Known as ‘The Poet Sandalmaker’, as was his father Stavros, who’s sandal shops in Monastiraki drew the world’s celebrities to buy his designs, Pantelis has taken his art to another level.
Interview by Alexia Amvrazi
From the moment I entered Pantelis Melissinos’ Art Gallery / Sandal Shop in Makryianni, where it opened two years ago, it was like diving into another world. First, I was hit by the bold colours and shapes from his artworks – sculptured chairs, paintings large and small, leather bags, and elaborate sandals hanging from the ceiling and stacked against walls.
As I stepped down into the shop/gallery Pantelis turned and smiled at me from the piano, where he was playing a piece in the living room-style space where masked clients sat patiently waiting to have their dream sandal design created to fit their foot to perfection. And then Poi Poi, a 10-year-old white griffon dog with the cheerful bounce of a puppy hopped and barked up to me delivering a giant donut toy we could play with.
Pantelis, looking fit and wiry from his passionate health regime and youthfully dressed in jeans and a waistcoat, escorted me to the corner where we sat at his desk to chat about his life and art.
Now Pantelis has taken the reins of a store with 100 years of history, once religiously visited by the likes of the Beatles and Liz Taylor, Onassis, Nureyev, Jackie O’ and Kallas, and still today receiving streams of visitors from around the world, who have heard of the famous sandals created by the Melissinos family.
“I bought this place, which is big and spacious and I use it as a gallery for my art because I studied painting for so many years and deep down I feel like an artist, not only like a sandal maker. That’s why my sandals are more on the artistic side. They’re functional but at the same time artistic, and they’re not mass-produced. I like to create different things and my customers love that – they come for that. Many times, they see them on Instagram or Facebook and change their travel plans to be able to stop off here. I couldn’t believe that at first! Often for them, the sky’s the limit; my clients, especially women, often suggest their own ideas and we work on them together.
“I started creating when I was very young, as an escape from school, because I didn’t like it! I decided that this is what I wanted to do and I moved to New York and studied illustration at Parsons School of Design and then I got my Masters’ Degree in Painting. After I finished that I directed the Greek Cultural Centre in NY.
“I always loved walking around Manhattan and picking up objects like chairs from the street– things that were sort of dead and I wanted to give them a new life. I would strip them of their old upholstery and would create something new.
“I had a friend and we called ourselves ‘The Trashers’ because we used to collect trash together and turn it into art. I brought some of those pieces back with me when I returned to Athens. Here too I continued to collect stuff and create art with it. I also worked for the theatre here in Greece for tragedies mostly, doing the set design, costumes, and jewellery. These productions were very magical; they were in Evia on a mountain near Gymnou village. I also wrote plays and music.
“Discipline is a prerequisite in art. Some people think that being an artist is just carefree and being totally crazy. No, it’s not like that! It takes a lot of discipline to master an art, it’s more like science. For example, the old masters – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Beethoven – studied like crazy – I think contemporary people don’t work so hard at evolving, they think it’ll happen by divine intervention or something!
“When it comes to art you have to always feel like you are 20. Not a day older. Like the Goddess Athena, who was not a Virgin goddess as people think in a sexual way – her mind was virginal. She was the goddess of wisdom and creativity because her mind was ever-fresh.
“When I create sandals, I try to be ever-young and always find new ways, new designs to please myself and my customers. I focus on all my art in one day; I start the day playing the piano to relax, then I write something I have an idea about- a poem or something else – I’ve also been working on the idea for a novel for many years – then I take care of business, work on sandal designs, paint, all in one day.
“Currently I’m working on making a video portrait about my art with a cinematographer friend, that I am directing and have written music for. I want my art to talk about me through a video. Life is too short and being a businessman is not my greatest dream in life…Today everyone is so caught up in this high-speed living and we don’t enjoy life as our parents did.
“A lot of artists gathered at my father’s old shop – Tsarouchis, Argyrakis, and growing up in this environment made me think seriously about art – because all these people communicated with each other and exchanged ideas under the shadow of the Acropolis. I loved the Fauve artists like Picasso, Gaugin, and Matisse especially – both for their use of colour and for their freedom. I am always trying to discover my own freedom.”