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Michael Leavitt's Cardboard Kicks
The Seattle-based artist replicates an ordinary item with an everyday material, with fantastic results
by CH Contributor
on 20 March 2014

by Eva Glettner

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Seattle-based Michael Leavitt might be a college dropout (he quit Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute of Art as a freshman, despite his a 4.0 GPA) but that, by no means, has meant he's a failed artist. His "Art Army" project is just that; several handmade, one-off action figures for adults—featuring Tom Sachs dressed as an astronaut, Jeff Koons with balloon limbs and Yayoi Kusama in all her polka-dotted glory. His "Empire Peaks" project boasts historical and cultural references blended with Star Was—a very heroic Abraham Lincoln as Han Solo, while Kim Jong II features as Jabba the Hutt. Leavitt also dabbles in creative endeavors spanning trading cards, wedding cake toppers, screenprints, boardgames and ceramics—even an Elton John-themed toilet seat.

Recently, we discovered yet another of his many talents: his cardboard sneaker creations. As part of his "Hip Hoprojects," Leavitt takes an everyday material to replicate an everyday item—but the result is pretty impressive. The artist spoke with CH about his motivation, his process and everlasting love of sneakers.

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Why did you choose shoes as your subject?

Shoes are the most ubiquitous, intimate design object that we fashion for ourselves. Cars, houses and other material accoutrements are important to our identity, but our clothing is the most intimate. We're stuck with it on our bodies all day long. Shoes even more so because the aesthetics cut across gender roles. Many might hesitate to admit that they really care what their clothes or shoes look like—especially a lot of guys. (I'm one of them.) But, like it or not, our shoes define who we are to the world outside our brains.

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Your other objects are made from wood, clay and more sturdy materials, can you explain why you make your kicks from cardboard?

Canvas and oil paints are pricey; traditional sculpture materials and tools are pricey. Sculpting with garbage is about as cheap as it gets. It allows me to experiment at will.

Cardboard gives you creative freedom?

The trial and error has barely any consequences. I try to create the right shape and form and if a particular piece isn't right, I just trace it out on another piece of cardboard and toss it. Tons of students all over the world casually ask me to teach them how to make a cardboard shoe when confronted with the project in school, and 99% of them get hung up on the fear of failure. This fear cripples the motivation to experiment. Understanding the disposability of a material affords an artist near total freedom.

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How difficult is it to manipulate the cardboard?

Manipulating a material is somewhere between control and experimentation. Cardboard is incredibly easy to experiment with—controlling it is just as hard as any other medium. Painters spend lifetimes learning to control oil paint, sculptors apprentice for decades to learn their craft. Just because cardboard is cheap and available doesn't mean it's readily available to bend at will. I do a lot of "conditioning"—I rub it on a table edge, press wood tools into it, crumple it, crease it with rulers.

And you figured it all out through experience?

No one taught me how to do any of it. I just keep trying everything I can. I don't quit when something doesn't immediately go my way. If I can't get a form to bend the way I want, I try a different tool. I step away and go for a walk, I think about it, I dream of it. Either I find a solution by trial and error and conjure a solution by sheer will. It's all about desire and motivation. I've got big dreams. I work as hard as I can to not let the material world stand in my way.

Michael Leavitt's Cardboard Kicks will be on display as part of San Francisco's Museum of Craft & Design's "Elevated Corrugated" show from 5 April through 22 June 2014.

Images courtesy of Michael Leavitt

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