James F. Jackson

Leatherworker and 2019 National Heritage Fellow
Headshot of a man.
Photo by Adam Jahiel

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand; used courtesy fo the Free Music Archive.

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James Jackson: ... Carving and tooling leather work—a lot of people just say that’s decorative, but I would argue with that. To me, those floral designs are very important because they come out of areas where the flowers and so forth are sort of indigenous. They tell you something about the culture. I mean, in the old days you could pretty much tell where a cowboy was from by the tooling on his saddle.

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Jo Reed: That’s leather worker and 2019 National Heritage Fellow James F. Jackson, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

If you haven't seen the artistry of leather worker James F. Jackson, and I’m pretty sure you haven't, then you should stop listening to this podcast and go to his website, jamesfjackson.art, so you can get an idea of the beauty and complexity of his leather work. James carves in the Sheridan style which centers on fine tooling of tight patterns of delicate flowers and intricate swirls. But James also develops his own patterns, and he experiments with form, combining painting and leather work.

For over thirty years, James Jackson worked at King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyoming. Owner, Don King, was a 1991 National Heritage Fellow, and he was key in the development of the Sheridan style of carving. Jackson’s job at King's was to design, hand-carve, and construct a large variety of leather items. Sure, he’s created saddles, but he’s also makes briefcases, belts, leather wall panels, lamps and vessels. He’s creating art, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because James Jackson is also a painter, and holds a BFA and MFA from the University of Wyoming. After retiring from King’s, James went on to work at the Brinton Museum outside Big Horn, Wyoming, where he demonstrates his leather carving and occasionally curates shows. I met James Jackson last fall when he came to Washington DC to receive his National Heritage Award. Here’s our conversation.

Jo Reed: Well first, James Jackson, congratulations on being named the 2019 National Heritage Fellow. How did you find out?

James Jackson: Well, I—I got a call from Senator Mike Enzi, which was very nice of him. He’s a fellow from that part of the country and so I knew him, and so that meant a lot to me.

Jo Reed: Oh, that’s nice. I didn’t realize you knew him. When you did you start working with leather?

James Jackson: Well, my father was a saddle maker. So, I didn’t have a choice. He put me to work when I was just a youngster. I started—oh, I was probably 10 years old, something like that, and I was already fiddling around in his shop, and doing various kinds of chores. Pretty much by the time I got out of high school I had learned the trade. I was working with a fellow named Billy Gardner who’s a very fine carver, tooler. My father was a good tooler too, but Billy was exceptional. So, when I went off to college I had already developed a trade and it was a great sort of thing. I—I did get a couple of scholarships. I went off to art school at the University of Wyoming and studied there. But knowing the leather work gave me an opportunity to have a job where I had my own hours and I worked late into the night and go to classes during the daytime.

Jo Reed: And what about after you graduated from art school?

James Jackson: Well, I made a living as a painter down in Denver for four or five years, which was all right, but Denver got to be too big, <laughs> so I went back to Wyoming. And when I went back to Wyoming, Don King wanting me working in his shop, the famous shop that I ended up working in for 30 years, and so, what I thought was just going to be kind of a part-time thing, because I was painting and selling my paintings, and so forth—I started working in the shop and realized how much I loved to do the leather work as well. And so, I just basically starting working there full-time, which at King’s was a six-day-a-week, seven-thirty until whenever kind of job, and it—physically it was pretty demanding, but, you know, doing leather work, I don’t know how else you learn that. It’s—it’s just lots of repetition, to begin with—learning the mechanics, learning the tools, the material, all of that sort of thing. But eventually, if you get to be really pretty good at it, then the creative part, the designing, comes into play. I was fortunate because I was doing custom work, and King’s Saddlery—they were known for that. Don King and all four of his boys were fine leather workers, toolers, that type of thing.

Jo Reed: And Don King won a National Heritage Fellowship, as well.

James Jackson: Yes, that was back in 1991. Because of that, this honor has really been a wonderful thing for me. You know, to have the same kind of award that Don King got was just close to my heart. I wish Don were still around. One of his sons, Bruce, was my boss for quite a number of years. He was a great guy to work for too, and I retired from King’s a couple of years ago. It was a hard decision for me, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t want me to leave. But I decided I wanted to do more painting and do some other things with my life, as well. I continued to do leather carving. I have a little shop at the Brinton Museum, which is a beautiful museum in the Big Horn Mountains, about 10 miles out of Sheridan where King’s is, and it’s more of an educational thing because when I was in college I worked as a curator in the University of Wyoming Art Museum and the people around Sheridan know my work real well—my paintings as well as my leather work. I went out to the Brinton and starting working in that little shop out there, but I’m only out there three days a week. It frees up other time that I can work in my studio and do that kind of thing.

