Sole mates: Leather artists celebrate talent, friendship

JULIE HUSS/Staff photoClaire Renaud and Molly Grant, both accomplished shoemakers and leather artists, sit at Cask and Vine in Derry to chat about a New Hampshire arts grant they will receive as part of their teaching and skills with shoes.

They might refer to themselves as sole sisters.

Claire Renaud and Molly Grant have a wonderful friendship — stitched up in unique leather footwear.

Renaud, who owns the Costume Gallery in downtown Derry, is an accomplished seamstress and leather artisan and one of a long list of artists showing off their talents at this week’s 85th annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s annual fair at the Mount Sunapee Resort.

Grant owns and operates The Cordwainer Shop in Deerfield, carrying on a generations-old tradition of creating finely crafted leather shoes.

Both Renaud and Grant want to put their love of leather and shoes in the spotlight and will use a traditional arts grant through the New Hampshire Arts Council to continue their work.

“We are trying to keep these arts alive,” Renaud said. “And Molly, she’s teaching me to teach. She’s making shoes the way they did 100 years ago.”

The two teamed up for an afternoon recently at Cask and Vine in downtown Derry, showing off a small table display of footwear while sharing what they do with visitors coming into the business.

Renaud is well-known for her costume business in Derry but started working in leather art several years ago as extra scraps of leather eventually would cross her path to later become a cuff bracelet or earrings.

Renaud studied techniques of carving, design, and how to treat and manipulate the leather to prepare it for sculpting and intricate stitch work.

“I loved doing it so much,” she said. “I could spend hours and hours. So much of it is hand work.”

Renaud met Grant while taking a workshop at the Deerfield shop, setting the friendship in motion with a common thread of making shoes.

The Cordwainer Shop — named for the French word for a shoemaker who makes fine soft leather shoes — was founded in the 1930s by Edward F. Mathews.

His son, Paul, carried on the shoe-making tradition, using all the classic tools and techniques passed down from his father.

Grant met Paul Mathews while participating in a League of New Hampshire Craftsmen show in 1990 and later became his wife. She had already been known at the annual fair for her own original leather handbags but wanted to learn to make shoes.

The pair worked side by side until Mathews’ death in 2009. Grant took over the Cordwainer Shop and continues to carry on her husband’s tradition of making shoes, using the classic tools and equipment to make many of Mathews’ own shoe designs, including Oxford-style footwear styles dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Grant’s updated designs include bright colors and styles.

The traditional arts funding support will allow Grant to continue to teach her leather craft, with Renaud on board to share in the tradition of making shoes.

“It’s been really fun,” Grant said.

Renaud calls her friend “very gifted.” For Grant, having Renaud wanting to learn shoe techniques helps continue her love of teaching and sharing her work. Grant regularly hosts workshops at her studio.

Renaud said working in leather and creating one-of-a-kind shoes is hard work. It takes hour and hours, but it’s joyful all the same.

“It’s such a work of art,” she said. “I have a lot of patience when it’s something I enjoy doing. I could spend hours and hours.”

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