In a matter of decades, intricate leather work has become an internationally renowned fine art, while once it was considered applied art.
Bradford Brinton, who bought the Quarter Circle A Ranch in Sheridan County in 1923, had a collection of exquisite saddles, Tod Windsor of The Brinton said. Today, his pieces are on display in the Ranch House. Brinton, who helped organize the earliest Sheridan WYO Rodeo events, rode in the parade in the early days, perhaps on the same saddles on display.
It makes sense that his collection has a home in one of the region’s foremost museums, which features collections of unique Western artifacts and artwork.
The leather-working history in Sheridan County is richer still than Brinton’s story and leads to Jim Jackson, who creates items for The Brinton today. Jackson is an artist directly descended from one of Sheridan’s greatest leather workers.
“Mr. Jackson is a great fit because he continues the legacy of talented area artists who were tied into the Brintons and the Quarter Circle A Ranch,” Windsor said.
Bradford Brinton was a personal friend of Bill Gollings, Ed Borein, Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington, among others.
“Our goal as a museum is to continue the legacy of supporting and working with artists that exemplify the Sheridan area and the West,” Windsor said.
Jackson worked for King Ropes for several decades doing custom leather work but is also a painter. When he decided to retire, The Brinton asked if he would work onsite several days a week. Jackson felt the move made sense.
“The Brinton is an educational institution, which is quite different from working in (retail),” Jackson said. “Sheridan has such a rich history of leather workers and saddlemaking. I think it is really important for people to understand what a rich history we’ve had, that we have a history of saddlemakers and leather workers who were extremely talented — who weren’t just run-of-the-mill people.”
For about 20 years, the NFR World Championship saddles were built in Sheridan—and with that came the recognition of Sheridan-style leather carving.
Jackson learned leather work at Ernst Saddlery in the late 1960s, where he would go after school and on Saturdays for work. As a painter, he went on to art school, but he stamped his way through college.
“I’d already learned a trade by high school. I was stamping belts for Ernst, and I stamped for King and for some places in Colorado,” Jackson said. “I worked my way through college that way.”
He learned Sheridan-style carving, which is a phenomena in the leatherworking community that spread around the world.
“What happened was Don King worked for the old Ernst shop. When he left there and opened his own business, he got a contract with the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association, and he produced some trophy saddles,” Jackson explained. “Because of that, he got a contract with the World Championship Saddles. They called it the RCA then, but they call it the PRCA now.
“When he built those saddles, it was a big contract with 12-16 saddles a year, and they went to the top cowboys in the country. Those saddles got a lot of notoriety,” Jackson said. “The interesting thing about Sheridan and the Sheridan-style carving is that it has become a worldwide thing.”
Jackson said he’s working on an exhibit to open in 2021 at The Brinton that will showcase Japanese and North American leather carvers.
“If you go to any leather shop in Japan and mention Sheridan-style carving, they know what you’re talking about,” Jackson said. “And it is not only Japan, but it’s China and Indonesia, and you go to Europe and it is in France and England, Germany.”
Sheridan-style likely started with Don King, who took the traditional open, floral patterns and made them his own.
“What Don had done was he had taken the tooling style, the flowers, which were much wider, broader and open with larger stem and florals, and he tightened all of those up and made them much smaller flowers, with much more intricate patterns,” Jackson said. “The patterns were a little more stylistic, and his was different from other styles.”
This was in the 1960s, and while leather carvers still make products to be used by the rider today, collectors and museums are also taking note. Museums across the world are collecting items from the past 50 years, curating exhibits of leather work, and buyers can find hand-tooled leather pieces in upscale boutiques for high dollar amounts.
“That is what is happening. You have high-end, talented people that no longer consider this an applied art. It is becoming a fine art,” Jackson said.
Editor’s note: This story was published in 2019 Destination Sheridan, Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Read more online, pick up a complimentary copy of the magazine at The Sheridan Press or find it in businesses and racks across Sheridan County.