With oth­ers’ worn-out shoes, she sees a fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - theresa.var­[email protected]­post.com

You might have seen An­drea Smith at Tysons Cor­ner Cen­ter.

She was the woman be­hind the cam­era, wav­ing a plas­tic tam­bourine above her head, try­ing to make your baby smile as she sat in Santa’s lap. Or, if your child was older, Smith was prob­a­bly yelling “cheese­burger” and “stinky feet,” hop­ing to draw out a gig­gle.

Smith en­joys tak­ing pho­tos of chil­dren with Santa Claus.

But like most other jobs she has held, the $13-an-hour position is tem­po­rary. It is a way for her to pay her bills, for now.

Her real pas­sion — the job she does year-round and would do full-time if she could — in­volves dirty, stained and un­wanted sneak­ers and boots. It in­volves a ser­vice that you don’t go to the mall to find. She is a shoe beau­ti­fier. That is not her real ti­tle, of course. Oth­ers just don’t seem to fit as well. She is not just a cob­bler, al­though she will fix bro­ken shoes and clean them if

that’s all they need. She is also not just an artist, be­cause her work is more than an ex­pres­sion of cre­ativ­ity. It is grounded in prac­ti­cal­ity.

What she does is takes shoes that might have been dis­carded and, us­ing paint and other ma­te­ri­als, trans­forms them into some­thing eye-catch­ing. She makes the un­wanted once again de­sir­able.

“I bring them back to life,” the 26-year-old said. “Some of them be dead. There’s some shoes that could have never been worn again, and I made them look like a brand-new pair.”

Smith has re­vived Ugg boots that have been scuffed and res­cued plain white sneak­ers that have been dis­col­ored. She has taken tiny Tim­ber­lands and made them beloved by kids by adding car­toon char­ac­ters to them.

She has even taken a pair of Nike Airs and some­how made the col­ors gold, pur­ple, red and turquoise work to­gether.

Us­ing shoes as a can­vas is not new. Look at Pin­ter­est, and you will see Toms cov­ered in flow­ers, sea crea­tures and even Win­nie the Pooh. In Fe­bru­ary, CNBC ran a piece about a man who had started paint­ing shoes in his mother’s New York base­ment and now counts among his clients NBA stars LeBron James and Steph Curry.

Un­like him, Smith’s story is not about find­ing suc­cess. She’s not there yet. She still strug­gles some months to pay the $1,100 rent for her North­west Wash­ing­ton apart­ment. What is strik­ing about Smith is her de­ci­sion to change the tra­jec­tory of her life a year ago in search of hap­pi­ness and how, in her pur­suit, she has caused oth­ers to look dif­fer­ently at what’s in front of them.

Each time I have talked to her, I have walked away think­ing about the po­ten­tial we don’t of­ten see — in things and in peo­ple.

Not ev­ery­one is meant to fol­low the tra­di­tional path of high school, then col­lege, then a steady pay­check. Smith knows that be­cause she tried it. Last year, she was work­ing at Star­bucks as a shift man­ager and at­tend­ing the Univer­sity of the Dis­trict of Columbia. Her grades were good, but she was strug­gling to find mo­ti­va­tion.

She was also strug­gling to pay for her ed­u­ca­tion with­out go­ing into debt.

Un­like other 20-some­things, she didn’t have any fi­nan­cial sup­port. She had lost both her par­ents when she was young. Her fa­ther died in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent when she was 10. And at 15, she lost her mother to breast can­cer. Af­ter that, she floated among rel­a­tives’ homes.

“I kind of raised my­self,” Smith said. In the be­gin­ning, holi­days were a “lit­tle rough and com­pli­cated,” she re­called. “One Christ­mas, I got stuff, and then the next year, I didn’t get any­thing.”

Her brother, who is her main sup­port sys­tem, pushed her to grad­u­ate from Booker T. Wash­ing­ton high school. But when it came to col­lege, she said, she had to make the de­ci­sion for her­self. She con­sid­ered whether a de­gree and the debt that would come with it would make her happy — and she de­cided it wouldn’t.

“Fail­ure for me would look like me just set­tling, or just stand­ing in the same spot I was in last year, not elevating or growing. Not be­ing happy in life,” she said. “I feel like if you’re go­ing to fail, you can al­ways go back and do what was mak­ing you un­happy in the first place.”

She knows that the way she now sur­vives in the Dis­trict is not the way many peo­ple would choose to. She works a lot. She does land­scap­ing. She makes jew­elry. She takes pho­tos for events. She also does cater­ing and vol­un­teers her time cook­ing and serv­ing the home­less about once a month.

And then there are her shoes, which she cus­tom­izes for any­where be­tween $50 to $130.

It takes her about two weeks to fin­ish a pair, and when she does, she posts pho­tos of them on In­sta­gram. Al­ready, through her two pages, Webbs Cus­toms and Just_Web­bie, she has built a fol­low­ing of more than 7,800 peo­ple.

This week, she also gained one more fan: Santa.

Santa — who also goes by the name Mike Gra­ham and has been known to com­ment on the in­ten­tion­ally ripped jeans of some of the chil­dren who sit on his lap — had talked to Smith about her work with shoes. Still, he wasn’t sure what to think about it.

Then, in a quiet mo­ment this week, be­fore eager chil­dren streamed past the naughty and nice me­ter and into his lap, he saw the lat­est pair she was work­ing on.

From a black plas­tic bag, she pulled out a pair of Fila sneak­ers. One was white, and the other was painted pink, red, aqua and pur­ple.

“I was blown away,” Gra­ham said.

Peo­ple talk about walk­ing in some­one else’s shoes, he said, but she lets you stand in your own a lit­tle longer.

And just like that, sud­denly even Santa was look­ing a lit­tle dif­fer­ently at what was in front of him.

Theresa Var­gas

PHO­TOS BY THERESA VAR­GAS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

An­drea Smith works on a pair of shoes dur­ing her break at Tysons Cor­ner Cen­ter. She trans­forms stained, scuffed and bor­ing shoes.

Smith tries to get 8-month-old Larkin Faz­ica to smile for a photo. The job helps pay the bills while she pur­sues her pas­sion.

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