Jo Reed: That doesn't sound very retiring. <laughs>

James Jackson: No, it—it isn’t, and that’s the way I am. I like to be very busy, but I like the idea of being able to continue the tradition of, you know, leather carving and tooling. I mean, Sheridan—that Sheridan area, it’s kind of a mecca, really, for leather workers, saddle makers. We have one of the largest trade—leather trade shows in the country there every year. Don King started that about 27 years ago, I think, along with the Leather Crafters and Saddlers’ Journal, so that is continuing. It’s become an international event and we get carvers from all over the world. We get, I don’t know, 400 saddle makers—something like that. The whole town fills up with leather workers. So, it’s really quite an event. We have an—an opening there at the Brinton. Usually, it consists of pieces from leather work for the leather workers to come out and take a look at. It’s a state-of-the-art museum, and—and it’s a beautiful place to show work like that.

Jo Reed: I want you to describe the Sheridan style.

James Jackson: Okay. The Sheridan style. You know, when I started tooling leather, working as a young guy in shops back in the ‘70s and so forth, there wasn’t what they call Sheridan style. It was just the way a group of two, three, four men in the area were working. It just so happens, you know, Don built those world championship saddles for the pro rodeo, PRCA, and he did that through the ‘60s, and then Chester Hape who was another very fine saddle maker there, did that work into the—through the ‘70s, and those saddles are some of the most beautiful saddles you’ll ever see, and they changed the industry—they changed because the tooling was so fine and so dense. I mean, Sheridan-style carving has to do with the refinement of the leather tooling that was done at the time and a lot of that had to do with the fact that Don King built his own tools. They were much cleaner, crisper imagery. The flowers were—became smaller and it’s a continuous—there’re nesting circles and the floral patterns. The veins run all the way through the patterns and you create a lot of energy when you lay out the patterns that way, and that’s basically what the stylistic differences have to do with. It has to do with the—the way you lay out patterns, and the tooling became more refined and clearer, and it just really woke the industry up. And now, it’s become—it’s an American art form that has developed to a certain point that museums are now collecting that work.

Jo Reed: This isn’t just about saddles. You make unlikely things, like vessels, out of leather.

James Jackson: I actually don’t know anybody else that does that. But I like the shape of a vessel and I—oh six, seven years ago, I decided to see if I could build one of those out of leather, and—and then tool it, and carve it, and those—I’ve had a real good response from collectors for that type of thing. You know, when you do high-end leather work like I’ve done for King’s for many years, you develop a certain clientele. They know what really good tooling and carving is about. They know the work, the hours, the experience that it takes to get to that point, and they’re willing to pay the prices for that kind of work. And—and see, the museums have sort of caught up with that now and they’re beginning to realize that it is a distinct American art form.

Jo Reed: I have a question. Could I use carving and tooling interchangeably? Is there a difference?

James Jackson: Well, carving and tooling is pretty much the same. In the old days, they used to call it stamping. But those guys that were carvers or toolers, they wanted to distinguish themselves from the stampers because there’s some parts of leather work that it’s just set stamping. It’s basically just using stamps and a mallet. The carving involves using a swivel knife and being able to take that knife and cut floral patterns. So, there's the big difference. Floral carving takes many more years of experience and technically it’s just—you have to have the ability to draw very well and design things. So…

Jo Reed: Do you draw on the leather or do you sketch separately when you—when you make your designs?

James Jackson: Well, there—there are a number of ways you can do that. Personally, I love to just draw right on the leather and so I’ll take a stylus, not a knife, to begin with, but just the little stylus—just a metal stump kind of thing, and I just rough a pattern in and take a compass, draw some circles, rough a pattern in, and then I take my knife and start cutting, and that’s when there’s no erasing or any of that. It’s all free—freehand. But, see, I like being a painter and—and having that trade, you know, drawing things. That’s where the interest, my interest, in the work is. The mechanical part of actually tooling and carving—you know, once you carve lines and so forth, then you take your other tools and you shape those lines. It’s like sculpting, basically. It’s shallow relief sculpting is what it is.

Jo Reed: And do you finish it?

James Jackson: Yeah. Then you—after it’s all carved and tooled and it’s become much more three dimensional, then you go back and dye it, oil it, lacquer it, put an antique on it, put a finished coat on that. Yeah, the finishing process is very important as well, and then if you’re going to building things like briefcases and purses and all that, you have to know construction.

Jo Reed: Or saddles, too, I would imagine.

James Jackson: Saddles. It’s—yeah, I mean, some of these things are engineering projects. So, the carving and tooling—a lot of people just say that’s decorative but I would argue with that. To me, those floral designs are very important, because they come out of areas where the flowers and so forth are sort of indigenous. They tell you something about the culture. I mean, in the old days you could pretty much tell where a cowboy was from by the tooling on his saddle. Nowadays it’s interesting because you have guys like me going around the world teaching classes. You know, it’s no longer, “Can you tell where a person is from?” but I like the idea. My father always told me—he said, “Don’t lose that Western character.”

