By Gene Fowler
Ensconced at his Two Lazy A’s Ranch in Canada, legendary leather wizard Al Stohlman was focused on his leathercraft – really focused. “There was only one day a week when he would take phone calls,” says Charlie Davenport, curator of the Tandy Leather Museum in Fort Worth, the repository for much of the Al and Ann Stohlman Collection. “And if we needed to see him in person, somebody had to go up to Canada. He was just so engrossed in his work he wouldn’t leave the ranch.”
Housed in its current location since the summer of 2014, the museum originally opened in 2003. “We wanted to have exhibits that are representative of the craft,” explains Davenport. Museum exhibits include original drawings and technical details for many of the dozens of instruction manuals Al Stohlman produced for Tandy, over the course of a several-decade association. With titles like How to Carve Leather, Belts Galore, The Art of Hand Carving Leather, How to Make Holsters, Our Secrets and The Art of Embossing Leather, the manuals—still available from Tandy today—proved useful for master crafters as well as beginners. Supplementing the original drawings and instructions of the three-volume Stohlman’s Encyclopedia of Saddle Making, the exhibits include the four Stohlman-made saddles that students learn to make from the book. Each saddle features a different horn, cantle and rigging style.
Growing up in California in the 1920s and ’30s, Al Stohlman’s imagination was swept up in tales of the Old West. Inclined to sketch the scenes and stories that he found in books and on the silver screen, he dreamed of illustrating the novels and stories of favorite authors like Zane Grey and Bret Harte.
During World War II, Al was stationed in New Guinea while serving in the U.S. Army. It was there he began a lifetime of leather creation, while experimenting with a pocket knife and some filed nails on a G.I. issue leather belt. Experimenting further, he discovered that different tools would produce a variety of results, for instance, employing a mallet or striking stick would provide greater depth and detail to his carvings.
After the war, he continued refining his proficiency with stamping tools back home in California and he went to work for the Craftool Company of Los Angeles (which was purchased by Tandy in 1959 and moved to Fort Worth). There Al developed many of the popular tools still used today, and traveled across the country giving personal instruction and demonstrations at craft shows and clubs. In 1962, Al created The Al Stohlman Home Study Course for Tandy, which has helped hundreds of thousands of burgeoning artists learn to express themselves through leathercraft. The original materials used to develop the course are on display at the museum.
Other outstanding Stohlman pieces on exhibit include a guitar case decorated with roses and a golf bag. Set in a hand-tooled leather frame, “The Brush Popper” is the largest (43” x 27”) hand-carved picture in the museum. Incorporating embossing plugs, the work depicts a cowboy on horseback, herding strays from the brush in a rugged valley. In addition to layers of leather, the three-dimensional work includes silver conchos, buckles and spurs. The carving alone took Al two months.
One exhibit case features the work of Elizabeth “Liz” Freriks of Detroit, who passed away in 2008. Her leathercraft, as described by exhibit text, was “more artsy” and “more girly” than most, encompassing “chic millinery creations.” She used a swivel knife to “brush” or “paint” on leather. Her unique style included contemporary design on purses, which were carved as art pieces. A representative leather-brimmed hat and handbag set is included in the case. “My interest has always been to help people find ways to use leather in every way,” she is quoted in museum text. “Virtually anything and any art form can be adapted into leather, even jewelry.”
Freriks even created custom leatherwork for car interiors, embellishing the automobiles of such folks as Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and the wife of a spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Muslims, Begum Aga Khan. Freriks’ display case also includes a 1956 Detroit Times Pictorial Living article entitled “Leather Is Jack of All Hobbies,” along with several of Freriks’ personal tools such as a stamp, wooden mallet, rotary punch, safety beveller and swivel knife. “The tools haven’t changed much at all since she used them in the 1950s and ’60s,” explains Charlie Davenport. “Those are exactly like the tools we use today.”
And speaking of tools, the museum exhibits include the original master set from the first production run of leather crafting tools created by Oliver Sturdy for the Craftool Company. Dick McGahen, who founded Craftool in 1947, wanted to make leatherworking tools more affordable. He asked Sturdy, a tool machinist, to make the first set and proposed producing an initial run of 5,000 sets. Sturdy opined that 5,000 sets would never sell, but leatherworking soon caught on.
Tandy’s Charlie Davenport says the craft is healthier than ever today. The popular Comic Con gatherings of cartoon and fantasy fans are partly responsible for a recent surge, as enthusiasts try to re-create their favorite figures and invent new characters in leather. Davenport himself came to the leatherworking field through a serendipitous route. “I got laid off from my job as regional manager of a national pest control company in Oklahoma,” he recalls. “Driving home I saw an old Tandy store and I’m not sure why, but I stopped and went in. They asked me if I was there to apply for the job opening – I hadn’t even known there was a job opening. But since I had a background in the visual arts, I learned leatherwork pretty easily.”
Davenport’s work in the museum includes a hand-tooled portrait of the late, great saddle maker Don King and one of his custom saddles on a paint horse. Additionally, the Don King Museum in Sheridan, Wyoming, also has its own Al and Ann Stohlman Museum. Visitors can see Al’s custom workbench, decorated with carved scenes of cowboys throwing lassos while on horseback, running cattle, wolves, deer and other wildlife. Handmade prototypes of tools that Al developed, including his 1946 swivel tools, are on display along with his original AS stamp with which he signed his work in the 1950s.
Al Stohlman is so revered in the field of leatherwork that the annual Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft is just about the most prestigious recognition that a leather craftsman or craftswoman can receive. Back at the Tandy Museum in Fort Worth, Tandy’s national advertising manager, Jim Linnell, points out that the museum also includes work by “a good portion of the award winners.” Artists represented include Rob Barr, Kathleen Bond, Paul Burnett, Silva Fox, Ken Griffin, Tim Grothen, George Hurst, Kat Kuszak, Tony Laier, Peter Main, Ben Moody, Gene Nolan, Jan Schoonover, Al Shelton and Christine Stanley.
If you’ve already seen the museum, don’t hesitate to make a return visit. In the summer of 2015, they only had about 50 percent of the collection on display and they continue to expand the exhibits. Be sure to set aside time for marveling at the detail of the leather artists’ works. As Al himself once said, “I have often been asked what it takes to create a leather picture. More than anything else, it takes ideas. And being a realist, I feel a picture must be authentic in detail, so it takes time. Lots of time.”
TANDY LEATHER MUSEUM AND GALLERY
1900 South East Loop 820
Fort Worth, TX 76140-1003