ST. LOUIS – When Players Weekend goes down in Major League Baseball in August, one Cherokee big leaguer will be rockin’ his mocs. Or his cleats, actually.
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley will wear a pair of cleats that might pass as moccasins. The seemingly beaded Native patterns were applied by Cherokee artist Bryan Waytula, using a design conceived by Eric Smith, a Chickasaw artist and creator of traditional Plains Native bows, arrows and quivers.
“Bryan reached out … and told me he’d love to paint me some cleats for Players Weekend,” Helsley said. “We got the inspiration from some moccasins I had beaded by Eric Smith. The cleats look amazing, and I think they represent how beautiful Native American artwork is. I’m excited and proud to represent my heritage on Players Weekend with them.”
The cleats look beaded, but aren’t. They are painted. The footwear is tied with regular laces, but they don’t look like normal shoestrings.
“I can’t take credit for the design,” Waytula said. “Eric did some plain style moccasins for Ryan. I got in touch with Ryan, because I’d been doing some artwork with athletes. With him being Cherokee, I wanted to see if he would give me a shot.”
Waytula got the OK from Smith to put one of Smith’s designs over a set of cleats for Helsley, and went to work making the shoes seem beaded. Actual beading wasn’t possible. Waytula said he was warned by artists on social media that beads would break apart.
“Rockin’ mocs has always been a thing,” Waytula said. “I tried to simulate Eric’s design using paints and airbrushes to make it look like beadwork. I also tried to simulate it to make it look like there were leather straps and the laces were buckskin.”
Recalling a conversation with Helsley, Waytula said the Cardinals pitcher liked the cleats so much, they were beginning to look like a cake too pretty to eat.
“We were messaging, and I was joking that he better not eff up the cleats,” Waytula said. “He messaged me and said he was scared he might mess them up. I said, ‘They’re performance art; they’re to be worn.’ Then he started talking about maybe just wearing them to batting practice.”
Waytula said he was a little surprised with the local attention drawn by the cleats.
“I just thought we’d try this and see if (Helsley) wants me to make some cleats,” he said. “It gives me kind of a flattered feeling to see that a lot of people have taken an interest.”
The MLB Players Weekend has been held each August since 2017, though it was not held in 2020 because of the pandemic. Players can wear pullover jerseys typical of youth leagues with their nicknames printed on the backs. Players can also take liberties with batting gloves, cleats, catchers’ masks and other equipment and add personal touches.
After spending more than a decade as an educator, Waytula now displays his artwork while living near Sand Springs.
“A lot of people don’t know about me unless they’ve grown up in or around Tahlequah,” he said. “I used to teach, and spent 12 or 13 years in education, but the last two or three years I’ve been showing my artwork. I’ve been shown at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. I’m preparing for the Santa Fe Market in August and getting ready for a couple of shows with the Choctaw Nation and the Cherokee National Holiday.”