Stilettos, Chopines and Shoes from Galilee

"Ebullient" by Marina Dempster
“Ebullient” by Marina Dempster

I’m collecting shoes. Juicy shoes. Shoes that aren’t afraid of being different, or saying what they really think. Shoes that tell our history, tell a story, or perhaps even tell lies.
Ever since my experience with Richard G. Murphy’s shoes, and other shoes sent in by my readers, I’ve become fascinated with foot coverings that have been altered, as their owners transcend fashion dictates to make a statement, opting to personalize a mass-produced article of clothing.

Now take this concept, present it to visual artists, and what you’ll get is an extraordinary traveling exhibition, The Perfect Fit: Shoes Tell Stories, currently at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Before leaving for Albany, New York to see this exhibition, I must admit that I found myself agonizing over what shoes I should wear. The stylish black heels, my funky pink artist sneakers, or the comfortable moosehide moccasins I purchased at a Native American powwow? Since I was going to be walking alot, I finally decided on comfort over style and funk.

OK, now I’m ready.

Visiting the exhibition, I discovered alot more than just decorated shoes:

"Red Steel Hi-Heel" by Diana Shampang-Voorhies. Photo: Overlay Photography
“Red Steel Hi-Heel” by Diana Shampang-Voorhies. Photo: Overlay Photography

This shoe made my feet hurt just looking at it – reminding me of my college years when I’d dance all night in three-inch heels. (How on earth did we all manage in those days?)

”Red Steel Hi-Heel” by Diana Shampang-Voorhies is made from scrap steel and red automotive paint, with a metal shank supported by an industrial drill bit for a heel, and decorated with rusted nail files. The work is a nod to Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo who, in the 1920′s, invented a metal arch support which allowed the ball of the foot to be properly supported over a high heel. By the 1950′s, the four-inch stiletto heel appeared.

Thanks, Salvatore, my feet will never be the same again.

On to the next. . . . . . .Chopines?????

"Chopines and Puddles" by Marjorie Schick. Photo: Gary Pollmiller
“Chopines and Puddles” by Marjorie Schick. Photo: Gary Pollmiller

“Chopines and Puddles” by Marjorie Schick playfully recounts the history of chopines – platform shoes that were originally worn by women in the 14th-17th centuries to protect their shoes and dresses from mud and dirt as they walked in the streets. Chopines were popular in Venice at the time and soon became symbolic of high social standing, allowing women to literally tower over others. Walking in these contraptions, however, required the assistance of servants.

But none of us had servants in the 1970′s and 80′s at the height of the “platform shoe” fad. I barely escaped broken ankles on numerous occasions after trading my high heels for platforms. But I somehow still managed to keep dancing. . .

On the other side of the gallery, a completely different story is molded into these simple, earthy shoes from Jerusalem:

"Abraham and The Three Angels" by Lily Poran
“Abraham and The Three Angels” by Lily Poran

Israeli artist Lily Poran created this mismatched pair of primitive footwear with soil from the Israeli desert and thin layers of cactus/banana fibers that are native to the Galilee region where she lives. A Hebrew text, written in pen and ink over the entire surface, recounts the biblical story of Abraham and the Three Angels.

Detail of "Abraham and the Three Angels" by Lily Poran
Detail of “Abraham and the Three Angels” by Lily Poran

Finding these shoes amidst all the other more colorful representations was a humbling experience reminding me that the deepest of messages are often the most subtle.
Continuing my exploration, I came across another pair of shoes that surprised me: they were created using grapefruit and cantaloupe peels and sewn together with waxed linen:

"Tolerance" by Jan Hopkins. Photo: Ken Rowe
“Tolerance” by Jan Hopkins. Photo: Ken Rowe

They seemed fun and playful at first glance, but there’s a deeper story here. Along the exterior of the shoes is the text: “Judge Her When You’ve Walked in Her Shoes”. Jan Hopkins created these shoes of “Tolerance” to honor a divorced soccer mom who became an exotic dancer in order to to pay the bills.

And now for something completely different. . .

"Super7Hot!" by Rebecca Siemering. Photo: Erik Gould
“Super7Hot!” by Rebecca Siemering. Photo: Erik Gould

These “Super7Hot!” shoes are as festive as a fireworks celebration, but in fact they represent the exact opposite. Rebecca Siemering collected discarded scratch-off tickets from the neighborhood streets of Omaha, Nebraska and turned these losing tickets into magical boots that still hold the promise of winning a million dollars.

There are many more shoes in this exhibit, each one with a fascinating story, whether implied from its materials or stated by the artist. Definitely worth the trip to Albany, NY.

And my feet are glad I opted for comfort.

The Perfect Fit: Shoes Tell Stories which premiered at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, includes approximately 120 works by 100 artists from throughout the U.S. as well as Canada and Israel. The exhibition was curated by Wendy Tarlow Kaplan, a veteran independent curator specializing in contemporary art, whose family has strong ties to Brockton’s legendary shoe manufacturing industry.

The Perfect Fit is now a traveling exhibition, and is currently at the Albany Institute of History & Art, in Albany, NY. To complement the show, a concurrent exhibition, Old Soles – Three Centuries of Shoes, features shoes from the museum’s collection from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Both exhibitions will run through January 2, 2011.

Jessica LaytonIn keeping with the theme of shoes telling stories, an Open Mike Shoe Slam, hosted by Jessica Layton of WNYT, News Channel 13, is scheduled for November 5, 2010 at 6:00PM. Visit the current exhibitions for free and share the story of your shoes.
A Benefit for The Perfect Fit and Old Soles will take place on November 11, 2010 and an Artists Gallery Talk with curator Wendy Tarlow Kaplan will be held on December 3, 2010.

Visit the Albany Institute of History & Art website for more information:

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