Fresh off a survival and ancestral skills course and inspired by the famous long-distance runners of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, Madelyn Sullivan felt called to create a pair of leather sandals. That was seven years ago. Since then, Madelyn has been changing the conversation around consumption one pair of custom leather sandals at a time.
What brought you to your practice as a shoemaker?
Madelyn Sullivan: One day, seven years ago, in a college sculpture class, a friend of mine was using leather shoe scraps for a project. I leaned over and quietly asked for some materials (I was supposed to be working on something else) but I had decided I wanted to make my own pair of barefoot “huaraches.” At the time, I was attending a small liberal arts school and felt like I wasn’t learning anything real or tangible. The book “Born to Run” had just come out — it’s about the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico who are famous long-distance runners. I had also just taken a survival/ancestral skills course with Tom Brown Jr at his Tracker School. I was obsessed with barefoot minimalist running, I began running in the woods as a way to reconnect to myself and the greater world, a connection that I felt my college experience was cutting me off from experiencing. Walking out of class that day with handmade sandals on my feet was one of the most empowering moments of my life. Next thing I knew, people were complimenting me on them and when I told them I had made them, they were shocked. It made me realize how disconnected we are from our creative capacity. My first impulse was to offer to teach others how to make these sandals as well.
Why is sustainability important when applying it to your craft?
MS: Shoes are an integral part of our daily lives, they’re an article of clothing that is key to survival in colder parts of the world. It’s so crucial that we make every day objects sustainable because of the sheer volume of people that need them and the amount of times these items will be worn out and purchased again. Ultimately we must change our relationship with how we make, create and spend. There are two key aspects that make the current mode of shoemaking unsustainable: 1. Toxic glues needed to adhere the footbeds/uppers to the soles and 2. Toxic leather tanning and textile industries. Currently, there are models and solutions set up to make a sandal with sustainably harvested rubber. But glue and leather are two materials that have yet to be addressed. I’ve started learning ancient hide tanning techniques with the goal of one day combining these ancestral, sustainable methods with industrial technology to revolutionize the tanning industry. Ultimately, we must change our relationship with how we make and create. I would love to design a “Farm to Foot” sandal that benefits the environment creating more abundance.
Tell me about your creative process. How do you arrive at the final manifestation of shoemaking?
MS: The shoe making process begins with your feet, I love getting back to the basics and starting with the question: how do I want to feel wearing this item? What do I want to do while wearing it? When you wear something custom made for you, it’s a wake-up call. We start with YOU, the first step is to trace the foot. Then, I shape that tracing to make it workable for becoming a shoe. That is then transferred onto leather and rubber that I then glue together. I cut off the excess on a scroll saw and do the final shaping with a belt sander. I use a hole punch and drill to make the holes and inset for laces. The laces are made with strap cutting tools out of one piece of leather – it’s one of my favorite parts of the making process. I then lace up the sandals and use a heated leather stamp to add my logo. I always set aside time throughout the process for rituals, to honor the life of the animal whose hide becomes a sandal. It is important to me to honor the death inherent in any creative act. It’s a part of life, and connecting with that adds a level of gratitude I would never be able to access if I glossed over where and how my materials came to be. I also make sure I honor the life of the individual for whom the sandals are being made before I put them in their bag and box to be sent off.
What brings you the most joy in creating your products?
MS: Getting to see something that I’ve handmade (and enjoy myself) on the feet of loved ones, friends and strangers is amazing! Especially knowing that it is an object they will wear daily. I love to innovate, I am always looking for ways to refine my designs. I have three rules: No hardware, no sewing and keep the soles thin. There’s nothing more thrilling than coming up with a simple and beautiful solution for a new design.
What are important skills for humans on planet Earth? Why do these make you hopeful?
