KENNEBUNK – You can see a lot in a person by looking at his shoes.
The scuff marks on the toe of a boot tell of a photographer’s scramble on the rocks.
The worn black leather high heels portray six years of a Broadway star’s life performing in ”The Phantom of the Opera.”
And paint splatters stain the fabric of a world-famous painter’s studio slippers like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Some shoes ooze comfort. Others exude exhaustion.
All reveal something personal.
”Shoes speak volumes about the lives we lead,” says Kelly Jo Shows of Kennebunk, who is painting a series of portraits of artist shoes. ”They develop a character over the years, and are a road map of the hours spent in them and the places we have been.”
Shows, 44, collects shoes by word of mouth, and also sends out letters to artists she admires and whose shoes she thinks she would like to paint. She sets up the shoes in her studio, then begins making paintings of them just as she would if the subject were a living, breathing person. The shoes stand empty in the studio, laces limp.
They are a curious still-life form animated by the spirit of their donor.
Shows hopes that people who look at the paintings sense the person who occupies the shoes. She asks viewers to infer something about the subject, and to consider the subject for reasons that do not involve physical appearance.
”I wanted to do a series of portraits, but I did not want normal face paintings. I wanted to do something totally different, but personal. I think you pick up a lot about a person — where they have been, the kind of life they lead — by looking at their shoes,” she said.
Nancy Kureth, a painter friend of Shows, offered up a pair of Frye boots. The boots represent Kureth and her personality as well as any item of clothing or personal belonging. Kureth loves her boots so much, she has had them re-soled four times.
”I bought them in 1993 in Portland, Ore. I just don’t ever think there is an inappropriate outfit for those boots. I would get married in them, I would die in them and I would be buried in them,” Kureth said.
She appreciates Shows’ series of shoe paintings, because it leads viewers to ask questions that yield rewarding results. ”When you are looking at their shoes, I think it makes us take more time to contemplate what that person is and what they are all about and what they might be like without judging them on their physical appearance,” Kureth said. ”When you’re presented with a portrait that is not the classic face, it makes you more contemplative about the person.”
Shows, who is best known for her pet portraits, has completed a few dozen shoe portraits, all oil-on-canvas. Some are very small, others are quite large, and all are painted with Shows’ exacting eye for detail. She reveals every frayed lace, rusted rivet and piece of torn leather.
One day she came home and found a package on her table from painter Jamie Wyeth. She opened it and discovered his paint-splattered blue-and-white striped espadrilles. As she painted the shoes in her studio over the next few days, it almost felt like Wyeth himself had stopped by for a visit, Shows said.
She hopes her painting of Wyeth’s shoes conjures the same spirited excitement that Shows felt when she made the painting.
”I can just picture Jamie on the island painting in these shoes,” she says. ”They have holes in them, paint on them and are really worn out.”
The idea is not entirely unique. Over the years, many artists have taken on this topic for the sake of their pursuit of non-traditional portraiture. Shows’ approach is different because she is targeting Maine artists, or artists with ties to Maine, for her series.
Broadway performer Leslie Giammanco, who spends time in Maine in the summer, sent along the boots she wore on stage during a six-year run of ”The Phantom of the Opera.”
Gender-bending performance artist Goldie Peacock, who also has ties to Maine, sent a shoe from her female persona and another from her male persona.
Chris Dingwell, a tattoo artist from Portland, surrendered a pair of vintage roller skates.
When she is done with the painting, Shows sends the shoes back — although Wyeth told her not to bother. ”Keep them,” he wrote.
At this time, Shows plans to continue the series indefinitely, although she will pause soon to show the work she has completed to date in an exhibition titled ”Shoe In” from June 16 to July 14 at Heartwood College of Art in Kennebunk.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: