Sole statements

Denise Wright

In 2002, Nelly released ‘Air Force Ones,’ a song that declared his love for the shoes. Now, he’s stomping around in Air Force Ones customized by Cleveland’s own Van Monroe.

Daniel Doherty | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

His old stomping grounds

The now 26-year-old Monroe was born in Cleveland. He graduated from Euclid High School, where he was quarterback of the football team. Monroe also did art in his free time, earning an award from the Cleveland Institute of Art as well as the Governor’s Award for art.

Monroe received a football scholarship to Miami University in Oxford and went on to study graphic design. But after completing the prerequisites for the program, Monroe decided graphic design didn’t meet his needs as an artist and opted to switch his major to psychology.

“But I still pursued art,” Monroe said. “Whenever I finished whatever I had to do with psychology and football practice, I would go back to the art building. I would still draw and paint.”

Monroe said at the time a great deal of his work involved airbrushing shirts – until one of his teammates asked him to paint an old pair of white and red tennis shoes.

“I had never painted shoes before, but I did it,” Monroe said, adding that he painted the old shoes black and red.

After that, Monroe said word got out that he refurbished old shoes and “it just started to pick up on campus.” Back then, Monroe charged $20 to $30 per pair.

Even after graduating from Miami and taking a job at a Sherwin-Williams store in Cincinnati, Monroe continued to paint shoes for people on the side. He began posting photos of his work on MySpace and Facebook.

“People were starting to take wind of the art,” Monroe said.

This led Monroe to delve further into his hobby by selecting different paint and getting more detailed in his designs.

“I just kept developing as an artist,” Monroe said.

Meanwhile, he progressed professionally, taking a job as a broker at a logistics firm in Cincinnati.

“All I would think about when I was at my desk was what type of art project I could do, what type of design I could put, what type of mural I could paint,” Monroe said. “It was becoming too much. I couldn’t concentrate, and I had to get out.”

A change of pace

At the time, which was late last year, Monroe had a few options on the back burner: a hotel had contacted him about doing some murals and Deion Sanders’ manager had been asking Monroe about selling his shoes in a store that had yet to open.

But the options fell through.

At that point, Monroe said it was time to do things of his own accord. He painted a picture of Devin Hester, the kick returner for the Chicago Bears, and posted a video of the process on the Internet in hopes on bringing in new customers.

“I got a few, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I had to end up finding another job.”

Monroe found himself, a college graduate, at a temp agency, waiting in line with people who hadn’t finished high school. He said he could have taken a full-time job for more money, but that would have taken away from time with his art, which had become a priority for him. Despite his situation, Monroe didn’t let it get him down.

He found a job about an hour away at a Kohl’s distribution plant. Working the night shift there enabled him to spend time with his art during the day.

While on breaks at the plant, Monroe caught up with the primaries by watching newscasts from CNN and MSNBC. It was during that time that Monroe saw a certain Illinois senator. Monroe said the now President-elect Barack Obama inspired him to keep moving forward.

But Monroe reached a point where the plant job wasn’t working for him either, so he left for a job at Finish Line, an athletic shoe store, instead.

A gift for himself

The transition left Monroe with little money and a two-week eviction notice. It reached the point where he thought he’d need to live in his car for a few days.

In the meantime, Monroe played Obama’s speeches while he painted to keep his mind off the burden he faced.

But in the back of his mind, Monroe knew he couldn’t move back to Cleveland. He didn’t want to display a lack of “fight” to the younger members of his family.

And as it turned out, Monroe didn’t have to go home or sleep in his car. A local customer ordered a pair of shoes from him, giving him enough money to pay off his eviction.

That night, Monroe was able to sleep well for the first time in months. But he didn’t get a full night of rest.

“When I slept I had a vision of this shoe,” Monroe said, adding it was exactly like the “Obama Air Force One” he later painted. “When I painted it, I never thought about the notoriety or pension from it. I painted it for myself. It was a reminder of a time in my life where I met some hardship, and Barack Obama certainly helped with that. It was like a gift to myself.”

The rest is history.

Around February, Monroe posted a picture of the shoe on his MySpace and went to work. When he returned he had about 50 messages from people who wanted a pair.

A national stage

After that, the orders began pouring in.

“For three months, it was like the world forgot about me as an artist,” Monroe said. “Now, it was like I was being reintroduced.” And it was a reintroduction that has led to his shoes being auctioned off at the Democratic National Convention and later on at Russell Simmons’Art for Life auction. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History even contacted Monroe about displaying a pair of his shoes, which he plans on sending in later this week.

“It was ridiculous, but it kept going and kept going,” Monroe said.

It kept going to the point where Monroe hired a manager, Brooklyn Abbott. Meanwhile, Monroe went on to be featured in the Wall Street Journal and on Fox Business News.

By late summer, Monroe’s work had made a great deal of national buzz. Around that time, Monroe saw a celebrity – Will.I.Am of The Black Eyed Peas – wearing his shoes for the first time.

“It felt like my kid was graduating from kindergarten,” Monroe said. “You spend so much time with it and then you see it out in the spotlight. It was nice to sit there and see all my hard work on a national stage.”

Telling stories

Even after the election, Monroe is still receiving plenty of requests for the Obama shoes, which he thinks will die down after the new year.

Aside from the eminent Obama shoes, Monroe has designed shoes for the genocide in Darfur, the Northern Illinois University shooting in February and other socially conscious themes.

Monroe also designs shoes with lighter themes, including an extensive collection on athletes such as Moses Walker, Larry Doby and LeBron James.

Lisa Sanders-Blackwood, a freelance producer and project director from New York, gushed about the exclusive Obama Nike Air Shox Monroe made her.

“They’re the best.” Sanders-Blackwood said. “I just think (Monroe’s the best). When I spoke to him he just inspired me and I became fond of him and wanted him to be successful.”

Sanders-Blackwood said she frequently gets ‘thumbs-ups’ and questions about her shoes, which she said makes her proud to wear them.

Singer and songwriter Adanita Ross agreed.

“Van Monroe’s work is incredible,” Ross wrote in an e-mail. “The samples he sent me do not compare at all to the actual finished product I received. I was beyond satisfied with his work and the way he runs his business. I plan on working with him again.”

As for his own future, Monroe would like to continue to use his newfound celebrity to speak and share his story at local schools. He’d also like to get his own shoe brand.

But for now, Van is content with his work.

“In a way, painting shoes does (incorporate my passion for film),” Monroe said. “I’m trying to tell a story; it’s not just painting on a shoe. I want to inspire people, and I think I was able to reach that.”

Contact features reporter Denise Wright at [email protected].