Give Julie Chernow anything — a pair of sneakers, a handbag, a vintage jacket — and she’ll transform it into a work of art
By Nicole Frehsee Mazur
In 2013, Julie Chernow’s daughter, Blair, fell in love with a pair of Vans she saw on Instagram. She asked her mom to buy her the shoes, which were colorful, covered with Sharpie drawings — and cost $375.
Chernow had a better idea: “Bring me your shoes and I’ll doodle on them,” she told her daughter. “I said, ‘People have been taking Sharpies to Vans and Converse for years.’” Blair’s “new” sneakers set off a frenzy among her friends, and before Chernow knew it, she had a group of nearly 20 teens clamoring for her hand-designed kicks.
Seven years later, Chernow, 46, still has her Sharpie collection — but she doesn’t just draw on shoes anymore. Under the name Mother Sketcher, the Birmingham resident creates hand-decorated jackets, handbags, purses and even canvases, using everything from markers to acrylic and spray paints. Her designs, which have an aesthetic that can be described as pop-art-meets-biker-chick, have drawn raves from customers nationwide and as far as Germany. “Within a day or two of posting a picture on Instagram, or sometimes even hours, I get calls for an order,” says Chernow, who markets her work solely through her website and social media. (As of press time, her Instagram follower count hovered around 1,430.)
Chernow has taken a somewhat unconventional path to the art world. Not only is she not formally trained, but she’s an attorney by trade who spent years practicing law around Metro Detroit. (She left her job for good when her kids, now 16 and 17½ , were in elementary school.) Despite the fact that some of her pieces fetch thousands of dollars, she still gets “uncomfortable” when people call her an artist. First, she says, she considers Mother Sketcher more of a hobby than a business. “I don’t have to support a family — I can just sit down and create and have no stress about whether or not it sells.”
Second, she says, “I’ve never taken a class!” She does, however, cop to being a prolific doodler. “If you look at my law school books, you can’t find a page that doesn’t have something scribbled on it. It was sort of a mental health thing. It kept me grounded.” (Drawing is still Chernow’s outlet, especially when she can’t sleep: “I’ll get an itch and I’ll have to go in the basement and start creating or I’ll get depressed.”)
Chernow derives much of her inspiration from Instagram, where she follows artists she admires. One of her favorites: New Orleans-based painter Ashley Longshore, who uses lots of beads, glitter and bold colors. “It’s really hard not to be influenced by stuff you’re seeing,” she says. “I want to be inspired but I want to put my own spin on things.”
When deciding which items to put her stamp on, Chernow says she thinks about “what a person like me would wear.” That includes vintage army jackets and handbags from designers like Goyard and Louis Vuitton. She asks clients for quotes and images that resonate with them — say, “Go Blue!” for a Michigan fan or Jerry bears for a Grateful Dead lover — and adds her own twist. “I love anything colorful and bedazzled with lips and skulls and edgy stuff,” she says.
A couple years ago, Chernow expanded her offerings to include custom-painted canvases, which run as large as 6 feet by 7 feet and are plastered with graffiti-style graphics, name-brand logos and upbeat, sometimes-cheeky slogans (“all you need is love” or “uber me pizza”). Stephanie Wineman, the owner of Birmingham marketing and branding firm Gaco Sourcing, bought one for her office, with sayings like “the future is female.” “The piece is a showstopper,” says Wineman. “I love watching others stare at it [and say] they noticed a really cool saying or symbol that resonated with them.”
Chernow prices her pieces based on size and complexity; shoes start at $275, while a large canvas can go for $4,000. She can finish a set of sneakers in less than four hours, but bigger projects may take up to four months. “Everything is done by hand, so I don’t have any way to do it quicker,” she says. “It’s a labor of love.”
Her latest labor of love: painting handmade face masks. In one week, Chernow and Rachel Robinson, a local seamstress, produced over 100 masks and raised more than $10,000. They donated the proceeds to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which is supporting efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
While making the masks, “I did not see or talk to anyone in my house,” laughs Chernow, who often loses track of time when she’s in her creative zone — leaving her husband to take over laundry and cooking duties. “I forget to eat, I have to set my alarm to pick my kids up, I stay up until 3 a.m.,” she says. “That’s how I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing — because it’s bliss.”