The Shoe Diaries: Meet the Artists

August 4, 2010

The Art and Sole section of The Shoe Must Go On! celebrates the creativity of artists with shoe-inspired art works. This week, Sue Simek, in the Morris Museum’s public relations office, spoke to four artists represented in the exhibition about their work and inspirations, and, of course, shoes:

Willie Cole is a New Jersey-based artist who transforms found objects in his art:


My experience with shoes is similar to my experience with using the steam iron in my work. I found one [an iron] on the street, took it apart, and treated it like a Tinkertoy. I think of these objects as fractals or pixels or cells, and rework them so they don’t resemble the original object. I don’t know what the final work will look like while it is in process. Think of it as buying a jigsaw puzzle in a plastic bag – but without the picture – you work on putting it together, without a clear guide, and finally the picture emerges.

The Venus sculpture at the museum is an early piece, and was my first attempt at a full body work using female shoes. Previously I had used shoes to create couches, chairs and masks. I had the Venus of Willendorf sculpture image in my head. I was inspired by my knowledge of art history, African and tribal cultures and also my love of cartoons. The scarification in the title refers to punched out stars, and designs in the leather.

Venus of Willendorf WillieColeBlackVenus

Venus of Willendorf (Naturhistorische Museum, Vienna) and Black Patent Leather Venus with Scarification (1993)

I am drawn to objects with a strong history, like high heels. My mom loves high heels, and is still wearing them, at (almost) age 75. I started buying shoes at the Salvation Army’s warehouse in Paterson, NJ, which distributes clothing to other Salvation Army stores. I was looking for an object for my artwork that would be available in massive quantities, and there were more high heeled shoes than anything else – in many different colors and textures. I went back several times, and to other thrift shops in my travels, and within a year I had millions of high heeled shoes. At one point I stored them in a 3,000 square foot helicopter hangar! There are many colors, but right now I’m using mainly black, white and red shoes in my work. •

Sole Brother by Willie Cole

Sole Brother Number 1. This shoe poster is available in the Morris Museum’s gift shop.

Before you walk into the exhibition galleries, you see Toronto-based artist Marina Dempster’s work Immune (2008), which boldly announces that this is no ordinary shoe show. Marina talks here about her work and inspiration:

MD Setting up Immune

I flew down from Toronto to install Immune at the Morris Museum, just in time for the Girls’ Night Out event.

I love the potential of shoes to tell stories and I think that they say a lot about the person wearing them. The shoes I create are magical shoes – living and breathing – and you become a part of them when you envision slipping your feet into them. I think you can step into a sculpture, and it becomes a part of you, too.

Marina Dempster

Marina Dempster

I was strongly influenced by a Huichol artist who came to Toronto, when I participated in his workshop using traditional Huichol techniques.

The Huicholes are an indigenous Mexican group, in danger of losing their community. I was born in Mexico, and feel a resonance with the Huichol culture and their belief in the reciprocal nature of taking care of the planet. Their techniques use beeswax and resin to hold beads and yarn in place on a surface – the method used in Immune. You have probably seen yarn paintings like this one.

Huichol Yarn Art

From the Huichol Center

In Immune, the beads on the shoes provide visual beauty of course, and also tactile sensitivity – you don’t see them, but there are beads on the soles of the shoes as well as the uppers. The quills are balancing mechanisms, connecting to animal nature, and with humor, I also think of these quills as a means of self preservation.

This is a very labor-intensive artform, where it takes a lot of time to anchor each bead or feather. To me, the materials used are a perfect metaphor for the busyness in our lives (the busy bees creating wax), balanced by the slow, flowing nature of the work (the slowness in creation and flow of resin/sap). The process becomes a metaphor. I am guided by the philosophy “Paths are made by walking” (Antonio Machado) •

Etu Evans headshot photo (4)

Etu Evans called in from Germany during his recent trip exploring retail opportunities with European companies. He talked about his love of shoes and fashion, and some of his creations, including the Solesville Foundation:

Shapes make me think of my grandmother. When I was young she talked about a time when she didn’t have shoes. I remember her sitting on the bed and asking me which shoes to wear. Even then, I had a great sense of style. But I would wonder, at age 5, Why did her body change? And then I realized that it was the different height of the shoes that would change her height, which I perceived as her body changing.

I was a behavioral therapist, working in Europe, and met the publicist for Gucci who was drawn to my sense of style. That led me on the path to shoe design. I started by making custom shoes for celebrities and then developed a European fan base. I call my shoes the “DNA of Luxocrats.” Luxocrat is a term I came up with for someone who appreciates and can afford luxury and the finest things in life. My shoes are unique, created for one person, and can be passed on to family members, much like DNA. I’ve also studied antique furniture – the craftsmanship by hand and old-world charm inspire my work.

Etu Evans Barbwire sandal

I call these Rikers Island Barbwire Wedge Sandal because love hurts, and sometimes surrendering to love is a crime.

Etu Evans Cockatoo boot

I love birds. I thought about what would be the ideal cage for the bird, if I had one for a pet, and I came up with this “Cockatoo boot” design.

A shoe is the cradle of who you are. The shoe is a point of style and health, and feet are key to your health. I created a foundation called Solesville with two missions: to provide shoes to disenfranchised children, youth and first time job seekers in the US, Africa, the Caribbean and South America; and to fight pediatric AIDS through education, awareness and treatment. One aspect of AIDS prevention is to provide shoes, for example, in Africa, so no one walks in water which is contaminated and can worsen infections. •

Etu Evans logo photo (4)

The Etu Evans Foundation on Facebook

When you step on the pedal of the interactive sculpture, The Heeling Process, a motor starts, and gears and belts move in a mechanism filled with heels and shoes, including bronze baby shoes with wooden high heels! The artist, Brooklyn-based Stephen ‘Gerbo’ Gerberich, has had two one-man shows at the Morris Museum. He talked about The Heeling Process, and his work process:


Stephen Gerberich

The Heeling Process was created specifically for this exhibition and includes design elements for heels, such as rotating, testing and carving. This is my first shoe piece, although I’ve had the wooden heels in my studio for years. I’m always rescuing items for future use.


Starting The Heeling Process

I build art machines that move ideas. My work is interactive and mechanical – the theme always originates from the motor. From there, it’s a matter of problem solving, adding and subtracting. My sculptures reflect historical machinery and artifacts, and raise some questions about composition and movement. If at first you don’t succeed, try epoxy.


My favorite shoes

In the gallery alongside The Heeling Process is a vitrine showcasing my old work boots, which were featured in the book “My Favorite Shoes” I wore those shoes for five years when I cracked my left calcaneus [heel bone] and they helped me heal – I guess that was my own “Heeling Process.” Having them on display here makes them more precious. On top of the vitrine, you’ll see an old advertisement for Gerberich-Payne Boy Scout shoes – way back in my family line, there is a connection to shoes! •

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Special thanks to our friends and partners at the Morris Museum for the Shoe Diaries guest series. If you haven’t seen the exhibit yet, it runs through August 29th. Please see below for visitor information:

The Morris Museum is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. We are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Admission: $10 for adults; $7 for children/students/seniors.
General admission is free on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m.

Guided tours of the exhibition are offered every Saturday at 1 p.m.

When you visit the Morris Museum’s The Shoe Must Go On! exhibition, donate a pair of shoes and receive $1.00 off admission. All shoe donations go to “CUMAC – Feeding People and Changing Lives” in Paterson, NJ.

Please note, the museum will be closed to the public from August 9 to August 15, inclusive.