An Artful Exchange at The Brinton Museum

The Brinton Museum looks at the past and future of leather carving, featuring the work of 25 artists from North America and Japan
Keith Seidel Saddle

This exquisitely crafted saddle is by Cody, Wyoming’s Keith Seidel. He works in a long tradition of Western saddle makers, turning vegetable-tanned cowhide into functional works of art. | Photo courtesy The Brinton Museum

Art is a bridge with the power to connect people and places in a way that transcends language. The beauty of that exchange shines through the latest exhibition at The Brinton Museum. “Master Leather Carving from North America and Japan: Design and Cultural Influences” brings the work of 25 of the world’s top leather artists together for the first time.

The setting couldn’t be better. The Brinton Museum is a hidden gem, nestled at the base of the Bighorn Mountains on the grounds of the historic Quarter Circle A Ranch—just 15 minutes from Sheridan, Wyoming. The museum focuses on American Indian art and culture along with Western fine art and decorative art. In addition to the contemporary Forrest E. Mars Jr. Building, the complex includes the 1892 Brinton Ranch House, multiple vintage ranch outbuildings, a leather workshop, nature trails and gardens.

Olympus Digital Camera

Flowers and leaves swirl around the surface of Bobby Park’s intricately carved rope bag, with an unexpected butterfly providing a charming grace note. Park authored the influential drawing manual, “Creating Western Floral Designs.”

“The leather show and the outstanding work it comprises is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to see the best of the best in the field,” says Barbara McNab, curator of exhibitions at The Brinton Museum. “The subject has a deep connection to the history and culture of this region.”

While the exhibition celebrates an art form that’s traditionally associated with the American West, it also sends a clear message that leather carving is developing in directions as diverse as the artists who work in the medium today. James F. Jackson, the museum’s resident master leather artist and recipient of the prestigious 2019 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, envisioned the show as a celebration of the art form’s evolution.

Rick Bean Saddlebags

A cascade of cattle surges down the flanks of Rick Bean’s saddlebag, highlighting the artist’s imaginative approach to surface pattern. Bean adds a new twist to tradition from his saddle shop in Meridian, Idaho.

“With Don King [renowned Sheridan leather carver and founder of King’s Saddlery] and the development of the particular style of carving we do—I felt it was interesting and important for this area to understand that history, and to give a little insight into how carvers and talented individuals that had worked in the leather industry in Sheridan have actually influenced a major industry on the other side of the world,” Jackson says.

Boot And Vase

LEFT: A pair of boots by Takahiro Kubo. Known for the fine precision of his carving, Kubo’s career as a leather artist was inspired by his love for Hollywood Westerns. RIGHT: Michiko Matsuda’s elegant vase demonstrates her expertise in dying, gilding, and carving leather.

The Brinton invited 25 expert leather artists to participate in the show: 10 from North America and 15 from Japan. Curators asked each artist to create a carved panel especially for the exhibition, along with contributing one or two additional pieces. The resulting display is dazzling—with meticulously carved leather items ranging from traditional saddles and riding gear to vases, handbags, belts and beyond. Visitors to the museum will find new variations on old Western themes, showcasing different tooling methods, carving styles, decorative motifs and artistic sensibilities.

Jackson hopes the show will educate museum visitors on both the past and future of leather carving as an art form. “This will open people’s eyes to some of the different directions it’s going in,” he says, adding, “I think there will be a lot of people just kind of blown away.” After all, when cultures come together and inspire each other, there’s no telling where the future will lead.

Bag And Print

LEFT: A bag by Lefty Mikuni is carved with a delicate floral pattern. Mikuni, who is largely self-taught, grew up fascinated by cowboy culture and craft. RIGHT: A lavish panel carved by Gordon Andrus is entitled “Four Dogwoods Through a Darkling Glass.”

Master Leather Carving from North America and Japan: Design and Cultural Influence Through September 5, 2022.

Participating artists (from the U.S.) Chuck Stormes, Wayne Hape, Gordon Andrus, Bill King, Keith Seidel, Rick Bean, Bob Park, Cary Schwarz, Barry King and Jim Jackson; (and from Japan) Taka Otsuka, Seiichi Koyashiki, Akiko Okada, Michiko Matsuda, Koichiro Oyama, Atsushi Kubota, Takahiro Kubo, Kazuki Fujita, Ryuichi Kimura, Naomi Saito, Mayumi Konno, Takeshi Yonezawa, Takeshi Katsumura, Chi Honghao and Lefty Mikuni.

Categories: Artists & Artisans