Stepping Out Volume 40.3

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SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Tamar Navama Volume 39.4

 
I deliberately show the backside of the skin, the ugly side that people want to hide,” Navama explains. “There is the process of transformation between animal, a live creature, to an object. In our minds we forget this process and I’m trying to bring it back and show it.
 
ARMPIT NECKLACE of silver, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, alligator skin, 7.5 x 9.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2010.  Photograph by Yaniv Schwartz.

ARMPIT NECKLACE of silver, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, alligator skin, 7.5 x 9.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2010. Photograph by Yaniv Schwartz.

MIRROR SKIN CUFF of silver and leather, 7.6 x 7.0 x 5.5 centimeters, 2014.  Photograph by Tamar Navama.

MIRROR SKIN CUFF of silver and leather, 7.6 x 7.0 x 5.5 centimeters, 2014. Photograph by Tamar Navama.

Perhaps leather’s close affinity to the human skin as a protective and insulating material has made it seem too primary, too foundational to serve as ornament: as an enhancement that acquires its attractions partly because it is functionally superfluous. Perhaps leather’s susceptibility to wear and tear makes it feel too ephemeral to embody the kinds of projected desires for perfection that precious objects generally reflect. Perhaps leather is simply too common a substance to be charged with any significant symbolic meaning, except in the case of certain animal pelts, jaguar or leopard, for example, in which the leather itself remains concealed beneath colorful patterned fur. For whatever reason, leather is an oddity in ornament. Used by humans for thousands of years, perhaps even before our full evolution into humanity, leather as a wearable material is perpetuated in our shoes, belts and purses, but it almost never infiltrates our jewelry, except in the subordinate, utilitarian role of a watchband or a cord on which to string rustic beads.

TAMAR NAVAMA   wearing one of her earrings, in yellow plastic, brass and silver.  Photograph by Erin C. Turner. 

TAMAR NAVAMA wearing one of her earrings, in yellow plastic, brass and silver. Photograph by Erin C. Turner. 

      For Dallas, Texas artist Tamar Navama the seemingly inevitable lot of leather to be a wearable substance routinely relegated to functional duties, even when dyed and varnished to a high gloss, has entailed both challenges and opportunities ever since she began exploring the material as the mainstay of her jewelry. One of her key concerns has been to overcome longstanding prejudices against the idea of leather as a precious material, or, more accurately, as a material precious in its own right rather than as a consequence of its incorporation into Gucci handbags or Jimmy Choo boots. To address this concern she has followed a two-pronged strategy in which leather sometimes asserts the inherent physical qualities, pliability, for example, that make it so useful as a functional material and other times transcend its physicality to become an inspiration for design and even a template for production of elements in other media. Regardless of whether her works incorporate actual leather or merely the traces and impressions of it, she has made leather the focus of her work with the consistency and determination of an advocate.

The foundational series for Navama’s engagement of leather, Second Skin, is also the most varied, embracing leather both as a material to be appreciated in itself and as a source of visual and conceptual abstraction. The series title, a seemingly straightforward reference to wearing animal skin over human skin, is ambiguous enough to allow for at least three other interpretations that have opened fruitful lines of artistic exploration: the use of scraps of leather ordinarily devalued as commercial seconds; the relationship between real skin and its synthetic imitation; and, most conceptually complex of all, the temporary transformation of the wearer’s skin from its primary condition as a site for ornament to a secondary state as representation, a transition occurring, for example, when the heavy, textured surface of a bracelet is lifted from a wearer’s wrist and momentarily leaves its physical traces behind in the form of impressions in the skin.

 

The first and most direct interpretation of Second Skin, the concept of an animal skin serving as a kind of prosthesis for or duplicate of the human skin, has been explored by Navama in a series of brooches, rings and pendants incorporating small pieces of dark alligator hide. Mounted on silver or plastic backings, the bits of animal skin generally do not lie, as clothing would, directly against the wearer’s own skin, nor do they serve any functional purpose. Irregularly shaped, like pieces from an eccentric jigsaw puzzle, they play formally against elements of silver or gold in an organic-and-geometric dynamic. Lest the scaly network of the leather’s surface become too easily abstracted into mere pattern, Navama reminds the viewer of the material’s nature as animal skin by tacking it to its backing with tiny gold pins that recall the process of stretching and curing hide as well as shaping it over blocks.

