Shoe Silver

It takes a lot for me to feel as though I never want to see another pair of shoes in my life. But that’s pretty close to how I felt when our team finally wrapped up a month-long county shoe drive for the needy.  Holy Imelda, did we have a lot of shoes all needing sorting, bundling, packing, transporting, and shipping. Huge sigh of relief as the UPS truck rumbled away with our donations. 

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And then, catching up on my reading last night, I saw this image in the Wall St. Journal which stopped me in my tracks. Another form of shoe donation is giving life to this stunning symbol of people no longer with us. I can’t help but marvel at the power of art.

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These shoes raise a somber question: When a person dies, what happens to their possessions?

These are the shoes of roughly 300 people who have passed away. Their families donated the shoes to Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota for an installation opening at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. at the end of August. I am struck by the variety of shoes, each indicative of their former owner’s personality, job, or taste.

Within each shoe is a handwritten note from each donor confiding a personal memory. 

The artist’s signature technique is the use of string, red or black. She will spend several days linking the shoes and thread into this striking design. Visitors will be able to watch Ms. Shiota at work adding a performance element to the exhibit.

“String can sag, connect, or loosen,” she says. “It has so many human qualities; it has tension.”

The shoes will be strung together using 4 miles of red yarn which will then be threaded up, web-like, to a single overhead hook. The artist wants to emphasize the “emotional heft” of the objects.

Emotional heft. Yes, we do endow the objects that our loved ones leave behind with a certain power, laden as they are with memory and loss.

Shiota plans to do another installation along this theme for the Venice Biennale in 2015 using fifty thousand left-behind keys.

I am one to cling to some of the objects that are left behind; others, I know, don’t endow things with so much symbolism and are able to remember their loved ones in less tangible ways. Who knows, some of those shoes donated to our charity drive might have come to us just that way.

How about you? Would you donate something to an installation like this? Are you a keeper of objects or not?

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

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About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. Blogging about whatever happens to catch my fancy - sometimes nonsense, occasionally not.
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52 Responses to Shoe Silver

  1. I read this once, before the coffee was ready and thought, “What does Barbara mean, ‘Holy Imelda'”?

    I got it now, though, two cups later. 🙂

    I love that term, “emotional heft”. Among my blog posts you’ll find a series that I add to from time to time. I call it “Keepsake.” My mother taught me a long time ago to value function over form and to eschew holding onto to useless things. It’s a lesson that I am un-learning.

    Thanks for the links to the art installation. I expect it is enormously powerful in real life.

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    • I’m laughing, Maggie, and glad that your morning coffee helped to clarify my obscure references!

      I’m very interested in your “keepsake” series. The things I have are what make me feel connected to the past which is, for some reason, very important to me.

      Yes, I imagine that this photograph cannot possibly convey the actual “in real life” punch that this installation must have. Thanks for reading, Maggie.

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  2. ritaroberts says:

    Love this post Barbara, because its something I have never thought about, well shoes anyway! However shoes are a problem to me as I can never find any that are really comfortable so what I have, anybody can have. You choose wonderful subjects to write about. Thanks

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    • Well, Rita, I’m with you on the comfortable shoes bit but I do tend to suffer for fashion. I really appreciate your kind comment about my haphazard blogging subjects which are just a reflection of my curious nature, I guess. Hope all is well over there in Crete. Anything exciting happening in archaeology lately?

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      • ritaroberts says:

        Hi Barbara, I have just arrived back home in Crete after visiting my family and friends in England so am busy catching up with archaeology news and my Linear B study, not to say four hundred and twenty e mails. However, I went to see an exhibition about Rowland Emett’s whimsical machines so will be putting all about that on my blog shortly, something very different for me.

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      • Hello Rita, I am looking forward to reading about “whimsical” machines! Sounds intriguing. And I know you are happy to be back home again!

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  3. Oh, I am most certainly a Holder Oner (looking around my house, that may be verging on Hoarder). I have a number of things that belonged to my sister and my mother has already given me things that belonged to her in childhood, like a dolls crib that my grandfather built for her. I have no real use for it now but I wouldn’t dream of giving it away.
    But I think for something like that installation, I would willingly part with something, as long as it wasn’t my ONLY something for that person.

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    • I couldn’t agree more, MoSY. As long as it wasn’t the only thing, I would donate an object for an installation like this. How lovely that you have a doll’s crib from your grandfather. A treasure, I’m sure, as are your sister’s things.

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  4. What a wonderful piece of art! Shoes are the saddest reminders, I think. They take on their owner’s personality, somehow, and look so lost without their wearers. So while I’ve certainly got a few things belonging to my parents and grandparents, I couldn’t bear to keep their shoes. Too hearbreaking.

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    • You make an immensely valid point, Helen. Out of everything left behind, shoes are the most poignant reminders. That empty quality they have would definitely be the impetus behind giving them away immediately. The power of so many different shapes and sizes is what particularly moved me in this photo.

