When staff at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture decided to present an exhibition of seldom-seen items from its vast, state-owned collection of art and artifacts, their underlying inspiration traced back to German “wunderkämmern,” encyclopedic 16th-century assemblages also known as “cabinets of curiosities” that served as the first examples of museum collections.
But little did they know what odd discoveries were afoot.
That proved true in the diverse collection of materials on display in the exhibition. Few of the items seem linked by anything other than their common location and their uncommon quality.
But perhaps the most unusual element of the exhibition came about through a chance encounter between MMAC executive director Barbara Koostra and Sharlot Battin, a Whitefish-born shoemaker for the stars of the stage.
Next Wednesday, Battin will visit Missoula to present a lecture titled “Steppin’ Out: The Shoemaker’s Art.” The talk will trace the history of shoes as fashion barometer – and also trace the footsteps that led Battin along her unusual career path.
“I had no aspirations to become a shoemaker, it just happened that way,” allowed Battin in a telephone conversation from her studio in New York earlier this week, where she was working on footwear for the ongoing Broadway run of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.”
Most of us have heard of the “Spiderman” musical – whether because the music was written by U2, or because the lavish production has been plagued with difficulties that included multiple injuries to cast members.
Battin is well aware that her own contributions to the show have gone largely unnoticed – which, in this case, might be for the best.
Same goes for her work on the Broadway musical version of “The Lion King,” or the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Peter Grimes,” or any other countless productions on which Battin has worked over the course of her career.
“Who thinks about the shoes? – nobody,” she mused. “But when you’ve got someone dressed as Spiderman or the Lion King, the shoes obviously have to fit the concept. So basically I get to do the weird stuff or period stuff that you can’t go to the store and buy.”
Battin says she fell into her career as a shoemaker back when she was working in a costume company in New York years ago. Over time, the very nature of her specialty meant that she gained not only practical knowledge but also a good bit of historical perspective on the evolution of shoes.
“When you talk about shoes of the Renaissance, you have to look at them within the context of music and art and architecture and all the other stuff, because the shoes reflected those styles,” she said. “So that’s the kind of stuff I’ll be talking about next week, along with some foot and shoe anatomy, the history of shoemaking, the tools of the trade – that kind of thing.”
In recent years, Battin has spent much of her time in western Montana. An avid opera fan, she regularly attends the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts in Missoula. That’s where she met Koostra, who later invited her to come give a talk in conjunction with the current exhibit at the MMAC – which, among other things, features some historical shoes from the MMAC’s collection.
Battin knows that she probably won’t inspire anyone to a new career. It’s hard work, and these days it is harder to find to boot.
“Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore and nobody cares about the production that much anymore,” she said. “The Met keeps updating all their operas and it just makes me mad – and not because they’re not ordering shoes. It just doesn’t look that great anymore. Now, it’s just ‘How much do I get paid and when’s my vacation?’ People don’t have that sense of passion and commitment to the whole production.”
But, she said, she is happy to share what she knows from her curious career.
“I’m going to have to watch myself on timing with the talk, because it’s really just a huge topic,” she said. “I love doing all the research – it’s a big part of what I do in my work anyway – and so it’ll be nice to share that with people.”
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, firstname.lastname@example.org.