In other instances, as in the case of a pendant with the appearance of a torn watch band, the raw side of the leather remains visible, a reminder that the material has been stripped from an animal’s body and preserved for human use. “I deliberately show the backside of the skin, the ugly side that people want to hide,” Navama explains. “There is the process of transformation between animal, a live creature, to an object. In our minds we forget this process and I’m trying to bring it back and show it.” No implicit judgment is conveyed by this action. Navama does not moralize over an industry that, by its very nature, depends on death. She does, however, wish to underscore the fact that leather is worthy of respect and admiration as a precious material that cannot simply be mined from the earth like diamonds or gold.

Another potential reading of the series title Second Skin concerns both the industry’s focus on particular sections of alligator skin—those in which the scales are most regular and the skin is fitted to the flattest areas of the animal’s body—and its rejection of the remaining irregularly patterned and contoured parts as seconds. The titles Armpit Ring and Armpit Necklace might convey an immediate impression of vulgarity, but in fact they are merely descriptive of the location over which the pieces of leather they incorporate once lay on the alligator’s body. Difficult to use, unlike the hornback or belly skin of the alligator, these sections are, in effect, industrial discards. For Navama, the process of incorporating them into jewelry is not so much an act of aggrandizement, of raising the mundane or abysmal to an exalted status, as of vindication. In ornament, a piece of alligator hide can be as visually luxuriant and formally vital as any precious gem, regardless of whether the clothing and accessories industries would classify it as primary or secondary skin.

STINGRAY CUFF of silver and copper, 7.0 x 7.0 x 5.7 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Lynné Bowman Cravens. ERUPTION CUFF #2 of silver and plastic, 8.5 x 8.5 x 14.5 centimeters, 2014. Photograph by Lynné Bowman Cravens. BLACK ON BLACK SERIES #6 NECKLACE of steel, paint, paper, plastic, 7.0 x 18.0 centimeters, 2015. Model: Jacklyn Butt. Photograph by Lynné Bowman Cravens.

      A third strategy through which Navama has explored the concept of a second skin involves both the body of the wearer of a piece of jewelry and reference to animal skin incorporated, as material or as image, into that jewelry. Here, the second skin is largely metaphorical: a trace, a pattern of evidence, left behind after the surface, or “skin,” of a piece of jewelry is removed from where it rested on the body. In part, works in this vein are about the nature of jewelry and how the maker can utilize it as a link between the surface of the body and the larger material world. A good example is a bracelet in which a raised pattern of granulation relates to ray skin. “The inspiration for this is looking at the skin and trying to imitate it, but the imitation is coming from my metalsmith world,” Navama explains. “It’s a sheet that has been drilled, and then there are granules on the inside that are meant to create impressions on the wrist. You’re left with the skin while this object is sitting on the table, so there is kind of a shift from the bracelet to what’s happened on the body.”

A fourth potential meaning of Second Skin—as a reference to a surrogate or stand-in for real leather—is suggested by such works as the Climbing Brooch, in which simulated alligator scales stamped into metal plates serve as integral parts of the compositions. More illusionistic than this is the black-plastic alligator skin incorporated into Eruption Bracelet #1 and Eruption Bracelet #2. These hollow-formed-silver, c-shaped cuff bracelets—aesthetically dramatic contrasts of light and dark, smooth and rough, geometric and organic—recall expensive fashion objects that incorporate actual alligator skin, but at the same time their inclusion of a synthetic material associated with mass production raises questions. Should these works be seen as sophisticated decorative-art objects that elevate the aesthetic status and monetary value of ersatz alligator skin to the levels associated with the real thing, or are they, on the contrary, high-end objects conceptually brought low by the infiltration of imitation? Another interpretation, more consistent with Navama’s expressed views on alligator hide, is that the skin itself, abstracted into a scale pattern in the plastic substitute, is responsible for its own elevation. In other words, alligator skin has an intrinsic, rather than merely contextual, value as an abstract design element.