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  5. Sandra says:

    You touched on a nerve here, Barbara. After losing certain members of my family, the hardest part has been handling and disposing of their shoes. Shaped by years of use, (and sometimes discomfort) they’ve represent for me one of the most tangible and acute reminders of their owners and the journeys they’ve taken. No longer needed, they’ve seemed almost a poignant celebration and commemoration of their presence amongst us. I’ve not articulated this very well, certainly the sharpness of the realisation of loss at that time has not been reflected in my words, so maybe this installation says it so much better. Good post. Interesting.

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    • I think you’ve articulated the point quite brilliantly, Sandra, based on the sting of tears in my eyes as I read it. I remember my mother, just prior to being wheeled into (successful) surgery, remarking that if she died, her purse would need to be cleaned out. Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with that sad event yet. Thank you for such a thoughtful and touching response.

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  6. dorannrule says:

    This is so haunting Barbara, and so beautiful. And i think the artist is amazing to have even thought of it. Yes, I would donate something from a lost loved one. Most of my mom’s things were donated to charities and if too well used, totally discarded. How wonderful it would have been to know something she wore well and long could be symbolized in a great work of art.

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    • It is haunting, Dor, I agree. It’s hard to think of each shoe representing one life. The way the artist has them all arising to a single point is rather thought-provoking, isn’t it? I’m happy you enjoyed.

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  7. Sue Mayo says:

    I am always amazed at how the creative mind works. I have a few family treasures I would not part with, however shoes and keys are not in the mix. There are so many people in this world without shoes, I think I would rather give mine to someone who needs them. As far as keys go, you can have all I have and believe me, I have lots of them. After 38 years of selling real estate, I have a collection of keys in my garage that only God knows what they open. You can have them all.

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    • I can only imagine all those keys! So if I ever get locked out, I’ll know who to call. You, one of the most generous of souls, do not surprise me at all with saying give up those shoes to the needy! Hopefully they will all go to good use.

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  8. Barbara Stevens says:

    Dear Barbara, how kind of you to take part in the shoe drive. I am sure that there will be many grateful recipients, and for your sake I hope that the majority of the shoes donated were new or “gently used.” I got a kick out of “holy Imelda!”

    The art installation of the departed’s shoes was powerful. It is a reminder of Matthew 6:19-21. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Each shoe represents a story (I want to know the puppy dog slipper’s story) and the notes of personal memories would be fascinating to read. That being said, I am a sinner who endeavors to “lay up for myself treasures in Heaven”, but who also lays up for myself too many treasures on earth. I like to rationalize that my heart is in the right place, but I am also honoring history in beautifully made objects.

    You write beautifully Barbara.

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    • Speaking of writing beautifully, Barbara, where is your blog? I think your passage of Scripture is perfectly apropos for this discussion. Thank you for sharing that. The art installation really drives home how empty possessions are unless endowed by us with special meaning. The puppy dog slippers caught my eye, too, and I imagine myself liking that person.

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  9. mckinneyjodi says:

    that is an interesting work of art. I say donate if you only find one show without a match to an artist like this, but if you have a pair – and especially they are in good shape – donate to the needy instead 🙂 – great job collecting for a community shoe drive – that impresses me more than the art. I do enjoy the symbolic gesture, and the “note in the shoe” idea is cool (and the more I try to explain myself here, the more I am thinking about it – LOL!), but again – I have much greater admiration for what you did! Keep up the great work!

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    • Thank you! I’m chuckling at your “stream of consciousness” response, Jodi. Believe me, I played a small role in the shoe drive – others worked harder and complained less! One form of donation takes care of a physical need and the other, maybe, a spiritual one. Art so enhances our understanding of life, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Amazing! I am a keeper of some sentimental belongings of loved ones. Shoes would not be among them and I’d happily donate to an art project like this.

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  11. Dianna says:

    What an amazing project! I also keep sentimental items (probably too many) but I would donate items such as shoes for something like this. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

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  12. nrhatch says:

    Yay, you! Glad you shipped off all those shoes for people who need them.

    Striking piece of art, as captured in that photo. But not an exhibit I would ponder for long.

    I keep things that dad (and others) made ~ tables, chests, frames, quilt racks, etc. And enjoy them on a daily basis. We donated all his clothes, shoes, overcoats, hats, gloves, scarves, mittens, etc., to AmVets a week or two after he died.

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    • I was surprised how many really good shoes we managed to amass. We all seem to have just so much STUFF and I’m guilty of the same.

      Glad you have some heirlooms from your dad and others and that they are part of your daily life. Treasures.

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  13. markbialczak says:

    My favorite memories are inside my noggin, Barbara, keyed from events from my loved ones gone, not things they left behind.

    Nevertheless, the shoe exhibit, the string, the ties, the “emotional heft,” I love every stitch of it for this artist to craft a work of art and a statement for 300 families and many friends to draw strength from the lives of their loved ones. Bravo. They keys can do more for even more folks!

    And congratulations to you on your successful shoe drive, my Virginia friend.

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    • Thank you, Mark, and I think it’s great you remember those you have lost from shared events and happy times together. Happy you enjoyed seeing the art installation; there’s a lot of remarkably talented people in this world for us to share with one another.

