‘I was crying myself to sleep at night wondering if I made a mistake’: Cleveland artist changes life, inspires through non-traditional art

Cleveland artist's work on display at National Museum of African American History and Culture

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Van Taylor Monroe is one of a few that has an artifact in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. It’s something the Cleveland native never expected.

Ever since he was a child, he’s had an affinity for art. His mom, a single mom, noticed her son’s talents.

“There were times we didn’t have furniture in the house, and my mom bought me an art table and said you are going to be an artist one day," said Monroe.

That continued for Monroe through high school. But then Van got a scholarship to play football at Miami of Ohio.

He focused on the sport and a degree in psychology.

Then the unimaginable happened.

“My teammate came to me with an old pair of tennis shoes and said, ‘Van you are an artist you airbrush T-shirts but can you paint these shoes,’” Monroe added. “Because what he wanted was a new pair of tennis shoes, he just couldn’t afford it.”

So he painted them and charged his classmates around $100 per pair.

After college, he lost his desire for art believing he could never be a success at it.

In 2007, while he was working in Cincinnati, he quit a great job to return to his dream of becoming an artist.

“I hit adversity right away and I went absolutely broke for the remainder of 2007 to the point where I went to the grocery store with $8 in my pocket that was supposed to last me a week. I was crying myself to sleep at night wondering if I made a mistake.”

Then he came across a video of then-Senator Barack Obama.

When he won the Iowa caucus that was the inspiration he needed.

He figured if the young senator could run for president, he too could do anything.

So he went to his closet and grabbed a pair of Nike tennis shoes.

“I painted it for myself, took a picture of it I put it on Myspace page cause I didn’t have a website,” Monroe said.

From there the shoes went viral.

He called them the Obama sneakers and everyone wanted a pair.

He made shoes for Oscar winner Spike Lee, actor Josh Hutcherson and other Hollywood celebrities who have paid thousands for the shoes.

He made a football for Superbowl champ Tom Brady and a portrait for the first lady of France.

Perhaps, the biggest surprise came from the Smithsonian. They sent him an email.

“They said we are going to make an African American Museum and we want these shoes to be in them," said Monroe.

He was shocked, overwhelmed and humbled all at the same time.

“I’m in the same building as my ancestors who sacrificed everything just so I could have an opportunity,” said Monroe.

He never expected any of this. He made the shoes to inspire himself and instead those shoes had an unexpected following.

He has never met the former president, but Obama does have two pair of custom shoes. The first didn’t fit. He then made a second pair for him.

Beyond all of this, being in The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History is unbelievable.

“It’s on display forever. I’ll be long gone, and they’ll be able to look back and read about this kid who painted a pair of tennis shoes and made a name for himself," said Monroe.

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