Exploration of this abstract design element in a purely formal context led Navama to develop a related line, or rather sub-series of jewelry encompassed by the Second Skin series: the Fresh Brooches. In these works, she has employed digital files created with Illustrator software as the basis for brightly colored acrylic jewelry. “Those files are coming from images of an alligator skin that I traced then adjusted by shrinking and expanding parts,” she explains, “but here, instead of trying to create a memory for skin, it’s okay for the forms to have their own lives. I got these imitations of imitations of imitations, and then at some point they became these laser-cut acrylic shapes in different colors.” These often serve as components in unique formal arrangements that include brushed silver plates, various stones set in bezels, and silver link chains, but Navama has also employed them in production jewelry by attaching simple findings to create bracelets or large earrings. She has also experimented with laser cutting the designs in other materials, such as paper, rubber and—in a cycle from material to abstraction and back again—leather.

 

TAMAR NAVAMA’S VARIED INTERESTS INCLUDE HANDMADE LEATHER SHOES AND PURSES AND COLLABORATIONS, SUCH AS ONE DURING NEW YORK FASHION WEEK.

FOUR VIEWS OF TALL SHOES, wet molded and leather lamination, 2012. The shoes are transitioning between an animal and a shoe. The tail represents the creature while running away, which also hinders the wearer from walking easily. Model: Natalie Keinan. Photograph by Tamar Navama.

NEW YORK FASHION WEEK 2015. Navama was invited to design and create jewelry for Naadam Cashmere. Naadam is a socially conscious cashmere garment brand based in New York that partners with herders in Mongolia. Her jewelry was accessorized to their collection, in brightly colored orange, blue and yellow necklaces and bracelets, consisting of silver, thread, cord, silver-plated copper rings and carabiner clasps. Photographs by Hannah Thomson, courtesy of Naadam.

 

      The title Fresh Brooches conveys something of the vitality and vibrancy that Navama associates with the jewelry of this series. “It’s more playful than my other work,” she notes. “I have two babies in my world, so I started making things in yellow and red.” Like the colors, the shapes are exuberant, partly because they arise from a genuine curiosity about what might result from stretching, contacting, or otherwise altering the original designs in Illustrator and partly because those designs have originated in characteristics of the scaling of an alligator’s skin that evolved specifically to facilitate a lively interaction with the physical world. “As I alter the patterns, I try to leave one of the things that is most important and interesting for me,” Navama says. “That’s the change of the pattern on the animal. Some parts of the skin need to bend, so they’re different from the parts that will be constantly rubbed against something. Around the eyes the scales get smaller so that the skin can have the wrinkles that it needs in order to move. The shapes change based on the use of that part of the animal. For me there is something amazing in that, and I’m trying to take it and use it and show it in my work.”

If the Fresh Brooches convey the energy and elasticity of life, Navama’s series Black on Black acknowledges that life is inevitably and eternally linked to stasis as well. “I lost my mom a few years ago, and it’s something that I had on my mind,” she explains, “so I consider the Black on Black necklaces to be mourning jewelry, though they’re not necessarily meant to be used for that purpose.” Deriving from her practice of manipulating scale patterns in Illustrator then laser-cutting these to create web-like pendants, the Black on Black works are quieter, more poignant and more intimate counterparts to the Fresh Brooches. Suspended on silver chains that are sometimes partly or wholly darkened with liver of sulfur, the pendants convey melancholy but also the serenity that comes with detachment from the material world through spiritual or philosophical acceptance of ephemerality. The medium, plastic layered over laser-cut paper rather than acrylic, is crucial to the Black on Black works in this respect. In the imperfections arising from the process of creation—the membranes that randomly close some of the holes and the tiny knobs and trailings that occur within others—the frailty of life is written with poetic simplicity. Here, the affinity of alligator hide to human skin, brought out by Tamar Navama through the process of abstraction peculiar to art, transcends the functional and ornamental and broaches the existential.

