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Soles and Ties That Bind

ArtPrize Shoe Project Brings K-12 Students Together


Godwin Heights High School senior Devon Ferguson painted the outside of an old tennis shoe in bright colors, adding stitches around the seams. She explained how the footwear represents herself.

“I’m happy and bright on the outside,” Devon said. “But I added stitches to show how I have to put myself together.”

This fall, her shoe will be one of nearly 70 contained in an art piece titled “You Can’t Know Who We Are If You Don’t Know Where We’ve Been.” It symbolizes students’ identities and their individual walks through life.

Godwin Heights art teachers install shoes, decorated by their students, to create a mural

The piece, a winding path of sneakers, is now installed on a 60-foot wall on the second story of Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. NW in Grand Rapids. District art teachers Erika Redick, Kim Urbanski and Deanne Basse installed the piece this week. It will vie for the new ArtPrize Youth Collaboration Award sponsored by Western Michigan University.

Student entries will be installed in venues across the three-square-mile ArtPrize district during the 19-day event, Sept. 20 to Oct. 8. Several Kent ISD schools are included in the competition.

“It’s really been something in our brains for a long time that we wanted to do collaboratively,” Basse said. The new award category provided the perfect reason to create a kindergarten through 12th-grade piece, teachers said.

“The whole idea is to promote compassion,” said Urbanski. “What is my true story? Who am I?”

Students spent a couple summer mornings painting and coloring used and donated shoes to represent their identity, heritage, likes, dislikes, or whatever they wished to convey about themselves.

“You Can’t Know Who We Are If You Don’t Know Where We’ve Been” is installed on the second floor at Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave. NW in Grand Rapids

Fostering ‘Unity and Comfort’

The project ties in with TrueSuccess, a character-building program used by the district.

“We have such an amazing dynamic and diverse group, and I think that’s one thing we love to celebrate,” Baase said. “And we see it all the time in the art classroom, how individual and unique they are. We think a lot of that gets lost when the kids are viewed as a whole.”

Senior Daniel Gonzalez’s shoe includes a tree that represents his family and a wolf that represents loyalty

Working together gives students the opportunity to express themselves and get to get acquainted, the teachers say.

“It’s important they share their ideas and different techniques, but that they also get to know each other a little bit more, and that it’s kind of cool to see each other being vulnerable,” Redick said.

“It’s very easy to feel very alone in your own experiences,” Basse said. “When you get a chance to share it visually, it gives them the opportunity to have a discussion in a new way.”

Added Urbanski, “It gives our kids unity and comfort in what they are doing.”

Ninth-grader Janaya McKinney created a shoe with red laces symbolizing love, paw prints representing loyalty, and a tie-dye pattern to represent her colorful personality. White space represented the room for change and opportunity, she said.

“It’s really inspiring because a lot of people can relate to this, and it’s really fun to be able to create things that represent you,” Janaya said. “A little shoe, I never would have thought, means a lot.”

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Godwin Heights students’ collaborative piece

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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