Let me tell you about the first shoe I ever found.
This one is significant. It is the first shoe that got under my skin, reached out and asked me to take notice. I found it lying in the gutter half way down St. Michael’s hill – a Nike trainer, blue and white, an almost new man’s size twelve. It lay bright against the sludgy browns of autumn leaves. What contrast, I remember thinking, what art. I took out the digital camera that comes with me wherever I go, and moved around to find the light, the perfect angle from which to capture the whiteness of the trainer shining out in the dusk. I think it must have been the darkness drawing in that gave me the courage to reach down and pick the trainer up. It felt like stealing, this first time. I was conscious of disturbing the trainer, plucking it up from a state of limbo between belonging to one person and being possessed by another.
I took the trainer home and placed it on top of my coffee table. From the edge of the sofa I looked at this piece of another person’s life, allowed my mind to wander around the tendrils of possibilities. I saw a young man, a student studying Law. I saw him running in the trainers, along wet pavements, the cold air reddening his cheeks. I sensed his body, lean and muscular, his pace steady, his movements light and controlled. I saw him going to the Rose and Crown at the bottom of St. Michael’s hill, to quench his thirst after running through the cold streets. I pictured him sitting at a wooden table, smiling, fresh-faced, sipping from a pint of London Pride. He knew what he was about, confident, relaxed, words forming easily; likeable, loveable, loved. David, Adam, Benjamin – a solid, reliable name.
I don’t know when I began to notice lost shoes. I don’t know why these disregarded belongings struck a chord with me. Perhaps it was their fragile vulnerability, lying abandoned in the street like anonymous road kills. Maybe the shoes chose me because of who I am. I always find one shoe, never a pair. This is what pulls me in, niggles with my sensibilities. These lone shoes are a question left unanswered.
This is what I mean. Have you ever noticed a lost shoe?
When I see a shoe, it’s as if I am reaching out in to the layers, yearning to connect with the lifeblood of what’s out there. I want to find the heart of the things that matter. Only then can I begin to find my purpose.
I don’t go looking, this is deliberate. When I find a shoe, it has to be accidental, organic, natural. I simply allow myself to come across them, to become aware of their presence.
I take photos of every shoe that I find, carefully noting their position before placing them within a clear plastic bag. I don’t interfere with them in any other way. All the shoes are preserved as found. I treat them like the findings in a crime scene, with the same respect, the same care and consideration. I log every one, precisely, with time and date, neatly and legibly, in a hard-backed book.
As soon as they are sealed and logged, I take the shoes home. This is just the beginning of what I must do. The next stage takes time and patience. When it’s quiet at night, I take out the new find and hold it before me, opening myself up to its meaning. Only then can I begin to give back the shoes a purpose. I am their link between nothingness and meaning.
Let me take you back to the first one – the Nike trainer, the man’s size twelve once belonging to the young student of Law. I sat holding the trainer, feeling the buzz of energy rising off it like a vapour. I knew what to do. I slid a Polaroid photo of the trainer inside my bag and headed out into the cold evening. A sharp wind gusted back and forth, alternately flattening and lifting my hair. I caught the bus ride in to town, looking out at the passing streets overcast by my reflection in the orange light of the window. The streets stood bare, like a party after the people have gone, ghostly shouts echoing off the shop fronts, empty cans and crisp packets rattling out the loneliness.
I walked to the bottom of St. Michael’s Hill, towards the glow of windows in the Rose and Crown, pushed open the door to a gentle babble of voices. The barman turned towards me, eyebrows raised.
‘Pint of London Pride, please.’
I took my drink to a seat by the fire, facing out towards the room. I took out the Polaroid of the trainer, watched it’s colours bend and shine in the candlelight. It felt right sitting there, safe and warm. I knew. This is where I would find him.
It only took half an hour before he came in, fresh-faced, newly showered, glowing, confident, reliable.
I watched his face redden with the flush of recognition, I watched his smile rise up from somewhere deep inside, I watched him turn, looking round, anxious to find the voice.
A woman stood up from behind a high-backed wooden bench, reaching out towards him. Their fingers touched, they held on to each other, wrapped each other up, eyes closing in the intimacy.
‘I came to find you Ben. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s all right, it’s all right.’
He held her face in his hands, kissed her gently on the lips, the toes of his new trainers touching the toes of her weathered boots.
It takes an artist’s eye to see what’s really going on. People come from all over the country to look at my lost shoes. I have them safe within their own frames, secure behind glass along one wall of my gallery. People shuffle in, chattering and pointing, eyes darting from one shoe to the next, questions popping up in their minds like bubbles in a pond. They walk from A to Z, following the shoes hanging in alphabetical order depending on the street in which where they were found. These locations are marked on a map, on the opposite wall, colour coded – blue for a left foot, red for a right; a round pin for a woman’s shoe, a square one for a man’s
I think some of the people come to look at me, to satisfy their curiosity. They come to see the face behind the lost shoes, they come to try and make sense of why someone, why anyone would want to collect these abandoned, disregarded things.
It’s only when they read the stories behind the shoes that they stand hushed, words falling soft and still. They nod and shake their heads in wonder.
‘Yes, yes. Don’t you see?’
‘Look. Come and look at this.’
People come looking because of what they need, because of what they’re missing. They come looking and they find, me. They find a young woman, given meaning, anchored through interpretation, framed within the stories of a thousand lost shoes.