“this is a short story about a little boy that wore a pair of shoes out…”
Since September, I have been working on a commission for the National Trust property Croome Court. Whilst it undergoes serious renovation, the creative production team are devising innovative art projects (Croome Redefined) that allow artists to respond to the property and its history and create new work. One of these project is Soul to Sole which I have been selected to take part in. Artists and designers have drawn on archive material to tell true stories of loss and survival of the property’s past inhabitants through pairs of shoes. For my micro-residency, I have focused on the boys that lived at Croome several decades ago.
From 1949 to 1979 Croome was owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham and operated as St Joseph’s School. The shoe racks in the basement were installed when the building was adapted for boarding and educating disadvantaged boys and these were used daily to store their shoes whilst they washed in the adjacent room. Each boy had a number written in their clothing and on their shoe cubby so that the nuns could identify them; a past pupil named Gordon remembers his number as 111 which is where my work is now installed.
For some boys, Croome was a harsh environment whilst others saw it as a sanctuary from their difficult lives back home. Corporal punishment was common in schools at that time and Croome was no exception. Gordon recalls having a hole in the bottom of his shoe and asking a nun for another pair. For this, the nun took “a strap out of her cloak and beat me with it”. From then on he never asked for new shoes again – just swapped his worn out ones with those of other unsuspecting pupils.
As well as schooling, the boys were expected to do household duties. Past pupils distinctly remember polishing the oak floors and bannisters using large, heavy buffers; scrubbing the steps; washing up; sweeping and dusting. The smell of the floor polish, the musty basement and the fresh bread made by the nuns are scents that linger in many of their memories.
For the Soul to Sole installation, I have made a multi-sensory, ephemeral sculpture that reflects on the themes of presence and absence within the history of Croome through the imprint of a pair of children’s shoes cast within a block of clear, scented soap. The absent void viewed within the centre of the piece draws attention to the often ‘invisible’ status of children in the care system and the traces of the boy’s lives that are still present in the building. The use of soap as a sculptural material references the domestic chores the boys undertook as well as the huge task of keeping a building like Croome clean. Our sense of smell has strong associations with memory so this soap sculpture has been fragranced with beeswax, linseed oil and pine oil in reference to the traditional floor polishes of the past. As both scent and soap are finite, over time they may deteriorate; yet this temporality reflects the fleeting nature of Croome’s different identities over the years.