I've been making shoes for eight years. The reason I do it is I like making everything myself. That, and because of a little apartment fire in San Francisco.
Basically my closet burned—all my best clothes and shoes. But the fire made the shoes fall apart in a way that allowed me to see inside and see all the layers, so it became really obvious how a sandal is made. And since all my shoes were ruined and I was broke, I was inspired to try to make some myself.
I spent a whole year fighting an eviction with tenant's rights groups and everything. It almost ruined my life.
At the time, the source of the fire was a total mystery. But I’ve since figured out what caused it: my roommate’s rabbit who chewed on wires. It was one of those things where the bunny chews the wires and a day or so later there’s a loose connection, causing an electrical fire. It was a catastrophe.
I spent a whole year fighting an eviction with tenant's rights groups and everything. It almost ruined my life. It ruined my relationship. It was a really hard year, and only in retrospect, years later, do I realize that horrible time is what led me to this career that I love, that I get so much out of now.
I've been making and pursuing art forever. Finding shoemaking—sandal making—was an exciting breakthrough because it means so many more people could access the craft and get excited about it.
The art I had been making before was pretty esoteric. I was doing things like vegetable performance art, in which I staged a really big, 15-person silent performance in Golden Gate Park where everyone wore vegetable costumes. I was recreating this Zen Buddhist painting—it was a recurring art project for years. So that was the kind of stuff I was pursuing, and explaining that to people, you just watch their eyes glaze over. “Do you make paintings or sculptures?” But that's all retired now that I’m a practical shoemaker.
Shoes are neat because they’re like a functional sculpture—they really have to work. You also have to make two of them, and they have to be the same but mirror opposites. The foot is a really fucked up shape, and trying to fit something on it twice is the ultimate challenge. There are so many variables. I get a lot of satisfaction out of solving those problems. I'm really jealous of bag makers because they get to make just one thing. And it kind of has to fit the body, but not really.
Figuring out how to make shoes was tricky. I was discouraged from taking classes. I was pretty broke and all the classes I found were really expensive, machine-heavy, and long. The products they were making were clunky and the aesthetic didn’t align with what I like. They just weren’t compelling. So with a little help from people I know, I just figured it out. Asking a thousand questions and getting a hundred helpful answers. I met a clog maker at a festival in England and watched him work.
My work is really simple. It’s pretty utilitarian. It’s solid colors and really basic shapes. There’s nearly no sewing, because sewing is kind of the weakest link for people, and thread breaks.
Sourcing basic materials for shoemaking is almost impossible.
Manufacturing in the U.S. was never very strong, and it's become almost nonexistent, so sourcing basic materials for shoemaking is almost impossible. I actually have to source through cobbler suppliers instead. Cobblers fix shoes, they don't make shoes, but I'm basically making shoes from cobbler supplies.
Sometimes I think, Oh, it’d be so cool to design shoes and have them made in a factory, like friends of mine and other shoe designers. But then I’m like, wait a second, no: there’s enough product in the world. That’s not what I want to do. I love designing and making prototypes, but ultimately what I really love is teaching other people because it's so fun and liberating to learn how to make something as complicated as a sandal.
When I started, no one was teaching sandals, specifically, on the West Coast. Now there are more people doing it. The internet in the last few years is helping me find that there's really similar projects going on all over. I just found a really cool shoemaking school in Wellington, New Zealand that looks amazing. There's definitely a mini zeitgeist of people trying to understand shoes on their own terms and share it. It’s so fun and possible. People take a one-day class with me and make a whole pair. It’s a full day. I wish it could be a little lighter, but you need the full seven hours to make a whole pair.
Right now, men are very shy about showing their feet.
I supply a lot of patterns that can be modified, but I let my students design anything they want. Basically, I'm just hooked on “anything goes” because it's so fun to see all the iterations of shoes—they always end up being successful. Plus it’s taught me how to troubleshoot really well.
It’s mostly women, but I wish more men would take the class because it's totally, totally possible. But sandals are a thing that are always going in and out of style, and right now, men are very shy about showing their feet, I think.
I really want to make a book telling people how to make their own sandals. There hasn't been one since the 70s. I'm just starting on the idea, and on figuring out whether I print it myself or work with someone else on it. I feel like once I do that, I could kind of let sandals go, 'cause I've been doing it for a while. I just want the craft to exist and thrive, but I really want to go back to making art. I still love making pictures. I think I'll always need to find balance between practical things and impractical things.
I travel a lot in the spring and the summer, when people really want to make sandals. It’s very heavy, packing my car full of leather and tools and anvils. Sometimes I fly with everything, which means flying with anvils. It's hard to get my bag under weight.
Lots of people reach out to me, but I’m not super interested in teaching at the normal venues. I prefer to do all my own organizing through my website and just show up at a place with all my tools. I like teaching at friends' stores or oddball places, and going to the towns I love the most. I just kind of pick and choose.
I'm from Santa Cruz and San Jose, and I went to art school in L.A. My family lives in Santa Barbara. They've been there for 18 years or so, so that's now sort of my home. They have a really great property with avocado trees. Pretty heavenly. I'm just kinda spread across the West Coast.
I found it easier to leave than stay and complain ... Everyone only wanted to talk about Google buses and rent.
I got priced out of San Francisco. I moved to Bolinas for a short time, but when that relationship ended, I couldn't afford to move back. I moved up to Portland because I was dating someone up here, and it just seemed generally more hospitable. You could park your car without agonizing. You could have a yard, and you could have a pet, and you could have an extra space to make art. To me, these were huge bonuses. I was so happy to move up here.
I have a tendency to want to move every six years or so, just to keep things new. I never want to have that energy that people get when they're bummed out about the changes occurring around them. I resented that living in San Francisco. At some point, everyone was just complaining. Just think about the history of San Francisco, and how short it really is, and how many changes it’s undergone in 150 years. I found it easier to leave than stay and complain. A lot of people—all of my friends—found it easier to leave, too. I only have two friends there now. Everyone only wanted to talk about Google buses and rent.
Sometimes I fly with everything, which means flying with anvils. It's hard to get my bag under weight.
I think cannabis legalization in Portland has been great. I haven't seen anything negative whatsoever. Recently I had to wait for my car to get fixed so I walked to a dispensary that looked kind of cool. It was called Electric Lettuce. I liked the aesthetics—it looked psychedelic and colorful. I was just really blown away at the thoroughness and helpfulness of their staff. There, and the people at Serra are so professional.
Sometimes I smoke weed with my boyfriend. For me, it's just a tool for watching movies. It makes movies that much more fascinating and fun. I have a hard time recalling a lot of the movies I watch when I'm stoned, but it’s a good time. This past summer I was at a house on Donner Lake with my family and my mom brought what she called a blunt, but it was just a really big joint.
We went up on this higher platform on the dock, and there was no moon, so the stars were especially bright. I had the most amazing stoned experience with my mom, laughing at the stars. She's re-found weed in her adult life because of legalization. It was such a good time. I'm really thankful for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Rachel Corry photographed by Jules Davies at her studio in Portland, Oregon. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.