Creating Connections: CMA Artist in Residence Van Monroe Uses Art to Inspire Community
By Julie Evans, Donor & Member Communications Manager, Cleveland Museum of Art
Van Monroe went from broke and nearly homeless to being an internet sensation when a pair of his customized sneakers featuring then-senator Barack Obama went viral. Today the shoes, Barack Obama ’08 Sneakers, are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Monroe’s career as an artist has been on an upward trajectory ever since.
This summer, he brings his time, talent, and easygoing style to the Cleveland Museum of Art as the first artist in residence for Studio Go, the museum’s mobile art studio.
The Studio Go truck is a familiar site at summer events and community celebrations, bringing hands-on art experiences to neighborhoods across northeast Ohio. Led by Shelli Reeves, Community Engagement Specialist, the Studio Go team creates art projects that engage the members of the public and get them involved with the museum’s permanent and special collections — an approachable way to reach people who have never been to the museum and to invite them to learn more.
With Studio Go, Monroe invites the community to customize white ball caps with markers and paints by taking inspiration from artwork in the CMA’s collection. The project has been a huge success. In just the first month of his three-month residency, Monroe and the Studio Go team have helped more than 2,000 people of all ages customize caps at various community events throughout Cleveland. “People search for the Studio Go truck so they can customize their own hat with Van,” says Reeves.
Art has been a lifelong passion for Monroe, who studied graphic design at Miami University of Ohio before switching his major to psychology. At Miami, Monroe began customizing old, beat-up sneakers for classmates to make a few extra dollars. After a brief stint in corporate America, he quit his job to focus on art.
When the Obama sneakers went viral on MySpace in 2008, a career was launched and Monroe went from starving artist to sneaker-maker to the stars. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Nicki Minaj own Monroe’s custom kicks. His biggest customer is Spike Lee, who has commissioned at least 20 pairs, often to promote his movies.
One day while the Studio Go truck was parked at Wade Lagoon in the CMA’s Fine Arts Garden, the artist was engaged in conversation with a woman as her young daughter happily covered a white ball cap with colorful designs.
“Did you notice that woman who walked up to the van with her child?” Monroe asked. “She didn’t speak a word of English. But through art, we were able to connect and communicate. It brought us together — two people who otherwise wouldn’t meet.”
Monroe shared his thoughts on Cleveland, his residency with Studio Go, and why he thinks customization has caught on with the community.
What are your goals as an artist in residence at the CMA?
I was blown away by the opportunity. My goal is to represent the museum in an artistically encouraging manner while planting creative seeds of inspiration in whatever space we may occupy. With each event and interaction, there is immediate gratification when I see someone’s creative light bulb come on when they are given an opportunity to customize.
I’m also hoping the community makes a deeper connection to the CMA with their positive Studio Go experience. This may help validate or change any previous notions of the CMA and what the museum represents.
I grew up next door in East Cleveland and never came to the CMA. My parents didn’t think the museum was relatable to our family’s experiences. I want to use my role as artist in residence to help ensure that the art and the museum are inclusive so that future generations of children grow up discovering the museum and feeling more at home there.
“I want to use my role as artist in residence to help ensure that the art and the museum are inclusive so that future generations of children grow up discovering the museum and feeling more at home there.” — Artist Van Monroe
What does the museum mean to you? Do you have a favorite collection or artwork here?
I’m an artist and history buff, so the museum has served as an oasis for me to conjure up new ideas while appreciating the journey of those who came before me. My favorite art collection alternates depending on what period of history I’m studying at the time. Recently my focus has been centered on ancient Egyptians and their relations with neighboring nations. So the Egyptian art collection has my current attention.
What do you find most exciting about this artist-in-residence program?
People don’t know how to unlock their inner artist. Studio Go has given me the opportunity to create a project that will inspire artists of all ages. I want to help them unleash this creativity that’s been dormant. With the customized baseball cap project, we can show people how simple it is.
Do you have any advice for future artists in residence?
My advice to future artists in residence is to not only teach but to also be a sponge and seek to learn about the community that you interact with. The engagement is much more genuine when both sides are sharing their artistic journey. This synergy creates an experience that is long-lasting for both the artist and the community.
“The engagement is much more genuine when both sides are sharing their artistic journey. This synergy creates an experience that is long-lasting for both the artist and the community.” — Artist Van Monroe
Why did you choose the ball cap activity specifically?
The hats are a quick and efficient canvas to teach customization, one size fits all, no prep work; participants can walk up to the Studio Go van and get started immediately.
Why do you think customization is a valuable tool for reaching out to the community? Why does it draw people in?
Customization is a liberating art tool that unlocks a special artistic subdivision in everyone’s spirit, allowing you to take creative control over the things you wear. Once you understand the principles of customization, nothing is safe from your imagination. It gives you free rein.
The art within the museum can inspire many wonderful canvases. For example, we are looking at Japanese landscapes and creating ball caps that reflect that art.
Through the customization project, we will plant seeds and create interactions that only art can bring. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
With your success, you could live anywhere. Why do you stay in Cleveland?
Cleveland is my home and a big part of the reason why I made it. Besides, I’ve got three younger siblings and 16 younger cousins here. They are my inspiration and we challenge each other to achieve.