Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 17th 2019

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Shoe Gazing

A Look Inside “Worn In / Worn Out: Soul of the Shoe”
By Savannah Evanoff

No shoes, no service—at least that’s what a few zillion storefronts declare. It’s seemingly even more of a priority than the sometimes included “no shirt” requirement.

The concept of shoes as a must-have dates back practically to the beginning of humanity—with the first pair being worn some 40,000 years ago, according to a quick anthropological-natured Google search.

The concept of a shoe likely started with the necessity to protect the feet—and still does—but now hovers in other avenues, too, such as art, fashion and sports.

Amy Bowman-McElhone, Director and Chief Curator, led the transformation of the Pensacola Museum of Art into what can loosely be described as a two-gallery closet to explore anything and everything having to do with shoes for their latest exhibition “Worn In / Worn Out: Soul of the Shoe.”

In total, the exhibition features 175 pairs and will be on display at the museum all summer long.

“Of all our articles of clothing, we always wear shoes,” Bowman-McElhone said.

“They’re our interface with the earth. On the one hand, they’re the most defiled, dirty objects on our bodies at any one time that protect us, but on the other hand are also these signifiers of status and wealth and beauty. It’s really this odd juxtaposition,” she continued.

Bowman-McElhone poses the question, “Are shoes art?” and answers it herself. Shoes are indeed art, but they straddle the line between strict definitions of applied art (i.e. ceramics, jewelry, furniture) and fine art (i.e. paintings, sculptures).

“We’re trying to break these essentialist binary categories and scramble those circuits—look at shoes as visual culture and look at how they cross these boundaries of high culture and low culture, street culture and high design, private spaces and public spaces, how they’re these markers of memory,” she explained. “Then there’s this component of fascination and fetishes.”

As further proof shoes belong in a museum, Bowman-McElhone said the modern museum and department store came into existence around the same time, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“As much as we’d like to say museums are these sacred, secular spaces, they’re really just another type of department store display in some context,” Bowman-McElhone said. “It’s more tightly connected than people like to think.”

The museum’s displays will play with the comparison, also referencing the private spaces shoes are stashed—closets.

Collections Within the Collection
Bowman-McElhone first stumbled into shoes as an art form when she saw Teri Levin’s collection of women’s designer shoes.

“We ended up spending a lot of time drawn to the shoes and looking at them as these aesthetic objects but also as these harbingers and tokens of memory for Teri,” Bowman-McElhone said. “It was really an engrossing experience. It got me thinking about shoes and art and what the possibilities are.”

As far as structure goes, the exhibition is divided into two parts. One features some of Levin’s shoes, along with shoes and objects from other local collectors Amy Ruddick and Joseph Herring and sneaker collectors Nathaniel Johnston and Taylor Battiste. The other features shoe-related artwork from Malika Green, Lenka Clayton and Mike Bourscheid. Mixed in with everything there are also pieces from the University of West Florida Historic Collections.

Clayton, a conceptual artist based in Pittsburg, works a lot in participatory and performative work. “Worn In / Worn Out” features her participatory project “One Brown Shoe,” in which couples were asked to create shoes using materials in their house and mail them back to her. They weren’t allowed to know what the other one was doing.

“It created this amazing portrait of relationships to see the dichotomy in how they created those shoes and the inventiveness of it all,” Bowman-McElhone said. “They’re physical objects, but they’re not actual functional shoes. There’s a lot of interesting things tied up in that—what we think of our body, how we think of shoes, how we think of design and adornment, how we import ideas of memory and love and partnership in relationship to those materials.”

Canadian performance artist Bourscheid’s works are whimsical and have an element of humor. His part of the exhibit features nine photograms called ‘Houdini’s Private Wardrobe.’

“Very prominently are these silhouettes of Houdini’s shoes,” Bowman-McElhone said. “The shoes go from cowboy boots to women’s high heels to sandals.”

Context Is Key
The historical significance and evolution of shoes was not lost on Bowman-McElhone while curating the exhibition. Shoes were once forms of bondage and represented the bond of marriage.

“Across cultures, when a woman and a man were married, when the man gave shoes to a woman, it cemented that bond,” Bowman-McElhone said. “This was coming from a history of times when women were shackled with actual ankle shackles. It evolved into shoes.”

In a more metaphorical sense, shoes can represent many ideas of the human existence, such as the journey. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” is a well-known cliché for a reason after all.

Taking that metaphor a step further, shoes are sometimes used as a marker of the human body. When asked for an example, Bowman-McElhone referenced the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

“One of the elements they use to hammer home the scope of the devastation of the Holocaust was the leftover piles of shoes that were worn by the Jewish victims,” Bowman-McElhone said. “Those shoes then become stand-ins for those humans, those people, those lives and those souls. It’s meaningful that they’re using shoes and not other articles of clothing. The shoes are with us and are on our bodies until the last point.”

Even when shoes aren’t attached to a human body—like fresh kicks sitting in a box or grungy sneakers tossed over a power line—they keep their form.

“Clothing, if you’re not wearing it, it’s a flat object,” said Malika Green, one of the featured artists. “Shoes exist in the 3-D realm.”

After curating the exhibit, Bowman-McElhone admits she’s a tad obsessed with footwear. What struck her most is how shoes have been used as control mechanisms for women. Those forms evolved into high heels.

“It’s made me think about my shoe-buying habits and how I hold onto them much longer than I probably should,” Bowman-McElhone said. “I’m putting on a certain persona. I have certain shoes I wear when I’m going to work, when I go to art openings, when I’m around family. All of a sudden, I’m hyper aware of that.”

We didn’t ask her to pick a favorite pair of shoes from the exhibition, but Bowman-McElhone did tell us that overall, it was one of her favorites to work on.

“It was such an honor to be able to have this kooky idea and be able to play with it,” Bowman-McElhone said. “We wanted to create a Narnia experience, where you walk in and you see the standard things you would associate with shoe displays, then you walk into the next gallery and it’s that moment of expansion into another world where things are topsy-turvy.”

Worn In / Worn Out: Soul of the Shoe
WHAT: An exhibition which juxtaposes contemporary shoe art, local shoe collections and sneaker culture
WHEN: On view now–Friday, Aug. 16
COST: Free admission all summer with a donation of new or gently worn shoes for Soles4Souls (or $7 general admission, free for University of West Florida students)
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
DETAILS: pensacolamuseum.org

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Worn In / Worn Out Programing

Drag Your Heels
WHAT: A drag show, with local craft beer and cocktails, art prints, live caricatures and more
WHEN: 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 30
COST: $25 for museum members, $30 for non-members
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St
DETAILS: pensacolamuseum.org

Artist Talk: Malika Green
WHAT: A BYOB sit-down with exhibiting artist Malika Green and Amy Bowman-McElhone
WHEN: 6:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, June 7
COST: Free
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
DETAILS: malikagreen.com

Art & Sole
WHAT: An evening with exhibiting shoe collector Teri Levin that will include drag queens, artists, pop-up shops, food and more
WHEN: 6-9 p.m. Friday, June 21
COST: $45 for museum members, $50 for non-members
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
DETAILS: pensacolamuseum.org

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More from “Worn In / Worn Out”
Just For Kicks: An interview with exhibiting sneaker collector Nathaniel Johnston
Making Pairs: An interview with exhibiting artist Malika Green

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Print Feature Photos by: Natalie Allgyer
Models: Taylor Battiste,  Anastasia Moray and Rebekah Lee