 

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Glen R. Brown is a Kansas State University professor. Drawn to media underused in contemporary jewelry, he noted a vital issue raised by the alligator-skin brooches and pendants of Dallas artist Tamar Navama. “When it incorporates alligator-hide scraps incongruously with geometric silver components, Tamar’s work conveys the melancholy of a fragile nature subjected to industry,” he remarks, “but when her work involves alligator-hide patterns invading the realm of digitally generated design, then nature—as an idea, at least—reasserts itself within the artificial to remind us of things we can’t really do without.”

Chris Francis Volume 38.3

CHRIS FRANCIS: TINKER, TAILOR, SHOEMAKER

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

With every dawning day, that rockstar glamour emerges from a robust shower of hair. Creator Chris Francis bears the resemblance of a raucous musician, of treble-decibel proportions. Deliciously satisfying to meet in person, the shine does not wear off even upon discovering that he is actually a shoemaker.

      Born in Kokomo, Indiana, Francis has forged a trail through life, managing that seemingly-impossible task of remaining one hundred percent on. Having migrated from job to job, from working on film sets to skyscraper abseiler, Francis has made his way in the world led by an attitude of embracing the experience and the present moment.

He is no less passionately engaged in his current occupation of shoemaker as his other walks of life. In four years, he has plunged wholesale into a demanding craft, and found room for personal expression that literally overflows like water burbling out the sides of a boiling soup pot.

Francis has been showing in “Chris Francis: Shoe Designer” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and in an agreement with the museum he transported his entire studio into its front window. This arrangement allowed guests direct access to the maker himself as he crafts his shoes. A friend came with me to the museum to meet with Francis for an interview and a lively discussion and debate ensued. Originally from May 24 through September 5, the exhibition, while downsized, has been extended through January 3, 2016, with his studio in the museum window still receiving visitors.

With a background as a carpenter and a clothing maker, among his other occupations, these experiences of working with his hands were integral steps before his current stint in creating shoes. There is a high degree of competence in their construction that no fresh amateur could achieve. It is the seasoning of life experience that provided the grounding to move on to this new stage.

 Francis’s journey has been a story of going with the flow in a conscious, and conscientious, direction. One of his comments refers to his making a curriculum for himself, a curriculum of life. 

Francis attended the Art Institute of Maryland for over a year, but he found prevailing attitudes about types of art and their value in relation to each other stifling. Francis values learning, whatever the source, and he attributes the class in color theory at the Art Institute as being foundational for his sense of shoe design.

Catching the freight train express, Francis traveled, worked and lived across the country for five years. The diverse occupations he took on all played a role in broadening his skillset—“I worked as a tree topper which taught me perseverance,” he reports. “I was a street side shoe shiner in Chicago and in New York, which proved to be a street level business course that taught me humility, and sparked my fascination for shoes. I worked on fishing ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific where I learned knot work and developed a deep understanding for life.” Seeing the vast nets of fish being reeled in, with hundreds to thousands of gasping, dying animals, made Francis consider the world more carefully and compassionately.

 
LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015.   Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015. Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

 

      When he made the decision to become a shoemaker, Francis threw himself into the effort with both feet first. He went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s bookstore and studied all the pattern making books until he memorized the formulas. Francis is a dog lover. With his terrier Schnoopy (a beloved family member, source of inspiration and continuoustrickster), he would go to the dog park to sew his first shoes. Lacking a leather sewing machine, Francis had to do all the work by hand, and in the beginning there were no proper shoe lasts, so he carved them himself on the dog park bench. He picked up tools where he could, often from other makers in the Hollywood area. “They all have a great deal of attached history,” he murmurs fondly. His big find came in an attic two blocks away from Salvatore Ferragamo’s first shop in Hollywood. The majority of the lasts he now owns came from that discovery.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside.  Photographs by Chris Francis.  CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop.  Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside. Photographs by Chris Francis. CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop. Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

