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Shoemaker, Handyman and Inventor: The Story of Gilberto de Melo- a TRUE European Artisan

Updated on July 1, 2015

The Breathtaking "Nordeste" in São Miguel, Açores Where Both of My Parents Were Born


Handmade Black Dress Shoe (Over 35 Years Old)

Detail of Black Dress Shoe

Leather Sole with Hidden Nails of Black Dress Shoe

Handmade Brown Boot

Detail of Fancy Stitch-Work on Brown Boot

High-Quality Leather Sole with Wooden Peg Nails (Matchsticks) and Brass Nails of Brown Boot

Hand-Carved Wooden Shoe Last

Hand-Carved Traditional Portuguese Clog

Foot-Powered Singer Sewing Machine (c. 100 Years Old)

Cute Recycled Birdhouse

What is an ARTISAN?

According to Webster's here is the definition: 1. A worker who practices a trade or handicraft. 2. One that produces something in limited quantities often using traditional methods.

Living and working in Europe has exposed me to countless talented artisans who still value originality and high quality craftsmanship. I have also had the pleasure of interviewing many of them and touring their workshops.

Unfortunately, today's wasteful and disposable society is causing the artisan to become virtually extinct. Whether it's shoes, clothing, jewelry or cell phones- nothing is made to last nowadays. Our economy relies on things breaking down or wearing out quickly in order for us to buy more and more. When you buy something high-quality that is made by an artisan, it can last a lifetime- and that would mean less money going to these big corporations!

Gilberto de Melo is a TRUE European Artisan. Born the youngest of ten children in the lush, beautiful island of São Miguel, Açores, he immigrated to Massachusetts in his late twenties. Having been a shoemaker most of his life, he quickly found a job in a shoe factory as a supervisor, where he created and implemented better ways of making shoes.

By the way, Gilberto also happens to be my father...

My father regularly brought home discontinued materials and overstock, so I grew up around a variety of leathers, suede and wooden shoe lasts (the forms used to make a shoe). It always amazed me that he could put together a shoe "from scratch." When I was in junior high, he made me a lovely pair of suede sneakers. Of course, back then I didn't appreciate the shoes as much as I would now. In case you didn't know, a pair of hand made, custom-fit shoes can cost thousands of dollars!

My father's attention to detail and the pride he took in his work served as an inspiration to me. If something was not right, he would take everything apart, start over and work at it until it was perfect.

I have taken photos of 2 shoes (from 2 pairs that he made in his workshop). The first is a black dress shoe that he handmade over 35 years ago. The outer edges of the leather sole were slit and pushed aside and after the nails were added the edges were pushed back in place to hide the nail heads. The result is a smooth leather sole, which is very elegant on a dress shoe.

The second is brown boot that flaunts fancy stitch work. No machine could replicate this stitch design at the time these boots were constructed in 1977 (almost 35 years ago). Notice the soles have wooden peg nails and brass nails, both of which never rust and therefore keep the inner sole always in excellent condition. By the way, since wooden peg nails were not available in the city we lived in, my father used matchsticks to achieve the same result.

To this day I am still impressed by my father's ingenuity. For example, on many occasions I have witnessed him actually INVENT and CREATE a tool for a certain job that needed to be done. This applied to shoe making as well as many "handyman" jobs at home and at work.

Being from a small village and a poor family, my father did not receive a formal education. I have always wondered what he could have aspired to if he had been given the opportunity to attend university. No doubt he would have become an engineer or an inventor. Sadly, the world will never know.

Surprisingly, my father and his siblings taught themselves to play guitar without knowing how to read music. They all play beautifully and claim that they simply picked up the guitar and replicated the tunes they heard on the radio. All of them "play by ear" so to speak. Baffled, I tried to do the same only to end up with sore fingertips...I guess I didn't get the cool music gene.

In 2011 my father celebrated his 70th birthday, but one would never guess his age by looking at him. His faithfulness to the traditional Mediterranean diet and his active lifestyle has kept him young. Today, he and my mother live in Florida and although he is retired, he continues to work because he simply cannot sit still. He is the official handyman for one of the biggest car dealerships in town and is happiest when he's busy.

Unfortunately, without easy access to materials or shoe lasts, he is no longer making shoes. Recently, however, he carved a single wooden shoe last by hand and made a traditional Portuguese clog just for fun. In his workshop sits a foot-powered Singer sewing machine that is about 100 years old. He just used it the other day to sew new leather cushions for the sofa in the study so it's still functioning quite well.

Lately, my father has taken to making birdhouses out of things my mother throws in the recycling bin. Laundry detergent bottles, plastic tubes, juice bottles- you name it. A true artisan is always inventing new things, always creating.

Although this article is dedicated to my father, I feel compelled to mention my mother, Filomena. In addition to being a talented artist and great cook, she is a third generation seamstress. For several years she worked out of our home on private commissions. I remember an incredible wedding gown she made for a client that was decorated with hundreds of carefully hand-sewn pearls. Since the standards of high quality work were deeply instilled in my mother, it inevitably trickled down to her three daughters.

Needless to say, my sisters and I are extremely picky and very quality conscious when it comes to shoes and clothing. We KNOW well-made items when we see them and we're never fooled by trendy labels or high end designers. We are also artistic and creative and take great pride in our own work. Thanks Mom and Dad!

I hope you've enjoyed this article. As always, thank you for reading!

C. De Melo
Author & Artist

Gilberto's (Gilly's) Workshop

Colorful & Quirky 100% Recycled Bird Houses (No 2 Are Alike)


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