Jo Reed: You said that you began doing leather work because it’s what your father did and it was basically like the chore that you had to do. This is what you have to do. It’s a family business. When did you grow to love it?

James Jackson: Well, when you grow up with something and work--

Jo Reed: It can go one of two ways though, James.

James Jackson: I know, but I—I remember falling asleep in the leather bins in my—my dad’s saddle shop, and so, there’s an atmosphere. I don’t know how to explain that. But, you know, there’s a smell to the leather. It’s something that just is—gets embedded in your mind and when I started painting, working more and more in my studio, I started missing that, and as time went on—I would say probably by the time I was making the switch over from my high school to the college work, you know, I started really getting interested in the leather work at that point, and realizing that there was a lot of potential there for the creative part of it, potential that hadn’t been tapped. Because I was going to art school, I was realizing “Well, here’s a material that I’m sculpting every day for every day uses like belts, and wallets, purses, and things. There’s no reason that you can’t use this material to go in other directions”. So, that’s what I've done over time. I combine my painting with the leather work and there’s a certain way. You can’t just paint directly on leather.

Jo Reed: I was going to ask you; how do you do that?

James Jackson: Yeah. You have to seal it. You know, over the years I—I sealed my canvases and things with a rabbit-skin glue compound and I realized that worked well because it penetrated into the leather well, and so I have a compound that I mix up, and you—of course, first of all, you have to carve an area, and then sand the area you’re going to paint on and apply the glue, and then sand it again and put more glue on there, work it into the pattern, and so forth. Then you have to go back and use a gesso or something on top of that to seal it, and then you can start painting. So, you have to think ahead of time in terms of what kind of imagery you’re going to be putting on there. So, I—I ended up doing these—I think it’s because I’m an artist-painter guy. I like to create, and coming up with new ideas and things is paramount.

Jo Reed: Now, when you were painting or when you do paint, do you paint abstract work? Do you paint figurative work? Do you use oil, acrylic? Tell me about that a little bit.

James Jackson: Well, I’ve gotten involved in a number of different mediums. When I was at the university, I pretty much worked as a painter but I also did print work. Made lithographs, and etchings, and that type of thing. By the way, I painted a mural out in San Diego. It’s 15-feet high, 80-feet long. It’s in one of the tallest buildings in San Diego. It’s in the Symphony Towers Complex and I spent a year on that project. So—so I’ve done public projects. That’s the biggest one I’ve ever worked on but that was an acrylic painting and—with gold leaf. You know, I like to work in different mediums and different processes. To me, see, that’s where the ideas are.

Jo Reed: Is there a special feeling you get when you’re working with leather as opposed to painting, or something that you get from painting that you don’t quite get from leather?

James Jackson: Yeah. Well, the painting process—you’re working on a flat two-dimensional plane and you’re dealing with that, the problems of designing and working with that. I mean, some of my work is very abstract as you would see in that mural in San Diego, and then it goes to very realistic rendering, and so <laughs> even in—in each individual work that I do there’s a whole process, not only in the different materials, but you’re seeing a whole different thought process going on. Especially when I do those pieces on leather and then I paint on them. Because when you look at those pieces your mind has to, kind of, do a flip because you’re actually looking at a three-dimensional carved surface but you’re also seeing this—the illusion of depth, and so forth, that’s done with the painting. So, to me, see, that’s kind of an interesting thing to be dealing with. Now, it doesn't always work, you know. I mean, there are lots of times that I start on some things, a painting or a project with the leather work—it’s just not working right and I’ll put that aside for a while and maybe go back to it later on. And then, sometimes things really come together well. You know, that’s the artistic process, creative process. And the imagery I use, the ideas I come up with, and so forth, are all part of my day-to-day experience out in the world. So, I don’t—you know, when I start on a painting or a carving, I really don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up. A lot of these things go in different directions. But that discovery is what I enjoy.

Jo Reed: You teach leatherwork.

James Jackson: Yes.

Jo Reed: What is it that you try to impart to your students?

James Jackson: Well, leather work—when I teach, I’m teaching, usually, people who are professional leather workers and they’re trying to improve and clarify their leather patterns and raising the bar of their work--

Jo Reed: Enhancing a skillset.

James Jackson: Yeah, and that’s more of a mechanical kind of thing.

Jo Reed: A professional development.

