If These Shoes Could Talk, published in the November 2017 SchoolArts Magazine.
In the 1930’s, Germany’s economy was in shambles. Many believed that Jews were to blame and that exterminating them would solve their problems. My students and I discussed how even in modern day America, people unfairly blame and stereotype groups of people. Most of my students have experienced such prejudice first hand and could readily identify with the bullying of minorities in Nazi Germany. The following lesson coordinated with the study of the Holocaust in Language Arts classes at my school where students read books ranging from Number The Stars to Night.
I shared photographs from Auschwitz with my students and we discussed how, upon arrival, Jews were directed to remove their clothing so that they could wash. Once they entered the showers the doors were locked. Instead of water, poisonous gas spewed forth. The bodies were shoved into crematoriums. Hair was used to stuff mattresses and pillows and discarded clothing was salvaged for rags but the worn shoes piled up.
I shared the story of my father, a Holocaust survivor, showing his childhood photographs and reading excerpts of my grandfather’s memoirs. This helped the class to identify with the plight of children from long ago, many who never got to grow up, who once had hopes and dreams just like their own. What could these children have done with their lives, given the chance?
I assigned students the identity of a boy or girl and asked them to create a sculpture of a shoe to honor them. In the process, students developed empathy and sought to raise awareness of discrimination. Would others be able to identify, as my students had, with those who suffered persecution and starvation but kept walking until the last day of their lives? If the shoes could talk, what would they tell us? How could my students get those who viewed their sculptures to feel emotionally connected to these children and see them as individuals? We pondered how painful it is to be treated by society as “less than.”
Stepping in Another’s Shoes
Each of my students received a child’s identity card from the American Holocaust Museum website. They read the biography and got to work building a shoe. I worked beside them designing a shoe for my father. Knowing we would have to write an artist statement connecting the child to our artwork, we took notes as we worked, describing our creative choices. Since many victims died as toddlers or left little information, students were encouraged to imagine that their assigned child was like them. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked. “Make your hopes and dreams their hopes and dreams. They cannot speak for themselves. It is your job to speak for them.”
The shoes were made from plaster bandage to insure they were sturdy enough to be displayed in a pile. Some students wrapped their bare feet in plastic wrap and then wrapped them with plaster. A few held their foot rigidly in an upward position as the plaster dried and then used tinfoil and plaster to add a heel. Many brought in old shoes and wrapped them, first in plastic wrap and then in plaster to create a cast.
Some traced the sole of their shoes onto cardboard and then built a solid form using newspaper and masking tape before making a cast. Others chose to build solid sculptures that merely looked like shoes. A few built three-dimensional shoes using tag board, cardboard, and masking tape by tracing the sides and bottom of a real shoe, assembling, and then taping on a top and tongue. Prior to adding plaster bandages, tag board sculptures needed to be covered with tin foil to prevent distortion and collapse.
Inspiration and Reflection
During this lesson, I began each class by sharing examples of shoe sculptures by contemporary artists from the Virtual Shoe Museum. My middle schooners were inspired to see that, like them, real artists often transform shoes into works of art.
Finally, students added design elements with clay, before using a final layer of plaster, primer, and paint. Writing imaginary futures for children who would never grow up, students connected their sculptures with the person we were honoring, linked their choices to a contemporary artist and described their process.
"I felt sad because she would never be able to see the shoe. Lisl Winternitz never got to wear high heels because she died at such a young age. I chose the colors pink and purple because when I imagined a girl dressing up as a fairy princess I imagined her wearing those colors." Darleny Rodriguez, grade 8
Rachel Wintemberg teaches visual art at Samuel E Shull Middle School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.