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  14. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, Chiharu Shiota is a sensitive artist. Those red strings, by imposing even such weak fetters on the shoes, remind us that the shoes are no longer objects of motion, and through this immobility symbolize the mortality of their former owners.
    –Jim

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  15. M-R says:

    I’m a thrower-outer and always have been, Barbara. From childhood’s effects, probably …
    That show exhibit is wonderful.

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  16. Sheryl says:

    Whew, the shoe art is powerful. I love how artists can take something that is often thrown out after the passing of someone, and turn it into a piece of art that to me says something about the paths they all walked and stories they left behind.

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  17. Hi Barbara -I really liked that shoe exhibit with the red strings connecting them all like a “Red Tent” (where women used to gather during their periods). The exhibit probably does evoke the “walking in someone else’s shoes” imagination. Who were they? What was their life like? What kind of shoes will I leave behind?
    I can relate to your shoe collection experience. for several years in a row, I haunted yard sales and public library sales to gather up thousands of used children’s books which I then sent to the island of Dominica. Their mobile library bus had broken down, so the kids in the villages had no books to read. It was amazing how much surplus we have and I enjoyed salvaging and recycling these books for others to enjoy. But it was time-consuming, including a road trip to DC with innumerable boxes on our truck, to deliver them to the Caribbean shipping agent (try finding one of those in the hinterlands!).

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    • Finding a UPS box is hard enough in the hinterlands, I can only imagine the dearth of Caribbean shipping agents. It is amazing how much surplus we have…in every area of our lives. Like that George Carlin routine about all our “stuff.” We have so much we need storage units to hold our “stuff.” Wonderful that you could put some surely dust-gathering books to good use in hands that are eager to read them.

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  18. Barbara, thanks for a thoughtful, well-written piece. Your project is great. We can recycle eyeglasses as well:

    New Eyes (http://www.new-eyes.org/about-us/)

    As for the art exhibit, it is haunting and poignant.

    It puts me in mind of another exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: thousands of shoes stripped from concentration camp victims.

    http://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/permanent/shoes

    “When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, ‘One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes?'”

    This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the German and Soviet invasions of Poland.

    Of course, you know deeply the human story of WWII.

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    • Catherine, I had the exact same thought when I saw the shoes; how could anybody who has witnessed the terrible piles of human belongings ever forget them? Thank you for these links and for the poignant reminder of shoes wrested from their owners in the most evil of ways. And now the empty shoes in the Middle East….and Ukraine…..

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  19. Diane Ahlberg says:

    Well this certainly hit home. When my father unexpectally passed away my mother agreed to pack up his clothing – except his shoes , the pair he left by the door every night and there they remained. I save dog tags from veteran family members, their bibles, love notes my dad wrote to my mother ( almost felt like a pepping tom but did keep) my mom” s favorite powder , half used that is her scent. The small simple things that make good thoughts come rushing back.
    Thanks Barb!

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    • Of course! How could you not save these things? I’ll tell you a funny story about love notes though. As a little girl my mother found the love letters her father had written to her mother during their courtship. And so she gathered them up and went out into the street and played mailman, delivering one letter to each house on the street. One by one, they were returned by the smiling neighbors!!

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    • Smell is a more powerful reminder than anything else, I think. And so ephemeral, as your mother’s powder.

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  20. Your link to shoes and Imelda made me chuckle. I love that used shoes were repurposed for others to enjoy. I’d prefer to donate shoes to a charity than to an art display which might be tossed in a short time.

    Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s exhibit might make people think of the emotions we connect to our loved one’s belongings. But what is really sweet is that “Within each shoe is a handwritten note from each donor confiding a personal memory.” Awesome!

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  21. Su Leslie says:

    What an extraordinary installation. I’m reminded of the chairs memorial in Christchurch NZ. After the earthquake that killed 185 people, ordinary chairs of different kinds, sizes, etc – including children’s chairs and a wheelchair – were painted white and set out as though for a wedding or performance. It is very moving, and the shoes even more so. I’m not a holder and certainly not a hoarder, but have become the family historian and archivist. Luckily that mainly involves photos which I can scan, and then pack the originals away in archive albums. Not too space-intensive because we don’t have that many family photos.

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    • Oh, the chairs are another humble symbol of the everyday, now no longer in use. The children’s chairs and a wheelchair would be especially poignant. What a lovely and moving tribute to the pour souls who lost their lives that day. Thanks for reading, Su.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. suzicate says:

    I used to be a keeper of shoes and books! Now, I’ve let go. It was harder to let go of books than shoes. If a book doesn’t touch me deeply, one I will read again and again, I pass it on.

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    • I couldn’t agree more on shoes vs. books. The other day I was with my elderly father and he was looking at his bookshelves and wondering where they would all go after he is gone. He loves his book so. I reassured him his books would be treasured right here with me.

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  23. bkpyett says:

    Love the shoe installation, with the messages, it would be a very moving piece and very effective with the red threads. Emotional heft indeed!!

    Like

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