James Jackson: Yeah, and that just comes out of experience and knowledge. So, I get younger people in there that are wanting to know how to carve in a certain way and what kind of tools to use, that kind of thing. But they are already, usually, pretty accomplished people, and that’s what’s cool about the leather industry. These are hard-working people that make a living, you now, selling their products and they want the most beautiful pieces that they can build. But they want to know how to build them quickly and the best processes. When I go to Japan, it’s the same way. I began teaching over in Japan. Well, it’s been quite a number of years ago. I've been over there four or five times to give seminars and classes, that type of thing.

Jo Reed: That’s so interesting.

James Jackson: And so, I’ve gotten to know a lot of leather workers over in Japan. And actually, I am working right now on a major exhibit that’s going to come up in 2021, the spring of 2021 at the Brinton Museum. It will be a combination of 15 leather carvers from Japan and 10 from North America. These are some of the finest carvers in the world, actually.

Jo Reed: You know, I honestly feel like a complete ignoramus. But I had no idea that Japan would be a country that would be so interested in leather work, and I don’t know why. I—I think I—I was really surprised by that and I don’t even know why I was surprised.

James Jackson: Yes, well, you’re not—you know, I mentioned that to people and they say, “They have leather shops in Japan?” I say, “Well, yeah.” Actually, there are probably more leather shops in Japan than there are in the States.

Jo Reed: I don’t know what I was thinking. Like, I guess I was just stuck on making saddles—the saddle work.

James Jackson: Yeah. Yeah, and see, that—in the States here, the focus really of leather shops has been on the equestrian part of it. But in Japan, they’ve been building purses, wallets, briefcases, all kinds of things like that, for many years, and they’re very skilled. They were carving leather a long time ago in Japan but what—you know, what drew my attention, obviously, was the fact that the tooling that comes out of Sheridan has been a major influence on the leather industry in Japan. So, this little town in Wyoming, you know, 15- 20,000 people at the most, has had a major influence on a whole industry over in Japan, and now the Japanese because they’ve been doing this work, they carve Sheridan-style carving—very similar tools that we use, and so forth. They are just doing marvelous work and it’s beginning to influence the American carvers, and so, it’s very cool to go over there and see the—the development of a particular style, the style that came out of a little town in Sheridan, Wyoming.

Jo Reed: That’s amazing.

James Jackson: And—and they love it over there. And, there’s something interesting about the way they look at patterns and design things. There's a certain clarity there. See, it’s coming out of a different culture and that’s what I’m—this show that I’m talking about, at the Brinton Museum—that’s what I want to show people—is that you can look at the same pattern, style, tooled by an American carver and one by a Japanese carver and you will notice stylistic differences. It’s just like playing music or writing poetry. If it comes out of a different culture, somehow you can make that distinction. It may be a stroke or notes put together, you know, a phrase or something. But you get a sense of where the work is coming from and to me, that’s a powerful experience.

Jo Reed: What does it mean to you being named a 2019 National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts?

James Jackson: You know, I’ve known about the National Endowment for years <laughs> and I’ve—I’ve really appreciated their work. And I've watched lots of the programs they’ve put on and so forth, and it’s—it’s been great and so that’s why it’s such an honor for me to be given this fellowship. The National Endowment for the Arts—it’s a great institution and it’s very important for this country to have an institution like this because it gives us an idea of the diversity in our country, and that diversity is what makes America what it is. These great ideas that we have—I think it has to do with the fact that we have all of these different cultures bouncing off of one another, and what’s great about the program is the fact that they are talking to people who are very good at what they do and have had an influence on the traditional communities in this country, and they tell us who we are. I mean, they tell us what the possibilities are—all these new ideas and things that spin-off and then retaining—retaining an understanding of what the traditional arts are and have been. So, it’s such an honor for me, I mean, it’s really amazing.

Jo Reed: That's a—a wonderful place to leave it.

Jo Reed: James, thank you. Thank you so much and so many congratulations. Your work is just exquisite. It’s exquisite.

James Jackson: Well, thank you. I—I appreciate that and I appreciate your interest.

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Jo Reed: That’s leather worker and 2019 National Heritage, Fellow James F. Jackson. Be sure to check out his work at jamesfjackson.art

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works—it will make us happy, and it will make us even happier if you leave us a favorable rating on Apple. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Leatherworker and 2019 National Heritage Fellow James F. Jackson creates sculpture by carving leather. Go to his website and check out his work—then listen to the podcast. You really have to see the complexity and beauty of his leatherwork to appreciate our conversation about it. With all his projects, James does the work from start to finish: he designs, cuts, carves, glues, sews, sometimes paints and finishes the leather. And while James has certainly created his share of saddles, he also uses leather as the material for unlikely forms like vessels or lamps or wall hangings. Listen to a gentle man from Sheridan, Wyoming discuss his art, his teaching leatherwork around the world, the significance of traditional arts, and the deep impact of the Sheridan style of carving on Japanese leatherworkers.