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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

Here’s how a group of Lincoln Southeast High School students found themselves among the top 50 finalists in a national art contest that could net the school's art program a cool $50,000.

How they took eight small, blank canvases and turned them into expressions of their state and their city and their own creativity.

How their work drew in a bunch of other Southeast students in business and marketing classes and clubs to brainstorm ways to get this message out: Vote for these pieces of art online and do it often, because it’s the connections of social media and technology and good, old-fashioned communication that can catapult these students — and their work — onto a national stage.

Here’s how the students did it: They said "yes."

They said yes to their art teacher, who asked if they wanted to take on the challenge of creating art and doing it on the very small canvas of four pairs of shoes.

Those would be Vans tennis shoes, offered by the California-based company for the eighth year in a competition that asks high school students to create work that represents four themes: local flavor, action sports, music and art.

In 2013, a group of North Star students made the top 50, and last year, Southeast art teacher Dan Ruth decided to send away for the shoes. He involved several art classes in the design and creation, an effort to introduce his students to the concepts of design and marketing and branding an idea.

Their submissions didn’t make the top 50, and Ruth said he learned a lot from the experience, mostly that it’s best just to turn the thing over to the students, step back and let them do it.

Enter seniors Caitlin Hoppe, Grace Larsen and Rachel Kleve and sophomore Madisen Bell, who said "yes." They had the help of other students, but they're the ones who met weekly after school at first, then almost every free moment toward the end.

They were shocked to find out they’d made the top 50, because it hadn't really been their primary motivation.

“Before, we really didn’t think about winning, we just wanted to make Southeast proud with our shoes and our art, so people can see what we’re capable of,” Larsen said.

In a nutshell, they’re capable of incorporating a lot of Nebraska, Lincoln and Southeast into their work, by walking the streets and alleyways of Lincoln for inspiration, using the state’s insect (news flash: Nebraska actually has a state insect and it’s the honeybee), and deconstructing a friend’s music box for the cause.

For a little insight into their interpretation of the themes:

The music theme: Includes a small motor of a music box that plays a whimsical tune and the art represents different students' visual interpretation of that music, the acknowledgement that “everyone listens to music in a different way,” according to Bell. 

The action sports theme: Includes some old roller blades from Kleve, who is part of the No Coast Junior Derby, and scuffed paint to make the shoes look worn. It includes stickers like those found on skateboards, along with some local shout-outs, such as the school’s empty bowls and key clubs. And Vans Shoes, of course.

The local flavor theme: Takes a stand on bees because of their declining population and the importance they hold to the state’s agriculture, Larsen said. 

The art theme: Students took inspiration in a mural in a downtown alley. They also represented the mural theme with a glass mosaic on the sides of the shoe, and a few non-clichéd shout-outs to Nebraska: a lightning bolt and a cornstalk.

The hardest part of the project, they said, was deciding which ideas to use, which would work best on a shoe and which idea should go with which theme. 

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They learned a lot about meeting deadlines, too. Now, they share the top-50 spot with one other Nebraska school: Bellevue East High School.

According to contest rules, the world now votes online on the top 50 finalists. Each email address can vote once each day (so if a person happens to have three e-mail accounts that person could vote three times each day).

Wednesday, the top five schools — one from each region — will be announced and the teams will get to go to L.A. and present their creations to judges. Just getting to the top five means $4,000 for their school’s art department.

To help get them there, Southeast's marketing and business classes have helped brainstorm plenty of ideas: a mobile cart that displays the shoes and can be rolled anywhere on school grounds. It has a picture of QR code so anybody wandering by can scan it and go directly to the voting site. Business cards with voting information handed out in the lunchroom. Snapchat filters.

Ruth has done his own legwork, posting pictures of the shoes in all sorts of places on Facebook and doing as much sharing as possible.

The students say making the top 50 has been great recognition, and going even further would be great validation of the talent at Southeast — and of Lincoln students citywide — and of their own work.

So, Linconites, go to http://customculture.vans.com and vote.

Vote now and vote often and help a group of Southeast students show a broader audience the kind of talent that lives in the Heartland.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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