The Brinton Museum’s new leatherworking exhibition, “Master Leather Carving from North America and Japan – Design and Cultural Influences”, featuring awe-inspiring master leather craftsmen, was born out of a discussion of the inspiring history of saddle making and leather carving in northern Wyoming.
The masterful carving and tooling on saddles and equestrian equipment created in this area over the past century has produced a reputation and style recognized around the world. Leatherworkers everywhere continue to be deeply influenced by what has become Sheridan’s local identity. Recently, the influence of this particular style has been appreciated and adapted by a large number of very fine Japanese leather craftsmen.
Among the exceptional machined items from 25 North American and Japanese artisans featured in this exhibit are 25 fully sculpted, machined and finished leather panels specially designed for this exhibit. Their representation highlights the astonishing development of leather carving in western North America and its influence on Japanese leather craftsmanship. What is certainly unique about this exhibition is the thoughtful presentation of what is a traditionally western art form, examining extremely fine leathercraft carving and tooling from both sides of the world. Works on display include over 35 intricately sculpted 3D pieces and 12 beautiful historically significant saddles. An exquisite pair of sculpted and crafted cowhide and crocodile cowboy boots by Takahiro Kubo and an amazingly sculpted and crafted cowhide mandolin case by Wayne Hape are examples of items by an artist from Japan. and an artist from North America.
As curator of the exhibition, I knew that the Brinton Museum was the logical and perfect place for such an exhibition. I developed the concept for this show years ago after teaching a floral leather carving class at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, CA. Out of thirty students in the class, there were two men from Japan. They were learning the processes and methods of American leather carvers. The rest of the class members were generally from western regions in America.
Although all the students carved the same designs with basically similar tools, the works of the Japanese students revealed and manifested uncommon characteristics. I felt that these aesthetic preferences were unique and quite different from the rest of the class, and determined that there was a detectable “cultural influence” in their sculpting. These qualities, although subtle, suggest an Asian origin. This awareness seemed profound to me. This curious difference, it seemed to me, enhanced their work and gave it a new and lively “identity”. The idea that the culture and environment in which we are raised manifests itself in shaping our vision and determining creative choices is undeniable.
“Master Leather Carving from North America and Japan – Design and Cultural Influences” opened this month and continues in the museum’s Jacomien Mars Welcome Gallery through September 5. General admission is free, made possible by a generous grant from First Interstate Bank.
Barbara McNab is Curator of Exhibitions and Museum Education at the Brinton Museum.