Teaching Artist Spotlight: Alex Staley

Friday Jan 6th, 2023

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Rainbow Juice
Shoe Design and Branding at Edison Elementary School

Alex Staley is a clothing designer, digital artist, and musician who was born and raised on Erie’s East Side.  Last summer, he joined Erie Arts & Culture’s teaching artist roster and recently completed his first residency at Edison Elementary School.  In this program, Alex guided the students through the process of shoe design, allowing them to create art that was printed on high quality footwear that they all received at the end of the program.

For Alex, this was a kind of homecoming.  “I grew up going to Edison, walking from the government housing a mile and a half away, that was my elementary school.”  Being from the same neighborhood as Edison’s students helped Alex understand the importance of this program.  “If you ask me what I wanted the kids to take away from this residency,” Alex explains, “I literally wanted them to take away a pair of shoes.  I count these kids as part of my community, and in our community there can be a big emotional attachment to material things due to scarcity.  Often, we’re forced to have to acquire things as hand-me-downs or even make things ourselves.  But to be able to provide an avenue for these students to make something of high quality that somebody else would buy was really important.

“It wasn't just a matter of buying the kids shoes.  Instead, we’re saying ‘We're gonna hang out with you and spend time with you and make art, talk, and create, and let you spill out that rainbow juice.’  And then at the end, they literally have a physical, tangible thing that they can hold, wear, and walk around with that they can be proud of.  It’s not just a memory that might fade but something that can be worn and inspire other people.”  This would be true of many artist creations, but, as Alex describes, footwear comes with a specific kind of esteem.  “In our community, sneakers are a super-important thing–it's a sense of status.”

The residency involved not simply designing shoes, but also learning about branding, logo composition, and entrepreneurship.  For Alex, this is not merely academic, but it lays important groundwork for students who want to continue to pursue the arts.  “Coming from and working in high-poverty areas, I recognize that a lot of these kids, statistically, are going to grow up having to maintain a side hustle to make ends meet.  For me, the arts that I learned growing up turned into entrepreneurial avenues for me.  That’s what got me to this point, and it’s been infused into my work that ‘your art can be sellable.’  If we can establish that way of thinking about branding now, as they grow and their work continues to get stronger, they’ll be able to start selling their artwork.”  This mindset helps the students and the broader community recognize that art has value, that artmaking is labor, and that art is not merely a casual diversion, but a practice with economic potential.

Alex was impressed with how the students took to the project.  “One student came up with this dripping green slime design for her shoes, and she coordinated her shoebox to have the same design.  She approached the project thoughtfully, the way that I would approach my own clothes, coming up with different designs and carefully articulating how she’d orient each design on different parts of the shoe.  It was great to see someone display such artistic characteristics at a young age, and have such an earnest care for her craft.”

Returning to Edison as a teaching artist gave Alex a new perspective.  He was cultivating the mentorship and guidance that is required of all educators.  “I now see the actual community effort that it takes to run a school like Edison.  Seeing how the art teacher is also the therapist, and the math teacher is also the reading teacher, and the reading teacher is also the gym teacher, and how everybody wears different hats to make it work.  I got to feel for the first time how a school is a network of humans collaborating as opposed to a single general keeping folks in line.  It's a bunch of people that are committed and trusting each other to do the right thing all day every day.  We're all just trying to make it happen for these kids. Understanding that better equipped me to take responsibility for my role in that network.”

And even now, all these years later, teachers at Edison are still making a difference for Alex.  “I specifically want to thank the art teacher, Jen Lau.  I’m sure any teacher there would have done the same, but I was able to talk with her and receive insight and genuine care from Jen as I was leading the program.  To have her nurture me enabled me to better nurture the kids too.”

This residency at Edison Elementary was made possible with support from Erie Insurance and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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Erie Arts & Culture

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