MS: I think it’s crucial for humans to understand the basics of life. Once we know the essence of how something works, then we can make informed decisions about how we want to live and make use of resources and tools. When we understand how something works, we also know what we are sacrificing by using it. Every choice has a negative and positive side to it and if we aren’t educated about how things work, we don’t see the other side of the coin. I think this is a huge part of how we’ve arrived at this climate crisis. We are so disconnected and have been told we can have everything, but that’s just not true. Nature doesn’t work that way. I love learning and teaching survival/ancestral skills for this reason. Making a fire with nothing but sticks and your own two hands is perhaps the most awe-inspiring skill I’ve had the honor of learning and teaching. These skills are not easy to learn. It’s incredibly hard for humans, who are addicted to getting things fast, to slow down and connect with the materials in front of us. These skills have taught me presence, awareness, humility, and compassion. I’m hopeful that passing on skills like these and sandal making will connect people back with their own creative capacity. Our society has told us that it’s better for someone else to make for us. I have personally found that when I am creating, I am connected to my life; I become the author of my life. A deeper meaning and joy arise from creative acts that truly fulfills and nourishes the human soul. No amount of shopping or buying can fulfill that deeper longing for connection.
What does community mean to you and how does your work support community and culture?
MS: Community looks like a group of people with shared values, coming together to create by honoring the gifts each individual brings to that vision. Community also includes plants, animals, and parts of life that most would consider inanimate, they sustain and are sustained themselves by the community. A healthy community creates a container for connection, no matter how different the viewpoints between individuals. Sandal making is a wonderful way to help individuals get in touch with their own goals. Our feet are this amazing part of our bodies that connect us to this earth. For this reason, I have become deeply involved in investigating the symbolism of shoes and footwear in myth, culture, and story. A lot of my work involves creating space for individuals to connect with their inner resources, discover how they want to walk this path in life and how they can bring their gifts into the world. I believe that healthy individuals who are connected to their passion and joy make for healthy communities. Our dreams are just dreams until we take a step towards making them real. Sandals are where the rubber hits the pavement. Literally. The sandal becomes a symbol for our intentions and a daily reminder when we slip them on for how we want to show up in our lives and the lives of others and our communities.
For you, what is one ‘creative solution for thriving on planet earth?
MS: I truly believe that the reason we are seeing such dis-regulation like climate change in our world today is a reflection of the inner climate in most individuals. This is no fault of our own. We live in a world and time that is hard on our nervous systems-traumatizing to the soul and senses. We live in a culture of lack, competitiveness, and self-centeredness that creates a constant fight/flight dis-regulation in our bodies. When we feel out of sorts inside, we tend to grasp for solutions to feel better externally. Unfortunately, what we grasp for often causes harm to each other and our environment. There are many tools available for us to begin to change our internal climate. I noticed with myself that as I’ve become more regulated, the less I want to buy things, the more I want to be present and connected with myself, others and my environment. If more people were able to reconnect to their internal landscape, I’d be curious to see how that would affect climate change and our relationship with all of life. I think it would lead to a shift in values that would dismantle the current industrial consumer complex that is wreaking havoc on our environment. People wouldn’t want what they want anymore. We wouldn’t be searching for answers at the mall or from impulses of excess. On another note, I always make sure not to use plastic straws, carry my own utensils and glass straw wherever I go. Small steps like these do make a huge difference. Ordering a drink without a straw makes waiters and bartenders stop and think. It may annoy them at first, but as more people do it, the culture will eventually change. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable to make real change.
How do you inspire our future generations? How does this positively impact and help preserve culture?
MS: I love teaching children. At least two times a year, I go to skill share gatherings where instructors come from all over to teach ancestral skills. At these gatherings, I work with 9 to 14-year-old kids that take (and retake) my sandal making class. The nine-year-olds are usually the fastest and the best sandal makers. It’s so wonderful to see them running around camp later in their shoes that they made by hand. These gatherings bring together people of all ages and walks of life and that’s what makes for a strong community. When our elders and children are in the same sandal making class we all become each other’s teachers. There’s a responsibility that is drawn out of the older people to be of service and role models for the young ones that make us all better people. It’s my hope that the kids who take my classes feel empowered that they can make their dreams come true with their own two hands, standing on their own two feet.
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