When Melody Lightfeather, an award-winning watercolorist based in Albuquerque, walks down the street, she has this peculiar feeling that people are following her, staring at her feet, wanting her shoes. Paranoia? Nah. Great sneakers.
No question about it, hers are spectacular. Ever seen high-tops that sparkle? Inlaid with beaded blue skies, pueblos, silver mountains, mesas, white clouds and purple rain?
Back in 1984 Lightfeather, who blithely describes herself as half Pima Indian, half Hispanic and half crazy, bought a pair of plain black sneakers. They had good sole but no soul. So the artist employed the beading techniques she’d learned as a child from an old Sioux woman, painstakingly covering her purchase with intricate designs. Much better. “When I looked at my feet, I felt happy,” says she. “I felt hopeful.” Friends did too. And when they began asking for personalized renditions, a business began.
Soon the celebrity circuit got wind of Melody’s magic. Goldie Hawn was the first Name to pick up a pair of the designer footgear—which goes for $650 to $2,500, after the shoes are supplied—in 1986. “I’ve got to have those shoes,” the pregnant actress told Lightfeather, the widowed mother of three daughters.
Goldie’s were festooned with beaded rainbows and clouds. Lightfeather gave Hawn’s new-born son, Wyatt, a pair with rainbows. Actress Linda Gray got a pair with red-and-gold monarch butterflies. Wayne Newton is waiting for his eagle-and-bear shoes, and the L.A. Lakers have expressed interest in a batch for the team. “Imagine beading a size 15-D shoe,” says Lightfeather, who works in a studio and employs about 38 Native American assistants who work at home.
Melody creates her designs by combining her clients’ favorite colors with Indian symbols. Her own sneaks have broken arrows for peace and rain clouds for growth. After a sketch is transferred to the shoes, the beading process takes up to a month.
“When you say American-made, this is about as American as you can get,” Lightfeather notes. “The people who buy my shoes aren’t just getting a piece of art. They’re getting a piece of me.” For a good piece of change.