KENNEBUNK — Some artists search for inspiration in the natural world. Others tap their spiritual connections.

Kelly Jo Shows looks to the sole.

Shows, an artist from Kennebunk, paints portraits of artists’ shoes, seeking to capture the personality of the owner by creating paintings of the footwear that reflects their lifestyles and values. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland is showing 60 pairs of Shows’s shoes in a new exhibition, “Portrait of an Artist.” She has shown her oil paintings of shoes in galleries around Maine and New England since 2008, when she began the project. The exhibition at CMCA, on view through June 3, is the largest and most high-profile display of her work.

Shoes say a lot about people and their lives, Shows said. They develop character over time and reflect personality, and they become a visual diary of the places we’ve been and a road map of the places we’re going. They take on the shape of the owner over time, forming around the foot, splitting at the seams with overuse and becoming scruffy, mud-caked and tattered – and sometimes shiny and spiffy.

These are unconventional and non-judgmental portraits of the painters Jamie Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, Richard Estes, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, installation artist Judy Chicago and dozens more, from Maine and around the country.

We see Wyeth’s flamboyance and wild-hair spirit in his paint-splattered, blue-striped fabric slippers. There’s buttoned-up fastidiousness in Estes’s leather slip-ons, an island ruggedness in Tremont painter Judy Taylor’s black boots.

Rockland artist Kim Bernard offered a pair of 4-inch platforms with springs. An artist inspired by science and interested in movement, Bernard made the shoes as part of her MFA project at MassArt and wore them, bounding around the stage, when she collected her diploma. She wears the shoes to special events, as she did a few weeks ago for the opening of the 2011 Biennial at the Portland Museum of Art. “They’re kind of like moon shoes,” Bernard said. “They’re really fun to wear.”

And fun to paint, too.

Ed Ruscha shoes, by Kelly Jo Shows Photo by Gary Lowell, courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

Shows began painting artist shoes with her own PF Flyers. “I looked at them, and they totally looked like me,” she said in an interview at her Kennebunk studio, which she shares with a bunny named Clyde. “When you see a pair of shoes in a room, it’s like the person is standing there. Our shoes are our connection to the earth.”

She began asking for shoes from friends, who mostly happened to be artists in Maine. As her series grew, Shows expanded out of state. Since 2008, she has painted 156 shoe portraits. Artvoices Art Books will publish a book of her work, also called “Portrait of an Artist,” this spring, dovetailing with the Rockland exhibition.

She begins with a letter explaining her project to prospective subjects. “Rather than focusing on the face of the artist, I’m painting different scale images of their shoes. Yes … their shoes,” she writes in her introductory letter. “Shoes tell a lot about a person and they speak volumes about the lives we lead.”

With her letter, she includes a self-addressed card for artists to fill out, indicating their interest (or lack thereof), and if they want their shoes returned. Among the boxes they can mark on the card: “Keep ’em! I Don’t Need My Stinky Shoes Back” and “You’re Crazy!”

Shows estimates that she hears back from 20 to 25 percent of the artists she solicits. As part of the Rockland exhibition, CMCA is showing ephemera and correspondence from artists invited to the project, as well as the “Micro Gallery Backpack” – a pop-up gallery that fits into a backpack – that Shows wears to art fairs.

Half the fun, she said, is tracking down the artists. “I feel like a detective sometimes, trying to find them,” she said.

Alan Neider shoes, by Kelly Jo Shows Photo by Gary Lowell, courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

In the case of Pollock and Krasner, it was as easy as writing to the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center on Long Island. “She said yes,” Shows said. So did Jamie Wyeth, her first big-name subject. “I contacted him early on in the series, when I was just painting Maine artists. I wrote him a letter – snail mail – and he responded by sending his shoes.”

Warren sculptor Jay Sawyer surrendered a pair of his favorite Chuck Taylors for the project. The painting, which he traded for a piece of sculpture, hangs in his office at home, and he considers it as much a portrait as any picture of his face. “I certainly can’t argue that a bit,” Sawyer said. “You can tell a lot about a man by the shoes he wears. It’s like a hat.”

Shows likes making shoe portraits because it forces viewers to think about the person who owns the shoes without judging them on their physical appearance. Her non-classical portraits demand the viewer pay attention to detail, without regard to skin tone, facial hair or other personal markers.

Instead, Shows draws our attention to the laces of the shoes, the wear of the soles and worn, weathered heals. They are like the lines of a person’s face, the character of their eyebrows and the shape of their nose.

“It’s interesting what shoes can convey about people,” said Bethany Engstrom, CMCA’s associate curator. “They have so many expressive qualities.”

Shows does other kinds of paintings, but the shoe series has maintained its momentum, and she has no plans to stop it. “When it gets to the point where it doesn’t excite me anyone, I will change. But I’m always working on it,” said Shows, 53.

She has lived in Kennebunk since 2001, moving to Maine from San Francisco. She grew up in Texas.

The history of portraiture goes back centuries, to times before Christ. Ancient Egypt depicted its rulers, as did China, Greece and the Romans. While the most familiar portraits depict a person’s face or torso, there’s a long history of other kinds of portraiture. A direct link to Shows’s work goes back at least to the late 1800s, when Vincent Van Gogh made a series of boot paintings, capturing shoes on the floor with the laces untied after what was presumably a long day for the owner. The shoes exude exhaustion.

“Self-Portrait,” by Kelly Jo Shows Photo by Gary Lowell/Courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art

More recently, pop artist Andy Warhol turned portraiture into repeating images of celebrities Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Chuck Close uses tiny photos to make wall-sized pictures of people’s heads.

Jamie Wyeth, a subject of Shows’s shoe portraits, also is a portrait painter, in a more traditional sense. At the request of John F. Kennedy’s widow, Wyeth painted the late president’s likeness in 1967, when the artist was just 20 years old. He captured Kennedy in a pensive, serious mood, one hand at his chin and his eyes fixed in a gaze.

There’s none of that in this exhibition. These are just the shoes, and all of the stories they tell.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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