The West boasts a long history of functional art. Beautiful leather works have long decorated saddles used by cowboys and ranchers. Farriers use their craft to protect the feet of horses used to work the land. Native Americans have created bead work, blankets and more for centuries.

In an era of mass-produced items, many have shifted their focus to specialty items. Flaws mean character. Hand-crafted means made with love.

Here’s a look at a few local crafters who call Sheridan County home.

 

Matthew Gaston — The Sheridan Press | Stephen Mullins displays a newly-turned mug in front of a number of other pieces.

 

Stephen Mullins

Potter, Red Bison Studio

 

How long have you created pottery pieces?

Like most people, I took ceramics in high school, but around 2009. I created Red Buffalo Pottery in 2012, but the first time I ever sold any work was at the Third Thursday Street Festivals in Sheridan when we moved here in 2014. In 2017, I resigned as a high school art teacher to pursue my passion for clay, and I rebranded the business to Red Bison Studio. 2018 was an exciting year as I opened my first brick-and-mortar store on Grinnell Plaza, and six months later, in 2019, we relocated to Main Street.

 

Who taught you the skills you have?

I received a fine arts degree from the University of Wyoming, along with an arts education degree. Since I graduated, I have taken a workshop every year from leading ceramic artists from around the country. These have been one-day to two-week-long workshops, usually at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. I continue to do individual research daily, as well as talking pots with people in our region like Adam Helzer in Buffalo, Rod Dugal at Sheridan College and Elaine Olafson Henry in Big Horn.

 

Why this art form versus any other?

There are a couple reasons why I chose clay to sink my hands into. As a functional potter, I am working in a long tradition of human history of taking clay and making useful, artisanal objects to be used every day. Pottery has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years and it is incredible to be a part of that legacy. Functional ceramics is also one of the few art forms where what you make gets used, sometimes every day. A favorite coffee mug is something that people get attached to and will use every morning to start their day, and the ability to make work that becomes that personal and used in such a way is unlike any other art form. Finally, ceramics has it all. You paint the surface, sculpt the form, draw with decoration and the lines of the pot, create multiples, add fire/extreme temperatures to mature the clay — and all of that from natural elements from the Earth.

 

Consumers have access to so many options. What makes handmade local products so special?

Local products definitely have a charm about them. Being able to say these are made right in the shop in downtown Sheridan and no two pieces are the same is special. What makes it unique, though, is that you can feel in each pot exactly how it was made. None of the pieces that come out of our shop are mass produced; we are a small batch shop producing each product by hand, and most days of the week you can come in and watch pottery being made or glazed. Our products are authentic, carefully crafted and artistically made.

 

Part of Red Bison’s business model is to teach classes. How does sharing the process of creating enhance your business?

One of the best things about clay is that it is accessible to everyone. Anyone can come in and do one of our classes and create something out of clay; they’re all geared for beginners. Coming in and working with clay in a class gives you a firsthand experience of the process. As you learn more about how ceramics are made and you engage in the actual making of pottery, you become more informed of the craft involved. Classes bring people into the shop and give them a better idea/appreciation of how things are made. It also lets you take home a piece of art that you created and that you can use in everyday life. All in all, it’s a great experience.

 

Matthew Gaston — The Sheridan Press | Barth solders a small post onto the back of a piece of silver in her studio.

 

Larisa Barth

Metalsmith, Joy in the Morning Designs

 

What are the skills required to create jewelry the way you do?

Artistic ability and an eye for detail are important skills, as jewelry making requires a lot of concentration and patience. Manipulating and grasping tiny objects requires a great deal of arm and hand steadiness. Also, being able to visualize a piece before you begin is key. Every design starts as a sheet of raw metal or a piece of leather. Hand stamping and creating with metal grew out of a necessity I had seven years ago for a memorial necklace that I had a vision for but couldn’t find anywhere.

I started with a very basic set of upper and lowercase metal stamps and some aluminum. I used to use tape to line up my letters and designs and could only make pieces from pre-punched shapes. But there is so much information out there for anyone wanting to hone a new skill or trade. I spent years learning new techniques like soldering and sawing — and also a lot of trial and error — to find my “style.”

 

How long does it take you to create one piece?

It depends on the intricacy of the design and whether I’m creating something new or making a piece that I’ve made before. Since every single letter, number and design is stamped or impressed by hand, a metal cuff with a phrase will take twice as long as a single word on a necklace. I’ve never actually timed it, but each piece goes through this same process from raw metal to a ready-to-wear item.

Cut or saw the sheet metal, file and de-burr, stamp and texture, shape and add ink to the impressions, tumble for several hours to harden and clean, polish and assemble, ready to package! Most of the time, this takes at least one day for a single piece and longer if I am soldering any components. I am able to work on several at one time, so that helps a lot with production when I have large wholesale orders.

 

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the simplicity of wide open spaces and natural beauty that begs to be explored. My children are rainbows in the wild and never stop to consider the pros and cons. They just head out into the world, and adventure finds them. I want to be more like that, to throw caution to the wind and live in the moment.

