Art and the United States Naval Academy aren’t exactly synonymous. Crazy designs and patterns don’t come to mind when conjuring up images of the institution, and individual creative expression doesn’t seem to ooze from its confines.
But the loss of artistic aptitude for one Midshipman graduate was not irrevocable.
“I used to be very artistic, pre-Naval Academy and Marine Corps,” said shoe artist Chris Wade. “It was just like the military kind of forces you to, you know, not be individual, be part of a team. And so that artistic ability kind of dried up for a little bit.”
However, it returned with a fury after Wade left the Marine Corps.
“When I got into the shoe art, it kind of brought it back,” Wade said.
Wade made a pair of shoes for a friend’s birthday, and the friend was stunned. The Marine veteran posted photos of the shoes on social media, and interest in his art was instantaneous.
“Then my social media accounts start blowing up like, ‘Oh, can you do a Tar Heels team? Can you do leopard print? Can you do color-changing?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. I mean, I can figure anything out, you know?’”
Wade became a busy artist, creating sneaker art for high school and academy friends and their children. But he wanted to “go bigger than that.” So he reached out to fellow Naval Academy alumni who were in the NFL to take his designs to a national stage.
He wanted to go Chase Claypool big. The NFL star receiver commissioned artwork for two pairs of cleats this season.
“I was talking to his manager, and they had two pairs of cleats sent to me,” he said. “And they’re like, ‘We’re going to send you two pairs. When you get them, we need to do one. Do it one day and overnight because he’s going to wear them this weekend.’ I was like, ‘OK, no pressure.’”
Claypool was traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Chicago Bears early in the 2022-23 season, so Wade had to perform some alterations.
“They wanted to make it Bears’ colors,” he said. “So I painted it orange and white and navy blue. And then the other one he just wore a couple weeks ago was a Jordan-5 cleat. It was black and gold Steelers’ colors, and I turned it blue and orange Bears’ colors.”
Wade works as a paper mill purchasing manager during the day, which affords his family a good life and the benefit of living in his home state. But it isn’t art.
“I make very good money as a purchasing manager,” he said. “I’ve been in the paper industry for a little over 10 years, and I love it. It’s been good to me. It’s brought me back home to my home state of North Carolina. But my ultimate goal is, I’d love for this to be the main hustle instead of the side hustle.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for Wade’s artistic side-hustle opportunities and successes. He had transitioned to remote work where he distilled his work day into 90 minutes, allowing plenty of free time. But the sneaker artist wanted to keep idle hands busy. At first, he tried filling his time with a secondary form of employment.
“I’d go take pictures of boxes behind Walmart … but I was just like running around town, ‘Oh, let me go take a picture of some product on the shelf and evaluate it,’ and they’ll give me like five bucks,” Wade said. “So I did that for a couple of weeks. And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m burning more gas than I’m making bucks taking pictures of supermarkets.’”
He continued searching for other ways to earn a few dollars and then saw people creating sneaker art. He soon matched his innate artistic ability with shoes, and now he’s designing for Claypool. And the Bears’ front office.
Prior to the stellar Chicago receiver’s cleats, Wade designed shoes for fellow Naval Academy alum and Bears’ chief of staff Sean Magee, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, team clinician Carla Suber and director of operations-logistics Kyle Kelly.
“It was just a really cool experience, you know, seeing the people’s reactions,” Wade said.
The former Navy football player also contributed cleats to the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats weekend games during the past two years, achieving one of his goals of getting his art on national television.
My Cause My Cleats is a weekend where players can don cleats that aren’t specific to their team and that bring awareness to causes and charities important to them.
New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona was outfitted with Wade’s designs.
“Joe wore a pair of my cleats last year,” he said. “I did a pair of 9/11 and the 13 members that were killed, service members that were killed in Afghanistan during the Afghan pullout. He wanted to pay tribute to them. So we did that for Veterans Day last year.”
Cardona requested cleats again for 2022, and Wade felt like he had arrived.
Growth is on his mind. In his first year, he produced 25 pairs, increasing that to 150 in year two. At the writing of this article, Wade Custom Shoe Company is on 300 and counting.
“It’s crazy,” Waid said. “That’s a lot of nights and weekends and missed family time. But I look at it like, you know, you got to put the work in if you want the magic to happen.”