This winter Claudell Cain, a 12th-grader at Fenger Academy High School, managed to squeeze the story of his father's life onto a pair of old dress shoes. In a series of tiny paintings that begin on the right shoe and continue on the left, he depicts his dad's trajectory from street-level drug dealing to prison and then back to his family.
"He always went to church," says Cain. "He believed in God real strong. But he still was doing bad because he was selling drugs and doing all this and all that." He points at the shoe. "Here represents the cars, money, the girls. He had all that, but all that went away when he went to jail. In jail he had some good times and bad times....But he wasn't just waiting for his time to go past. He was learning things, and he got a degree. When he got out he was working on cars--he's real good with cars--and these doors and window and the blue sky represent freedom."
Last October Cheryl Boone brought a pair of old shoes into the Fenger classroom where she teaches art. She'd gessoed the pumps white and decorated them with red and orange flames up the heels, plus images representing the fun times she'd had in college, when she wore the shoes into the ground barhopping. "The kids thought they were really cool," she says. Then she explained her idea: Each of her students was to get a pair of shoes from someone else and find out what that person did in those shoes--did anything significant happen in their lives, did they go anywhere special, how did they feel? Then they were to paint the shoes to match the story. Boone's plan was to auction the results off and donate the proceeds to a children's charity.
It took about two months for most of her students to come up with appropriate footwear. "What was difficult for many of them seemed to be getting the motivation to go out and get the shoes. I'd ask them if they had somebody that they know and they would say, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' And they still wouldn't bring them in." She also discovered that many weren't sure how to interview their donors and get their stories. "These kids are not shy," says Boone. "They are generally very outspoken, but when it came time to really interact with somebody in a different way, they balked."
However, once a few kids started bringing in shoes and stories, others became motivated. Says Boone, "I would hear their friends asking, 'What's the story of your shoes? What happened in your shoes?' And they started to get into what was going on."
Kevin Hope, a 12th-grader, had a pretty clear idea of what to do with his mother's shoes. "The only thing she did in them," he says, "was sing at church every Sunday. So I painted the sky--light blue clouds on the shoes represent peace--and I painted orange crosses on them to represent church. I used purple and red because those are the colors of our church." Eleventh-grader Asia Turner had been given a pair of shoes without a story, so "we decided to make them orphaned shoes," she says. "I made one shoe yellow and red--warm colors--with happy faces on it, and the other one blue and green--you know, cool colors--with sad faces. The sad shoe represented that they were orphaned shoes that were thrown in the garbage, and the happy shoe represented that they were happy because I found them and turned them into art."
Tammy Poole's shoes reflected her grandmother's belief in Alcoholics Anonymous, April Clay's her mother's journey to the U.S. from Jamaica. Shante Brown painted a tribute to the civil rights movement and her grandmother. As the project went on, the kids became more invested in their creations and Boone began to realize that the original auction plan might not work out. "I could tell they didn't want to let go of their shoes, they wanted to take them home. They wanted people to see them."
"My premise was to create community through art," she says. "The other thing that I wanted them to see was that they could take something that was beat-up and disposable, something nobody wanted, and they could turn it into something beautiful. They could take a cruddy object and they could make it beautiful, make it art."
A free exhibit of shoes by over 100 of Boone's students opens Friday, April 26, and runs through May 24 at the Feet First Museum at the Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine, 1001 N. Dearborn (312-280-2487); there's a reception with the students on the 26th from 5 to 8 PM. Visitors are encouraged to bring in a pair of old shoes (preferably with some life still left in them) to donate to Save Your Soles, a charity created by the college that refurbishes used shoes and gives them to those in need.
After the exhibit is over, Kevin Hope has plans for his shoes. "My mom hasn't seen the shoes yet, but after they come out of the museum, she promises to wear them to church one more Sunday, just to show them off. After she sees how they look, I don't know if she'll want to wear them--I mean, dang, they're not ugly, but it's gonna be hard to find something to wear with them."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Audrey Cho, Ben Dooley.