      This road of self-choice has not been easy. Francis has had to surmount many obstacles, from technical issues to lack of tools, equipment and materials. However, knowing this was the road he wanted to tread made matters rather simple. When asked about how he managed, Francis responds, “I just think it was determination. Just not giving in at all. I was told, so many times, what you’re doing is absolutely crazy. One guy told me I’m building a Spruce Goose—he’s like, ‘Quit, you’re building a Spruce Goose doing that.’ See I’ve always had this running joke with Howard Hughes, you know, over that, and all I can say is, ‘The Spruce Goose flew man! And it went to a museum!’ ”

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

      Francis comes from Kokomo, a small town in Indiana, a factory town, with white steam billowing from the ghostly forest of chimneys. It is the inspiration behind one of his shoes, a logical anomaly where the shoes’ sole is a fluffy white cloud, and the heel and platform the factory buildings, multicolored in greenish-blue hues, with slanted roofs, backed by the exhaust pipe exhaling its deep, vaporous breath. In fact, it is a shoe sitting on a shoe, or rather, clouds floating above the factories. Their name is Homesick, and they are composed of cotton, wood, batting, steel, rubber, leather, and paint.

Like Detroit, which thrived and fell on the rise and fall of the car industry, Kokomo was home to many steel and car manufacturing plants. The 1980s rendered those factories into an industrial mausoleum, and Francis grew up in this steel and concrete graveyard. “As a kid I played in the abandoned factories, the interiors of blast furnaces became time machines or other imaginary scenarios. I was fascinated by these giant machines. My environment shaped me, and gave me a social conscience at a very early age,” he relates. As he became older, his uncle introduced the young Francis to punk, taking him to shows in Chicago and Kokomo, and this  
musical movement provided a social refuge.

Music plays a fundamental role in Francis’s life. Sounds literally are colors in his mind’s eye; listening to music is as putting paintbrush to canvas. Music becomes visions, visions become paintings, and that ethereal conduit from energy to physicality takes place because of sonic inspiration. One wonders if, despite punk influences, jazz blazes in his soul. The quick paintings that Francis creates as his model for a pair of shoes is like the abstract play between trumpet blare and saxophone flair. They are what happens when musical notes become visual notes. Protoforms lurk within the curves and sharp angles of Francis’s paintings, an effort, as he describes it, to portray the blueprint for transforming something from the first dimension to the third dimension.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

      Francis’s perspective of the multiple dimensions, as is his knowledge regarding a number of different subjects, is homegrown—he is a person who tries to figure out the world for himself. “I guess the way I thought we defined one dimension was when it’s just a line like this, and a line that has no shading, no illusion of depth, is what I always considered the first dimension, in the sense of drawing. Then once you shade it and add a point of light, and that sort of depth reference, that’s the second dimension, and then once you bring that to the next level, to the ‘third’ dimension, you expand it into the reality. That’s just how I’ve always broken it down.”

This way of viewing the world extends to his method of making as well. “I basically start by attempting to break as many rules as I can possibly get away with. Every shoe is different and involves new sets of probabilities, each with unique structural challenges and material variables. If the shoe is for a client I am usually pretty hand-tied to tradition and I have to follow more of the known techniques of shoemaking,” he explains.

And what shoes does he make? If you were to take someone who absorbed influences from all over the world, and provided him a vast canvas to methodically paint interpretations, variations and experiments, this is what his oeuvre would be. Francis seeks to stretch us beyond labels, and his shoes, although eventually identifiable, do their best in one way or another to undermine our concept of what a shoe should be or is. At least, the successful ones are. He ruefully acknowledges there are a lot of failures among his “babies.”