I have found a lot of inspiration from practicing mindfulness and meditation and quieting my thoughts. Often when I open my eyes again, I see things in a new light, it encourages purpose. I want my jewelry to be recognized as a reflection of me, and that means choosing less over more and stripping away any unnecessary elements to focus on what needs to be there.

 

Do you work alone or do you have partnerships with other businesses? How does that help you succeed?

My partnerships are the driving force behind my success. The first shop to stock my designs in Sheridan was Twisted Hearts. Pam Gable saw something in me that I didn’t even realize yet and has continued to be one of my biggest supporters. She also takes special orders for me when she has a customer looking for a unique gift.

Red Bison Studio carries a lot of my “one-of-a-kind” designs, which helps me challenge myself and try out new techniques. I have this awesome ability with my craft to curate pieces for different places and brands. WyHOMEing apparel is a great example, as well as the new local adventure brand, Growing GOATs. Since WyHOMEing is trademarked, they commission me to create a line for them to sell. For Growing GOATs, I was able to cut out their logo, a mountain goat, from sheet metal and also have a custom steel stamp made for their branded designs. I work for the Wyoming based GoSlo brand as their jewelry artisan and have done several seasonal launches of new and best sellers for them.

One of my more recent partnerships has been with the Yellowstone General Stores. I was accepted into their “Pathways to Yellowstone” program which features locally-made goods in the park.

This summer I will have the privilege of appearing again at Old Faithful and sharing my work with their guests. The minds behind these amazing businesses trust me to create wearable art for them, and it truly fuels my passion for my trade.

 

Where do you find the materials you use to create your jewelry pieces?

I am a firm believer in supporting small and local businesses, even if it means spending a little more. All of my raw materials are sourced within the USA and sustainably made whenever possible. I buy leather supplies from D&J Coins downtown, and a lot of my tools are from Home Depot or Ace. My sheet metal comes from a family in California, and I order findings from a fellow jeweler in Montana.

I often collaborate with other metalsmiths to purchase larger quantities of components to keep costs down. Researching suppliers is a big part of my job. I recently spent several days working with a little Etsy shop to create my organic cotton muslin bags. I wanted to make sure that they were ethically and fairly made.

We also have the amazing opportunity to attend the Rocky Mountain Leather Show locally every year. I use that time to stock up on leather, and several vendors will give me a great deal on their scraps that I can repurpose into wearable art.

 

Matthew Gaston | The Sheridan Press
Jesse Smith sews the hem on a dress she has designed at Westerngrace.

 

Jesse Smith

Owner/operator/CEO, Westerngrace

 

What made you decide to start a clothing company?

I wanted to make clothing with a timeless, classic look and American made.

 

Where do you find your inspiration for pieces?

I find most of my inspiration from old Westerns. I love styles from the ‘40s, ‘50s era.

 

Why this craft form versus any other?

I love many different medias of art. But the fashion side of art was something I just connected with and I felt the most creative with.

 

You’ve created pieces for some well-known people. What made that special?

I have been very fortunate to work with many people in the country music industry. They have all been a joy to work with and to create pieces with. They have all been such genuine people and are so appreciative of the garments I have constructed for them.

 

Where do you find the materials to create your clothing pieces?

I purchase most of my material in New York and Los Angeles. And a unique manufacturer in Paris (I meet with them in LA once a year at a textile show to design fabric specific for Westerngrace).

 

You sell some jewelry made by others in your shop, too. Why is it important to network and help promote other creative businesses and people?

I feel it is so important to network and help promote other creative businesses and people. We are all in this together. All of the other jewelry, accessories and hats are made by female entrepreneurs. They are gals just like myself, trying to make a living doing what they love. We get together a few times a year and just help each other out with business strategies, bettering our social media, what is working, what is not working, how we can grow, etc. It’s always comforting to know there are others doing the same thing and the struggles we all have in being in business.

 

File Photo — The Sheridan Press |
A student works on his fly rod during a Lifetime
Activities course at Sheridan High School.

 

Kent Andersen

Assistant vice president for facilities & campus services at Sheridan College

 

Why did you start building fly rods?

Loving to fish is the core of why I do anything. If it is tied to fishing, I want to know how to do it.

 

Who taught you what you know about fly fishing and building rods?

Jamie Laya taught me to build my first fly rod. She taught me in the old Fly Shop of the Big Horns.

 

People have plenty of options of where to buy fly rods. What makes custom rods special?

If you build your own rod, it is special. Anytime you can do it yourself, it will be better. Besides the fact that it costs less than half of purchasing a new rod.

 

How many fly rods would you say you build each year?

Over the last several years, my class has completed more than 70 fly rods. I have personally built over 20 fly rods, mostly as gifts or to donate.

 

Why do you like to teach your craft?

Best part about doing anything is teaching it to someone else. My favorite students have been my kids.

 

What kinds of materials do you need to build a rod?

Fly rod blanks, handles, guides, thread, epoxy, turn table and various tools.

 

What makes a fly rod good?

One that you have built and named yourself!