At Jesse White Learning Academy, students design sneakers representing history or the future in art class

HAZEL CREST, Ill. (CBS) — Utopian.

Dystopian.

Futurism.

You would expect such big words for a high school English assignment. Instead, an elementary school art class is exploring those somewhat heavy themes.

CBS 2’s Lauren Victory took us inside some of their recent projects.

Students at Jesse White Learning Academy, at 16910 Western Ave. in Hazel Crest, waited months for a drumroll to fill the hallways. The rumble was for the results of an assignment like no other – design sneakers that represent history or the future.

Teacher Ben Salus explained that he wants his kindergartners through eighth graders to understand concepts like color theory while also challenging them to think critically.

“Everything that my students are working on, even if it’s clay projects or self-portraits; the collages that we’ve done – they’re all based on memories and narratives,” he said.

A new hallway mural featuring masked faces is one such project. Sure, the masks are a permanent reminder of pandemic pain, but Marialena Angulo – whose silhouette is one of three faces on the wall – wants you to look closer to see positive messages too.

“To make people more proud of themselves, make them standup if they’re feeling down,” explained the fifth grader who co-created the mural.

The hope is Hazel Crest administrators greenlight many more kid-created murals.

CBS 2 first profiled Salus last year when his first sneaker project transformed winning student designs into custom-painted Air Jordans.

He received more than 500 submissions this school year for another round of sweet custom kicks, but with a more focused directive. Instead of drawing anything, Salus asked students to draw something that “tells us the history you care about and/or the future you want to make.”

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Here are 2022’s winners:

• 7th grader Keetta Potts. She made a tribute to Black Lives Matter. “Purple represents my favorite color. Then the black is for Black Lives Matter then the red represents the blood of black people.”

• 7th grader Antonio Lloyd. His shoe design was a shoutout to the popular animated show, “The Simpsons.” “The art teacher told us to pick something that predicted the future. So I picked the Simpsons because they predicted COVID,” he said.

• 8th grader Mariah Eason. Her sneaker featured cherry blossoms, and as she explains: “It is regarded as luck when you have the perfect cherry blossom flower, but people don’t believe that you have a perfect cherry blossom flower – so they go on their lives every year thinking there is no perfect person, there is no perfect in life.” 

• 5th grader Xaria Best. She crafted her design as a message about commercial overfishing. “In the future, if all the oceans are gone, I can’t be a marine biologist,” she said.

Professional artist painter Anthony Amos brought all the winners’ designs to life by custom-painting all the shoes. He said the sneakers took him anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete. All shoes are wearable and waterproof.

Next up for Salus and his artistic kiddie crew is designing custom mugs made with the pottery kiln to cut down on cup waste.

Anita Shire

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