A recent arrival in New Zealand from Winnipeg, Canada, Barbara Morton of Spirocreations now lives in a house bus in Whangaparaoa with her Kiwi husband Isaac. As Isaac completes a furniture making apprenticeship, Barbara is putting her self-taught leatherwork skills to use creating stunningly beautiful soft leather shoes almost entirely by hand.
What do you make?
I hand make a variety of soft moccasin inspired leather shoes, boots and accessories such as bags, belts, cuffs, earrings and more.
How did you get into your craft?
While living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, I ran an art programme for inner-city homeless and low income adults. Many of the individuals who used the programme claim First Nations (Native) descent so a large amount of the programme was focused on upholding traditional mediums which includes leatherwork and beadwork. Running this programme exploded my creativity and I began experimenting with embroidering and beading on canvas. I was also introduced to leather as a medium and literally fell in love at first sight (and touch)!
Isaac bought me a leather sewing awl for our first wedding anniversary which I used to awkwardly create a small leather pouch which I wore on a belt. From this point on I couldn’t stop creating with leather! I was hooked entirely….I molded leather onto canvasses, stitched bags and belts and attempted my first pair of lace up Moccasin boots without a pattern and all by hand. I later made myself winter Mukluks (lined with fur) and began avidly researching moccasin and footwear history. Over time, I increased my leather knowledge through 5 minute conversations with my First Nations friends, local cobblers and self study and trial. Every week at Art Programme, I would fiddle away designing a brand new style of footwear, asking the participants for their advice and suggestions. Friends began to ask for custom pairs, and very accidently Spirocreations was born.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Nope. My approach to leather craft is very much the Barb Morton method. I think a lot of my work has a unique look as I never really learned how to work with leather ‘properly’.
Clockwise from left: The first pair of moccasins Barb ever made; Barb and Isaac;
leather lace-up ballet high tops.
What inspires you?
I am a history nerd and so I find a huge amount of inspiration from the past and natural world. I am an ocean and forest junkie! I love the creativity and kindness of people I meet day to day. I am a very spiritual person and my beliefs are often a starting point for all my creativity. ‘Spiro’, is actually a Latin word (pronounced ‘spearo’) and means: to live, to breathe or to be inspired. Isaac and I felt this idea summed up our creative process, as creativity brings life and is as important to our well-being as breathing. In ancient times, ‘inspiration’ was thought to occur from God breathing (or whispering) ideas into our minds from which we would become inspired to live and create. We too feel that through the process of creating we are connected to something greater than ourselves as well as reconnecting us to the earth, its inhabitants, its past, present and future.
Indigenous peoples also are a huge influence for me as I deeply respect their resourcefulness, wisdom, creativity, artisanship and balance with the Earth. Fantasy, folk lore, fairytales and mysticism also influences my work as I have always wanted to disappear into the stories I read.
Music always gets my blood pumping and the ideas pouring.
A favourite quote: “Be the change you long to see in the world.” – Ghandi
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
I love working with all kinds of leather but I have a special soft spot for deer hide. I also like to work with natural and found items such as wood, shell, feathers and vintage pieces. I work almost entirely with hand tools including a leather awl, needles, waxed thread, shears and a lighter. I have an old industrial sewing machine to help with some of the basic assembly but most everything is finished with hand tools. I’d be lost without my measuring tape and leather awl…these are most precious to me.
A lot of my process involves trial and error. When creating, I usually do not start with a fixed idea as most often the creation presents itself in the leather pieces in front of me. I really like to take my time and to allow the pieces to evolve naturally. I love designing and will work crazy hours in a focused non-stop state once I get excited about something. Thank goodness for a husband that will come in and feed me every so often!
Recycling is also really important to me. I do not like to waste any leather and so try to design pieces or accents which utilise even the smallest offcuts.
Five words that describe your mind: Imaginative, idealistic, worried, non-stop, contemplative
Describe your workspace:
Ever changing! Since moving from Winnipeg my workspace has been the site of various kitchen tables, bedrooms and even the house bus we are currently living in. At the moment I am working out of a friend’s old bedroom which luckily has huge windows and lots of sunlight. I look forward to actually having a workspace to call my own!
What are you currently listening to?
I am all over the place with music…currently a lot of ’70s rock, old skool hip hop, ’50s Cuban jazz, ’60s Mod rock, Euro trance and ’90s grunge rock.
Recommend an album: Black on Both Sides – Mos Def
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
At the time that I began working with leather, I was reading up on pre-historic life. It fascinated me to consider how disconnected I am from this lifestyle and how deeply I yearned to regain and preserve this knowledge. It blew my mind to think that for thousands of years our ancestors utilised only what the earth could offer for survival. They lived in an intricate balance with the natural world, ever having to be resourceful and united as a community. I was sickened by how wasteful and disrespectful our current society has become. I greatly desired to live in such a way that I could better understand the Earth and respect its resources.
Engaging with leather enabled me to reconnect to a rich cultural history which is well exemplified in the First Nation’s People of Canada. I was honoured with the quiet wisdom of my First Nations friends who stay connected to the earth and intimately respect its resources and character. Many of these individuals have been my teachers and inspiration for creating. I am honoured to create through relationship and am grateful to be connected to their lives and to their stories.
I was very moved, by the amount of skill, time and love that went into fashioning a traditional pair of moccasins, wraps, or kamiks (Inuit seal boots). One pair of shoes required the entire community to work together. This left a deep impression on me. I longed to use craft to create community and as a tool for reconnecting individuals to the Earth, its past and resources. As a part of this journey, I arranged a meeting with a local First Nation’s elder, to ensure that the pieces I created were not in any way disrespectful to the culture and that in all ways, I was embarking into leather work respectfully. This meeting was uplifting and inspiring. I gained a greater appreciation for the medium I was working with and felt I could move forward.
I also spent a lot of time studying the history of the Arts and Craft Movement focusing on William Morris and later John Ruskin’s influence on the Industrial Revolution. This study got me thinking about how drastically the world has changed since the 18th Century, particularly the change from Craft Guilds to Factory production. In the face of Industrial society…handcraft (which was mere survival for centuries) has become in present day somewhat revolutionary. In this, I began to examine the resurgence of handcraft since the 1800s and found that many of its champions fought for principles that I desire to reflect in my life (sustainability, respect, equality, just distribution of wealth). I began to realise that the simple act of hand making shoes was my way to combat a ‘profit before people’ focused society.
I strongly desire to preserve past artisanship, wisdom and respect in all my work. I hope that Spirocreations can be a connecting point between the public and the past as well as inspiring respect for the Earth and its resources, encouraging creative community and the support of hand craft over factory production.
Your hero/heroine: William Morris
Your favourite childhood book? Alice in Wonderland and Grimm’s Fairytales
What are you reading now?
I am burning through all of Juliet Marrillier’s books. Wolfskin and Daughter of the Forest were amazing!
Do you have any pets?
No…but someday I will own a very big dog. Someday Isaac, someday!
If you were a crayon, what colour would you be?
I would be one of those combination color crayons as I am all over the place with fingers in too many pots. I doubt I would be in one piece.
Keep checking back as Barbara adds new designs to her Felt shop, Spirocreations, over the next few weeks, and look out for her gorgeous footwear at future craft events in Auckland and surrounds.