The shoes of Chicago by Vickey Tesmer

If you had to pick a pair of shoes that personifies you, what shoes would they be?

"Portrait of Chicago" Solo Exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center Renaissance Court Gallery

Artist Vicky Tesmer created a series of fine watercolors depicting a variety of Chicagoans wearing their shoes. This exhibit, “Portrait of Chicago” is up in the Chicago Cultural Center until January 10, 2020. Rappers, students, surgeons, nurses, businessmen, and yoga teachers are part of the array of Chicagoans depicted by Tesmer.

"Portrait of Chicago" Solo Exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center Renaissance Court Gallery

I love these works because of their simplicity. Just the shoes standing on the ground. Shoes that tell stories. Shoes that show the diversity of a city.

The hero of these images are the shoes. About half the paintings show just the shoes on the ground, the other half show people standing in their shoes.

In my opinion, the paintings people standing in the shoes are stronger than the empty shoes. People standing in the shoes gives the shoes more life—a sort of vitality that the shoes at any moment could start walking or jumping or sliding away.

"Dancer at the Green Mill" watercolor by Vickey Tesmer
Artist’s caption: Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway, is steeped in the heady sounds of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Deep smoky jazz sounds fill the club in the early morning hours when soulful musician continue to express their love of jazz; patterned after Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. These two watercolor paintings narrate two of the artist’s friends dancing the night away to Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra.

The photos with people standing in their shoes felt like portraits—with a twist. With a standard portrait, the head is depicted. With Tesmer’s paintings, the reverse happens. The very bottom of the body is captured—the bottom of part of the legs and the shoes.

I like to imagine that the person in the portrait stood for a brief moment for the artist to take the reference photograph, and then they continue on their way.

"DePaul Student on El" watercolor by Vickey Tesmer
Artist’s caption: Armitage stop to explore Lincoln Park; new to the city and first week of school — what better time to explore the stretch of Victorian row homes in Old Town, grab a bite and head to the conservatory.

With that spirit of the active shoes ready to move at any moment, the works I liked the most have a background that hints to something distinct in Chicago. The wooden L platform. The wheels of a CTA train. These are shoes of people in a specific place. The context brings further life and story to the activity of the shoes.

The captions are fun to read. The words help to illuminate the owner of the shoe.

"Chef de Cuisine" watercolor by Vickey Tesmer
Artist’s caption: Main chef in a restaurant who is in charge of all functions of the kitchen. He creates menus, manages kitchen staff, orders and purchases stock and equipment. Trained in the art of culinary cuisine. In honor of Chicago’s most famous French Chef, Jean Banchet

Reading these captions, I constantly thought to myself, is this about someone specific? Or just about a general profession about someone in Chicago. I greatly desired each pair of shoes to belong to one individual person.


Seeing this series makes me want to photograph the shoes of people I know. That would make a fun personal series to have. I don’t imagine I’d do anything with the series, it would just be my own personal album of people I know, and one way of remembering the people in my life.

Shooting the photos with a rich HDR range of tones would really bring the textures to life. The textures in the shoes and in the place where the person is standing. I’m not sure if I would use a quick lens to give that soft feeling of objectness. Or if I would use a long lens to make all the details, including the background, to remain in tact.

The notion of place could be so important with the subject matter of these shoes.

Shoes are literally the things that ground us. Our shoes constantly interact with the land beneath us. Our eyes may look around. Our ears may hear what’s near. But our feet is what repeatedly touch the ground.

In the coming days, months, and years, please understand if I ask you if I may take a photo of your shoes

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