The Good Stuff
The Good Stuff
A cowboy boot by Lisa Sorrell is like a good country song – beautifully crafted, rooted in tradition, honest and heartfelt, with layers of complexity and sophistication. It’s fitting, then, that she names each boot in her portfolio after a classic country tune.
Wild and Blue, with an offbeat decoration in a bright shade of sky, takes its title from one of her favorite numbers by John Anderson. Love Is Like a Butterfly features an old-fashioned motif of outspread wings as graceful and lyrical as the Dolly Parton hit. A pattern of crosses gets christened Sunday Morning Coming Down. It’s a sweet finishing touch to the bespoke creations that have earned Sorrell a reputation as one of America’s finest cowboy-bootmakers.
“There are those who make working boots as gear for working cowboys. I don’t,” explains Sorrell, 47, who maintains her shop in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
“I am very concerned with making a boot that is historically accurate and functional, and, most important, that fits well,” she says. “But other than that? I can make it pretty. I can make it whatever color I want. My goal is to make a pair of boots that you could wear out in the cow lot if you wanted to – but it’s so pretty, you won’t want to.”
Sorrell is a serious, articulate advocate for cowboy bootmaking, which she reveres as part of America’s heritage. She’s also an expressive artist with a keen sense of humor – and a touch of rebel. It’s this dynamic that makes her boots so special.
She uses inlay and overlay techniques, along with decorative stitching, to craft her intricate tops, usually in thin, supple kangaroo leather; for the foot, she favors ostrich and alligator. She draws mostly from traditional motifs – flowers, leaves, butterflies, eagles – to create her unique designs, though occasionally she’ll try something unorthodox. “One time I did a coral reef scene. And I did it well. But it looked weird, because it’s a coral reef on a cowboy boot,” she admits. “I feel that cowboy boots are more authentic if you pay attention to the history.”
Her mastery has won her the respect of aficionados and peers alike. “If you ask me, she’s the best,” says Denver bootmaker Mickey Mussett, who met Sorrell years ago at a boot- and saddlemakers roundup in Texas. “She tops herself pair after pair, creating flights of imagination in her original designs. And she works like most of the rest of us bootmakers – alone in her shop, creating a colorful world of adventure and dreams in footwear for people with just a little more bounce to their steps.”
“Lisa is truly an artistic and technical genius,” says Carol Sauvion, creator of the TV series Craft in America, which featured Sorrell in a 2011 episode. “Her passion has guided her career as a bootmaker. She has gone fearlessly where women had previously been barred from participating,” Sauvion notes. True enough, when Sorrell entered the field, it was almost entirely dominated by men.
“I believe there were three, maybe four, other woman bootmakers,” the artist reckons. “One was the very first to have her own shop. Her father was a bootmaker, and he resisted teaching her for years, because, he said, there was no place for women in cowboy bootmaking.”
If Sorrell is a pioneer, she doesn’t make much of it. For a girl who grew up expecting to be a stay-at-home mom, crafting cowboy boots was as unlikely a career path as any other. She was raised in Missouri, in a conservative church where the women wore their hair and dresses long. At 12 she learned to sew and discovered she had a gift for patternmaking. By 15, she was sewing professionally, making clothes for ladies in her congregation before branching out to prom and wedding gowns. “I would sit in church, and instead of writing notes in the Bible, I would be sketching my next dress,” she remembers.
At 20 she got married, moved to Guthrie, and left her dressmaking business behind. Looking for something to do, she answered a help-wanted ad for a stitcher of boot tops: “I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like sewing.” The owner of the shop was a gruff, cantankerous man named Jay Griffith, whose superb work had made him a legend in the cowboy-boot world. With some skepticism, he hired her. “I had never been around anyone who drank or cussed,” Sorrell recalls, “so it was quite an education.”
Nor did she know a thing about cowboy boots, except that her preacher had once denounced them. Yet she fell in love with the craft. In time, Griffith was impressed enough with her needle skills to allow her to sign the insides of the tops she stitched.
“Jay grew up on a ranch in Texas and made boots for working cowboys his entire life. But he had the soul of an artist,” Sorrell says fondly of her mentor, who died in 1995. “He taught me to care about the curve of each line and the rhythm of the entire design. People often say to me, ‘You’re good with color and design because you’re a woman.’ I tell them I learned everything I know about color and design from a grumpy old man. He understood the function of a cowboy boot as well as anyone could, and he still made a point to convey the importance of beauty and elegance as a vital component.”
After 18 months spent stitching for Griffith, Sorrell decided to study bootmaking in earnest, and became an apprentice to Ray Dorwart, a friend and Guthrie neighbor to this day. The work wasn’t glamorous, “but I think that’s what attracted me, because in my world, girls did girl things and boys did boy things,” she reflects. “While I loved sewing, I resented the fact that I was doing something that was expected of me. Cowboy bootmaking was a way for me to express my artistic side. But I also got to hammer. I got to build things. That satisfied something very deep within me.” In 1996 she launched Sorrell Custom Boots and set about building a clientele. Her husband, Dale, who owns a body shop supply business, was unwavering in his support, even and especially after their two daughters were born. (“I got very lucky,” she says of their long and happy marriage.) When Tyler Beard, an influential cowboy-boot connoisseur, included Sorrell in his 1999 book Art of the Boot, her career took off.
Today she makes two or three pairs of boots a month – all customers must meet her and be measured in person – and has a waiting list of up to a year. Her typical client is a businessman or CEO who likes the West, collects Western art, maybe has a home in Scottsdale or Jackson Hole. She recently made a pair for Arnold Schwarzenegger, an avid boot collector and wearer. While she enjoys her women customers, she says, “my passion is making boots for men. Men have so few fashion options. They get a lot of black and brown. Cowboy boots are a way for men to wear high heels and bright colors.”
“Cowboy boots are no longer just a rural Western phenomenon,” observes Steven Grafe, curator at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington state and a longtime Sorrell fan. “There is a growing class of city dwellers who appreciate beautiful, well-made Western wear. Cowboy boots are an integral part of this attire, and the louder the statement they can make, the better. Lisa is in the vanguard of those bootmakers who are reconceiving the art form, and I think the market is expanding to embrace what she does.”
The field, too, is showing signs of growth. Sorrell teaches both in her studio and at workshops, and notes that the majority of her students – and those of fellow bootmakers – are women: “If the craft continues as it is, in 50 years it’s going to be completely female dominated.” One convert is her daughter Paige, 19, who has launched her own career in the Sorrell shop, making custom shoes. Bringing young people into the fold is important to Sorrell.
She maintains a blog and YouTube channel, runs an online supply shop, and has authored a how-to book, The Art of Leather Inlay and Overlay, to be published this summer. “I want the craft of cowboy bootmaking to survive,” she says. “It came very close to dying in the late ’80s, because [up to then] makers tended to not share. Now it benefits us to share, because we’re protecting an endangered craft.”
That sense of mission drives and sustains her, especially when the demands of owning a small business seem overwhelming. During one tough spell, she made a pair of boots in muted colors and called it If We Make It Through December, after Merle Haggard’s plaintive ode to spring and hope. They ended up winning the gold medal at an international shoe competition in Germany, the first ever awarded to an American (and the first time for a pair of cowboy boots).
In fact, to her own amazement, Sorrell these days finds herself something of a world ambassador for cowboy bootmaking, having recently traveled to France and Japan to teach. “Sometimes I can’t believe where it’s taken me,” she says of the work she loves. What began on the day she answered a newspaper ad has led her to achieve her wildest dreams – “Sweet Dreams,” country queen Patsy Cline might have called them. And yes, folks, Sorrell has a boot by that name.
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.