Over the course of interviewing people for a story this week, I found myself in a boot repair shop – buffers churning and whirring, hammers and pins tinkering – talking to two artists. Thank god one of them was Mervin Stilson.
The first time I met Merv I thought he was a rock star. And I don’t mean rock star in the way we refer to people we know who we enthusiastically admire. I mean, I thought he was an aged, legendary, retired, cigarette-dangling-from-his-mouth-as-he-owns-his-guitar-onstage rock ’n’ roller.
Upon meeting, there were a number of things that made me think he’d made loads of cash playing to stadium crowds in the late ’70s. He always had stylish pants and a pricey three-season jacket. His dark gray hair, to his shoulders and over his ears, was hip and gutsy in that way only musicians and movie stars can pull off. His raspy voice and weathered face suggested some serious living. But it was his shoes that always struck me: classy, expense-looking, distinct, out of the ordinary.
I can’t account for all the other characteristics, but the reason he is always wearing such captivating footwear? He makes them himself. And he’s really good.
The shoes I’ve seen on Merv range from playful and whimsical – incorporating, say, repurposed yoga mats – to full-on Mad Max boots to his knees.
If you hang around Merv long enough, you start to notice many of his friends are also walking around with shoes just as intriguing. Even a traditional wingtip style, from Merv they look ever stout and precise, the leatherwork impeccable. And there’s always a subtle stylistic twist thrown in somewhere, a signature of sorts.
Further amazing: The shoes he designs and handcrafts are valued well into the hundreds of dollars (if that’s your thing), and he often disregards payment. He might want the cost of the materials covered, but the imagination, the expertise, the creativity, the craftsmanship and the love, that’s all on Merv, making for free.
Of course, Merv has a day job repairing shoes and boots at a shop that operates on word of mouth and has a six-week backup. He’s not living off the art or the shoes he makes.
“I’m in a situation where I can make a pair of shoes for someone because she’s a pretty lady,” he said. “I could make a pair of shoes because they’re my friend. I don’t need the money ... but I need to make.”
The shoes Merv gives to friends and admirees deal in a different currency than when you go into a shoe store.
“It’s a connection between me and the person I’m making the shoes for,” he said. “And it’s the antithesis of the stuff you can buy at Payless. It’s a longer lasting product, it’s a more personal product. It’s not thousands and thousands and thousands of shoes being made.”
For sure, there’s a distinction he makes between his work (repairing) and his art (making). The former he will absolutely charge for every time.
“The stuff that I don’t like to do, I want to get paid for it,” Merv said. “Doing boot repair is work. I don’t feel like I need to get paid for what I’m having fun doing. Because I’d do it if I got paid or not.”
Anyone who knows Merv knows how far he goes as a person beyond what he can build with his hands and mind. Offering his brilliance for next to nothing is his essence. Having gotten to know Merv a bit over the past couple years, the size of his heart, his wildly inventive wearable art, his intellect and wisdom are palpable. Many of the shoes Merv makes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and Merv the person is the same. He gives away his shoes because the currency he is dealing in, and always deals in, is love and passion.
A rock star indeed.
David Holub is the editor for DGO. [email protected]