Women are drawn to a pretty pair of heels—browsing department stores and boutiques for the perfect fit, the season’s latest trend, a pair of work-suitable kitten heels and so on. Micki Shampang-Voorhies is like most women, though noticeably different. Her own shoe collection, for example, is on the upside of a hundred pairs. Many of them she has never worn, nor ever will, because she considers high heels works of art.
photo by David Bassett
Growing up, Shampang-Voorhies thought she would be a marine biologist. She was on the track to a career as an oceanographer until “life got in the way” and her path veered. After becoming a mom and working a long stint as a fitness dance instructor and a housekeeper, she encountered an unlikely hobby that would one day turn her love for heels into an even more unlikely career.
The image of Shampang-Voorhies is not that of the typical welder. At 61, she is petite with a blonde pixie cut and two-inch long nails lavished in cherry-red acrylic. She has a bright laugh when bluntly referring to welding as a “filthy, filthy job,” her workshop as a “dark, dirty hole” and herself as a “macho bitch.” Seeing unlikely potential in an old mining house with no plumbing, a crumbling foundation and encroaching blackberry bushes, she, much to her husband’s consternation, decided to turn it into a home.
Many artists draw their inspiration from nature or people. For Shampang-Voorhies, there’s no hesitation, “Alcohol,” she blurted. To be fair, not just any alcohol will do. It’s brandy, red wine in the winter, and gin and tonic in the summer.
An hour east of Eugene and at the confluence of the Blue and McKenzie rivers, the remote town of Blue River feeds her creativity, too. She and her husband have lived here for twenty years. The old mining town along the McKenzie River Highway has a post office, a liquor store, a gas station—that sometimes has gas but always makes good pizza—and not many occasions to wear much more on residents’ feet than boots. “There’s nothing to do,” she said. “It gives you plenty of time to focus on your artwork.”
photos by David Bassett
When her husband, Gary, retired from the railroad, she encouraged him to take up a craft and asked him to make her a copper candleholder like the one she’d seen at Pottery Barn. He then began making intricate, vined arbors with hand-cut leaves as well. At a garden show, some artist friends of the couple asked to trade for one of Gary’s pieces. They made Shampang-Voorhies a naked witch from steel to decorate the side of her house. When they delivered it, they also loaned her a plasma cutter and a sheet of steel. “I can’t even draw a stick figure!” she thought.
She stayed up all night crafting a moon with a big crooked nose and a buzzard to accompany her witch. Where she lacked confidence with paper and pencil, she found natural grace holding a blowtorch and scrap metal—her long nails, after 45 years, a seamless extension of her hands.
The following Monday, she went to town and bought a plasma cutter and welder to pursue her new passion. “I describe welding as kind of an ego thing where you can bend and form metal to your will,” she said. “The heat and the stink and the dirt—I love every part of it.”
She started out with custom work—arbors, gates, garden stakes and the like. Then one day she was walking along Fifth Street in Eugene when she saw a pair of high heels in the window of Miss Meers, a boutique. It was love at first sight, but they were out of her price range. She went home obsessing over the beautiful shoes and decided to weld a decorative heel out of scraps of metal and steel. She took her finished shoe to Miss Meers’ owner Meera Willis-Majors. Shampang-Voorhies walked away with the shoes in the window and, in 2002, scored her first of many metal art clients to come.
Fifteen years after she began welding and three years into making her signature high heels, Shampang-Voorhies now takes her work to art shows across the western United States, and has permanent gallery spots in Oregon, Washington and California. After garnering a growing clientele for her shoes, she has given up the housekeeping and fitness training, making heels her career.
Most of her materials come from dumpsters, junkyards, garage sales and industrial sites. Boeing used to have warehouse scrap sales where Shampang-Voorhies would look for eye-catching aeronautics scrap for her shoes. She has used everything from barbed wire to handcuffs and bike chains. Her sharp and jagged materials provide the possibility for metaphor and the real-life experience of wearing heels. “Haven’t you ever put a shoe on your foot that felt like that at the end of the day? Or after ten minutes?” she asked and then laughed.
Shampang-Voorhies doesn’t sell her shoes online, nor does she want to. She prefers art shows for the personal connection she makes with her clients, where she is able to see who picks out which shoe, where they’re going to put it and why they are drawn to the shoe. She estimates that half of her clientele are men who are often shopping for themselves. “I think it’s the tools and the hardness and the steel, but it’s that stiletto fantasy,” she said, “I think it’s a total statement of my personality—strong, tough, hard, maybe a little bit edgy, but feminine.”