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“There’s something about the democratization of creativity and art that’s really important to me,” says Jill Kearney, reflecting on Shoes, A Love Story, her current show at ArtYard, the interdisciplinary contemporary art center in Frenchtown, New Jersey. As the lead programmer and visionary founder of ArtYard, Kearney relishes performances and exhibitions “where the art is unauthored or unintended and lives in the curatorial process of seeing.” Think vernacular photography or found-object sculpture ... or shoes.
Boots made for talkin’
Shoes, A Love Story invites viewers to consider footwear as autobiography, activism, and socioeconomic commentary. The well-worn shoes range from embroidered silk slippers to steel-and-leather polio braces, from oversized clown feet to woven straw clogs. A large newsprint essay, available onsite and online, documents Kearney’s evolution from a child forced to endure ugly orthopedic devices that made her feel misshapen, to a woman who could buy anything at Saks, but would rather hunt for treasures at a thrift shop.
Participation is a key element for Kearney. The shoe museum offers an array of tap shoes that visitors can use, or they can crank the handle of Eric Fiorito’s “tap machine” and watch the sparkling green slippers clatter to life. A vintage wooden shoeshine bench offers a resting place to write or record a personal shoe story to share.
Kearney’s curatorial bent took hold at an early age. She loved building sand museums on the beaches of her Provincetown childhood, inspired by a family of limited means with a penchant for free museums and adventurous travel. Now she curates spaces, collaborations, and events that will be “inviting for the child who doesn’t want to be there.”
“I like surprises,” she observes, “it’s our special sauce.” As proof, she cites ArtYard’s very small galleries—their name for tiny, diorama-like vignettes tucked into the gallery walls like software Easter eggs.
A long journey
Kearney traces three pivotal elements in the journey that led to her shoe museum. First were her annual childhood trips to the orthopedic shoe store, where she could choose either “the big oafish white shoe or the brown lump,” both testaments to her brokenness.
Next, after a former boyfriend was killed in a senseless shooting, Kearney became the keeper of “The Silent March of Shoes,” 50,000 pairs of footwear, each bundled with the story of its owner’s gun death. She stored this in her barn when it was not on display at Quaker Meetinghouses until the whole thing had to be relegated to a dumpster.
Finally, she purchased a single, soleless leather sculpture of a foot, crafted by a Venetian master shoemaker as a teaching tool for a protegee. Kearney spent five years in her quest to purchase the foot. It helped her “think of shoes as sculptural objects that invoke the life of the person who wore them and leave clues.”
For 15 years, the collection lined the walls of her Lambertville studio where she wrote the essay that imbues the show with many additional layers of meaning. Kearney admits that she always felt lonely as a writer, and she missed the visual component that’s so important to her creativity. Shoes, A Love Story is the first time she has successfully married her writing craft with her visual and curatorial passion.
This exhibit “broke through a barrier for me,” she says. “It also reinforced how much more we all have in common than we think. The shoes are a physical representation of the myriad ways of being a person. From designs of different cultures, to clowning, to bound feet, the show tells many stories simultaneously. It’s teaching me that I can take some risks.”
The risks will continue, although Kearney doubts she will mount such a self-revelatory show again. Working with artist-curators, media academics, an array of performers and filmmakers, and the community, she follows her instincts and her commitment to the idea that bringing unlikely people together is a meaningful artistic enterprise.
What, When, Where
Shoes, A Love Story. By Jill Kearney. Through May 21, 2023, at ArtYard, 13 Front Street, Frenchtown. $5. (908) 996-5018 or artyard.org
Detailed accessibility information is available on ArtYard’s website.
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