Arts & Entertainment

Kenyan Sculptors Make Art Out of Flip Flops

See how a Florida woman's enterprise is helping them make a living from their art, and find out where you can buy it.


Erin Smith sees art and opportunity in lots of things. Including flip flops. You read that right: flip flops.

Erin left a corporate career that took her to Europe and Africa to run a non-profit that turns flip flops into stunning rubber sculptures, hand made by artists in Kenya. The company, Ocean Sole Africa , combines Smith's passions: social welfare, environmental conservation and protecting the oceans -- with art. "We're kind of a full-circle solution," she told the Florida Times-Union newspaper .

Here's what's so "full circle" about the project. As the Times-Union reports, in Kenya, cheap flip-flops, made in child labor sweat shop factories, are often the only footwear people can afford. When the sandals wear out, they're tossed by the side of the road, dumped in landfills, or end up washed up on Kenya's beaches -- where they pile up as trash that's virtually indestructible. "We work up and down coast of of Kenya, and we're starting to expand. We pay 90 percent women; they collect flip-flops off the beach, roadways, we pay by weight," Smith told the Times-Union. So people make money, and the beaches and roadsides are a little bit cleaner.

Workers are paid to comb beaches and roadsides for flip flops.

It doesn't stop there. Workers sort, clean and sterilize the flip flops, then glue them together in large blocks of rubber. Then skilled artisans use saws, knives, sanders and other tools to carve the blocks into colorful animal sculptures. Smith tells the Times-Union that the rubber left over from the art is shredded and made into mattresses for refugees, working with the Red Cross and World Vision.

Artists study videos and pictures to sculpt creatures they've never seen.

Smith has already sold some of the bigger pieces (which are molded) for thousands of dollars. A mall in Canada custom-ordered a $25,000 killer whale, a bear and a beaver. But many small pieces sell for as little as $20. Smith ships the art from Kenya, where she lives part of the time, to her home base in Florida, where she's launched a website to sell the pieces. After her workers are paid, Smith puts money into conservation efforts, and into business education programs in Kenya.

Since they're rubber, the small sculptures can float!

Smith tells the Times-Union she has bigger plans for Ocean Sole, including expanding into other third-world countries using the same business model as Kenya.

If you'd like to find out more about how to buy Ocean Sole sculptures, or how to donate to the non-profit, here's a link to their website .

(Images & video: Ocean Sole Facebook page )

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