtsPartners’ first-ever IGNITE Peoria celebration. Attendance at last August’s event far exceeded expectations, and many left talking about the car show. Having united his love of the arts with his lifelong passion, Donaldson decided to retire the All or Nothing Car Show after a successful six-year run and concentrate his efforts on future IGNITE Peoria events.

A Lasting Legacy
In the near term, Donaldson has one significant project in the works: a Richard Pryor tribute car. It will be a collaborative effort, employing the skills of Melvin Murry, Jerry Kensinger, Harley Eades, Jr., and Dave and Jill Ruckle, as well as Peoria's oldest paint dealer, Born Paint. The 1978 Lincoln Mark V will feature the comedian’s unmistakable face laser-etched onto the hood in a color called pagan gold. “I’m going to do murals on the hood, the trunk and the door jambs—and make a custom hood emblem with the initials ‘R.P.’” He’s also planning a full display for the car, with a microphone stand and Pryor’s stand-up act playing through the speakers. “I want to show pride in this city,” he declares, “and I want to throw respect to Richard Pryor.”

Meanwhile, Fenwick plans to create permanent art installations based on his shoe designs; most notably, he is designing a piece to celebrate his new hometown of East Peoria. His main goal, though, is to inspire a new generation of young artists. He will soon be teaching art at Peoria’s Dream Center, and hopes to impart the virtues of hard work and persistence. After all, he notes, he never had any formal training as an artist. “There may be barricades in the way, but you can jump over that stuff,” he declares, “if you stay positive, you stay focused.”

Though Donaldson and Fenwick come from a family of artists, they seem haunted by a realization that this legacy is carried on only in stories. “I remember seeing one of my grandfather’s oil paintings,” Donaldson recalls, “but it disappeared. The only proof we have is the story.” The two men are working hard to ensure their work outlives them—and finds a permanent home here in central Illinois.

Given their persistence, it is a legacy they will likely secure. They’ve been able to break down barriers, transforming the mundane into the spectacular—a feat that has not gone unnoticed. Both artists have a healthy amount of patience amidst their future plans—they are perfectionists, working long hours to complete new projects. “We slow-walked into this on purpose,” Donaldson notes. “We’re just trying to contribute to the scene. Lately, it has been exciting with everything that is happening in Peoria—like IGNITE. It’s a great journey.” a&s