Just across the street from LeBron James’s I Promise School, Chardae Slater works on a passion project of her own.
The 24-year-old artist spent more than a month painting a mural along the blank wall connecting the liquor store and smoke shop on the corner of West Market and West North streets, meticulously sketching and painting a hyper realistic image of LeBron James gripping a basketball between his palms surrounded by various Looney Tunes characters sporting jerseys in an homage to the Space Jam reboot released in July.
After painstakingly long sessions painting through summer heatwaves in West Hill, Slater was devastated when her mural — the first one she ever painted — was vandalized in late July, less than a week after it was completed.
“Of course I was pissed,” she said, looking up at her work, defaced with a bright red clown nose over James’ face and the words “LA FLOP,” likely a reference to critic’s assertion that James “flops” or exaggerates contact from other players to try to get referees to call fouls. “I took my time on this. How could you? Why would someone do that?”
She said she half expected it; between James’s outspoken politics and the love/hate relationship the city has with him after he left the Cleveland Cavaliers twice, she thought it was inevitable someone would destroy her artwork.
Now, several weeks after the vandal tagged the mural, she’s back with a paintbrush in her hand and a renewed sense of optimism. She raised over $300 from crowd sourcing on GoFundMe for supplies, but she wasn’t expecting what came next.
“After it got vandalized, the (LeBron James Family) Foundation reached out to me and said, ‘Hey we saw your mural, we’re sorry it got vandalized, but we’re all about turning lemons into lemonades. We’d love to work with you,” she said.
Slater first made an impression on the James family when Gloria James, LeBron’s mother, approached her on West Market Street where she was painting the mural. LeBron later reposted the completed mural on Facebook.
“They’ve been awesome,” she said.
The foundation has since commissioned Slater for a new mural at their office at the University of Akron.
“I’m really excited because even though this bad thing happened, I believe in my work and the process and it opened this door to do another mural,” she said.
Collaborating with the foundation, which primarily works with families of children enrolled at the I Promise School, is a full circle moment for Slater, who was first inspired to pursue her artwork by her art teachers in high school.
“My inspiration is like my different struggles and the things I’ve been through, you know, like not knowing what you’re going to eat tomorrow,” she said. “When you’re really at your lowest, the bottom of the bottom and you’re just looking for a way out, you find something you love and you take it and push yourself through it.”
She hopes to plant even just a seed of that creative inspiration with the children she meets or works with through the LeBron James Family Foundation.
“For the most part, I’m self taught, but I do have to give credit to my teachers throughout high school that believed in me,” Slater, a child of adoption, said. “If it weren’t for Miss (Laura) Addis (at Copley High School), I wouldn’t be painting right now. I didn’t have family behind me and they’d never come to my art shows, but she was always there supporting me.”
Now, she wants to make art a full-time career. She dreams of sprucing up various spots around town, such as painting the Hawkins basketball court in West Akron, and opening her own studio. This mural was a springboard to get more visibility to do so.
“I didn’t feel like my work was getting enough eyes on it,” she said. “I’ve painted many large scale works, and I just felt like sometimes you have to do things that catch attention. What would be a better time than now to paint LeBron and Space Jam? He’s never had a mural here before, and the I Promise School is right there. I wanted to do something for the kids and something to spread peace in the neighborhood.”
Slater launched the project on her own, getting permission from the liquor store and pooling her savings to purchase paint and supplies on her own with some support from pandemic relief funds. For a project of this size, she estimates the project cost more than $5,000 — making it all the more devastating when it was vandalized.
“I spent the money I was going to use to go back to college this semester,” said Slater, who was attending Kent State for a bachelor in fine arts. “I’m probably not going to go because I spent my money on this. It was just really important to me.”
But she is determined to not let anyone steal her optimism as she leans over her step stool to paint over the red tag. This time, she is sealing it with an anti-graffiti coat.
“I have a lot of dreams, and I’m so excited,” Slater said. “When you put yourself out there, you never know. Doors start opening for sure. I trust something good would come from this bad, and it did. I’m so grateful.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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