 
SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

 

      How to describe one? A Pinocchio’s nose elongated Thousand and One Nights/Scheherazade style into footwear? Or perhaps something fit for an Arabian Jack and the Beanstalk? Reusing textile samples from carpets and wall hangings, the interior is sumptuous gold, with some glittering golden faux snake leather adorning the heel. The divergence between observer and maker can be quite pronounced, however, as we find that Francis’s muse for this piece is the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767). The characters residing within have various“hobby horses” in their lives, bringing color and that peculiarity of behavior which lead to individuality in their personalities. Francis felt himself relating to the concept of an activity or occupation that helped define one’s identity, and from there these fairy tale shoes took shape. However, it is this diversity of response from his audience which titillates him.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015. Photograph by Chris Francis.

Two rather stately and bold ivory-white, purple, yellow, and red high heels come accented with a deep blue-gray platform that keeps the eye winding from contrast to contrast, all the way up the shoe. Its spiralling sinuous shape wends its way towards the heavens. They belong to the clean, sleek world of modern royalty. However, in a democratized fashion, anyone who can afford them could wear these graceful pumps. There are no court artisans here.

When he really succeeds at breaking “as many rules as he can possibly get away with,” the results barely look like footwear. “So this one, is called Dada Tepepa, and this one’s kind of far out. This was me being very bored with shoemaking, and not wanting to play by the rules of shoemaking. That thought was really absurd, but I started feeling absurd being a shoemaker in the modern world. When I’m making these objects, but you can just go to the store and buy them for twenty dollars, why make these things at all? So I thought, if I’m going to be that absurd, why not make really absurd objects altogether?

“I was watching this spaghetti Western movie called Tepepa, and it was about this Mexican revolutionary single-handedly fighting the government, and I thought that was fantastic. I sort of felt I was like that with shoemaking a bit. I don’t want to make brogues, I didn’t make brogues yesterday, I didn’t wake up making them today and I’ve got no plans to make them tomorrow, and I’m going to make teepees.” He gesticulates towards them—they are like giant, primeval tents encasing the foot. He says with obvious pride, and a slight touch of awe: “They’re wearable. They’re all handstitched. I sat there and handstitched them for hours. That was sort of the insanity of it all. And then doing it twice, that was the ultimate act of insanity. Making a ridiculous object twice.”

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street. Photograph by Chris Francis.

However, there are rather wonderful reasons why Francis makes ridiculous objects. “I make the objects I make because they are in the most reasonable format I’ve found to express myself in the world. They have become a true extension of myself and my personality, sharing my awkwardness and whimsical outlook. I often exist more comfortably in my own imagination—most of my creations make sense there. Sometimes I make designs only because they make me laugh and I’m okay with them being laughed at when they arrive in reality—it becomes the function of the object!”

On his ride through time, with multiple stops along the road, Francis has pretty well exemplified his own preachings. Now that he has become a shoemaker, he explains why this particular occupation is fulfilling. “The shoe challenges me and inspires my imagination more than anything else. I see the shoe as a sculptural object capable of infinite possibility, an outlet for invention and a way to be a structural engineer and architect on a small scale. The shoe has also become my means of expression and my format for relaying my interpretations of life, history, sound, and social commentary. Every shoe is a unique situation with changing variables, the odds for failure make for an exciting gamble.”

Although Francis would perhaps revel in being called an iconoclast, he is in fact accepting of all types, from the corporate marketing world to blue collar workers to the urbanites of Los Angeles. What he dislikes is the result of a corporate system: its environmental and cultural impact, and its effect on us as individuals and human beings rather than consumers. His work, and
his dedication to the handmade, is a manifestation of his philosophies and principles in action. “A tactile and interactive life is just the most peaceful way I’ve found to exist, so I prefer it. The best way to propagate anything is by example and by offering positive solutions. My positive solution is to be the person you want to be in the world, and live a life that doesn’t abuse others. Live your art or whatever your dreams may be and create a world that you love. Be yourself and let others be themselves and invent your own way of life.”

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop. Photograph by Chris Francis.

 

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. This issue, he is delighted to debut Chris Francis, shoemaker extraordinaire, currently parked in the front window of the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. He found in Francis a patient and curious person who revels in the self-expression and exploration the artist achieves through crafting shoes. In addition to this report, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft News, where you can find out what is happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.