Lonely walkers: A look at empty shoes in art and photography

In one of his most memorable lines in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The line has sometimes been misquoted as walking in someone else’s shoes. However, that’s a more commonplace idiom (and more easily visualized than climbing into somebody’s skin!), which perhaps accounts for Sally Legg’s and Larry Thompson’s use of shoes in their paintings in the AHF exhibition “TKAM 2010: To Kill a Mockingbird—Awakening America’s Conscience.”

Legg incorporates various iconic images in “Another’s Perspective”—work shoes, Bible, judge’s gavel—as well as actual objects such as a chain and torn screen window. In Thompson’s almost photorealist black and white oil painting, “Someone Else,” contemporary children’s shoes stand as metaphors for the perspectives that Scout and Jem bring to the narrative.

These large paintings are only two of 35 fabulous works of Alabama art, drawn from themes found in To Kill a Mockingbird, which will be auctioned on May 22 at Wynfield Estates in Montgomery. Proceeds will support AHF’s various educational programs for teachers, students, schools, libraries and museums. To purchase a ticket for the reception and auction, please contact Paul Lawson at (205) 558-3992 or plawson@ahf.net, or visit this link.

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Burroughs

Empty shoes can be powerful symbols of absent figures. Think of the many shoes shown in photographs from liberated concentration camps—and the actual victims’ shoes on display in various Holocaust museums. Less tragically, but still poignantly, empty shoes speak of rest from hard work. Among the hundreds of photos taken by Walker Evans in Depression-era Alabama is a stark interior, “Fireplace and wall detail in bedroom of Floyd Burroughs’ cabin. Hale County, Alabama.” Muddy brogans face a cold fireplace with a minimum of decoration above. It is a lonely place, barely a rough shelter for the sharecropper inhabitants.

Evans’s 1936 photographs—whether interiors, exteriors or gaunt poor whites themselves—had nearly as a strong an impact on Americans’ vision of the Depression South as did Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Published in James Agee’s 1941 classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the images have influenced many subsequent artists and photographers, including Alabama’s own William Christenberry. One of Christenberry’s photos will also be auctioned on May 22. Given Evans’s disheartening subjects—and Agee’s turgid prose—I doubt the 70th anniversary of that book next year will be celebrated as abundantly as TKAM’s 50th. But now that AHF has created a visual oeuvre for TKAM, I am proud to say both works have been made richer through art as well as words.

Written by: Bob S.