‘My inspiration for this series of work started with the discovery of my first baby shoe, from 1951, which my late mother had kept safe. It was well worn and still bore rust marks from the nails. I never did ask her what happened to the other one. I became fascinated by various customs and traditions associated with footwear, and the fact that the shoe or boot is the only garment which really retains the shape or imprint of the wearer. It is therefore presumed to contain the essence, spirit and personality of the person who wore it.’
These words were written by artist Chrissy Stangroom in the catalogue for ‘Worn’, an exhibition held at the Old Station Gallery in Rowsley, Derbyshire, from 13th August to 8th September 2016. The exhibition showcases the work of printmakers from the Green Door Printmaking Studio, who were asked to individually respond to the theme of ‘worn’. Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the exhibition launch and speaking with Chrissy, whose work overlaps with my own.
Chrissy, who has been printmaking for about 15 years now, chose to produce photopolymer etchings of shoes for ‘Worn’, inspired by a plate she’d made for a previous exhibition on memory: ‘Learning to Run’. In this print Chrissy had captured the image of her very first shoe, retained by her mother.
Chrissy actually had the shoe with her at the gallery and brought it out to show me, explaining that “It all started from that one shoe.” By ‘it’, Chrissy means her artistic fascination with footwear, and indeed all nine of her plates in the exhibition focus on shoes, boots, sandals, and socks. Included are images of her friend’s boots, her daughter’s baptismal shoe, and the first shoes of her children, some of which are on display in the flesh, so to speak.
Following the habit of her mother, she kept her children’s first shoes, keeping them safe in a box under her bed – her very own concealed shoes. “These were actually Mothercare,” she says, carefully handling her son’s blue-and-white gingham shoes, “but they still mean something to me.”
“I find them quite personal items,” she explains. “Shoes are the things that have an imprint of the person that’s worn them. If you look inside a shoe there’s the shape of the person’s foot, so I think that’s why they used to think the person’s essence was contained in that shoe.”
Chrissy knows the owners and the stories of all the shoes she has worked with – all but one. “I didn’t know the person that wore that one,” she says, pointing to the plate in the lower left-hand corner. It’s an image of a single boot; it fills the plate in stark black-and-white tones, and offers few clues about how old it is and who might have worn it. Beneath it are the simple words ‘Concealed Boot, 19 South Street, Derby’. Yes, this is an etching of a concealed shoe.
Chrissy first heard about concealed shoes from her friend Anna, who’d found a number of mysterious objects concealed in her own house. Conducting some research online, Chrissy came across the Northampton Shoe Museum Concealed Shoe Index, and from there found out about a pair of boots held at Derby Museum. They’d been discovered in a mid-terrace in Derby during renovations to the chimneybreast, and subsequently donated to the nearby museum, where Chrissy photographed them for her printmaking.
Chrissy guesses that the boots once belonged to a builder who hid them in the chimney, but she doesn’t hypothesise why. “I find it fascinating that there’s loads of different traditions with shoes and boots,” she says, recalling how her mother – who had firmly claimed not to be superstitious – forbade the placing of shoes on tables. Another shoe custom she mentions is the tying of boots to the back of cars and, earlier, carriages, at weddings. Why such customs were followed are a mystery, but that’s what attracts her to them: “I like puzzles and hidden things and mysteries,” she admits with a smile. It’s no wonder that concealed shoes are right up her street!
Meeting Chrissy gave me a really interesting insight into an artist’s perspective. As a folklore archaeologist, I look at a concealed shoe and the first things I think about are the date it might have been made, the date it might have been concealed, and the specific location in which it was found. But hearing Chrissy describe her work, I realise she contemplates an entirely different set of aspects, focusing instead on the shoes’ colours, their textures, their wear: “They were quite marked,” she remembers, examining the plate. “They looked as if they’d been well worn and they’d been used – you know, they’d got marks all over them from use. But I particularly liked the texture along the side of the sole.” She runs her finger over the image, where the jagged surface of the sole seems almost three dimensional.
“They look like nothing, don’t they, really?” she decides, turning back to her children’s first shoes, which sit on a plinth beside the prints. This is true of most shoes, including – or especially – the concealed variety. To the owner, they mean something; they have a story and memories associated with them. But to anyone else, they’re just old shoes. But that’s the point of her work: “the idea is actually to make them an object that you would look at.” By enlarging the shoes, having them fill her prints in the patinating tones of black-and-white, sepia, and a subdued blue, and by tantalising the observer with simple yet enigmatic captions, Chrissy is succeeding in what she set out to do: making these shoes objects that people look at.
To find out more about Chrissy’s work, visit her Facebook page here.