Keeping the Balls in the Air
By Nick Pernokas
When talking with Rick Bean, the first thing you notice is his quick wit. In fact, it might take a few minutes of verbal sparring with his self-deprecating humor to slow him down enough to talk about himself. The reason is that Rick has a lot of irons in the fire; and like many small one-man shops have found, the new information age doesn’t cut much slack for anyone – let alone a leather artist.
Rick is most definitely an artist when it comes to leather, and is well known for his figure carving seen on some of his gallery-quality saddles. But, Rick’s story starts years and many miles away from the galleries where his work can be viewed today.
Rick was raised with two brothers on a ranch near Star, in southwestern Idaho. On an arid range, where it takes a hundred acres to run one cow, there was a lot of riding involved. Although it was a cow – calf operation, his dad also bred and raised driving horses. With 6 stallions and 35 broodmares, their ranch was the place to go to get a team of horses.
Rick discovered as a small boy that he had a passion for drawing. His mother encouraged him, as she was very artistic. Rick didn’t like school, and frequently while the rest of the class was working on an equation, he was working on a sketch of a cowboy. It wasn’t until he took an art class in high school that he found out not everyone could draw like he could.
“That’s a gift,” says Rick. “The teacher didn’t teach me to draw, I just could.”
When Rick was 12, his parents gave him a Tandy leather carving kit for Christmas. A three-dimensional medium beyond the pencil opened up to him.
“I took to that like a duck to water.”
In a couple of days, he had completed all of the projects. Conveniently, there was a saddle shop just two doors down from him owned by the Penny family. He went over to see if they had any scrap leather, and the Pennys welcomed him, beginning a daily ritual of going to their shop after school. By the time he was 13, he was working for them and stayed until he graduated from high school. During his time at the shop, he did a lot of repair work and was able to build a couple of saddles. Most of the saddles he worked on were Buckaroo-styled slick forks; he had learned a lot from repairing saddles.
Rick’s dad wanted him back on the ranch to help out, so he converted a shed that stored a hitch wagon into a small leather shop. Rick had grown up harnessing teams and he knew how harness needed to perform. So it’s no surprise that some of his first paying work was building harness, and Rick’s dad already had the clientele coming to the ranch to purchase draft horses.
“What else would they need with a team of horses, but a set of harness,” laughs Rick. “My love was always with saddles, but it’s nice to start off with a good customer base when you’re young.”
Rick made everything except the collars, which he purchased from some Amish craftsmen.
“I got a PhD from the school of hard knocks, and I haven’t graduated yet.”
Eventually, the saddle orders trickled in and the harness orders faded out. Soon Rick was building saddles for local ranchers and cowboys. Then one day in 1978, a customer started rummaging through a box of cinches open on the floor. The cowboy pulled a cinch out and asked Rick how much he wanted for it.
“I’d paid $17 for those cinches, so I told him $25. He said he’d take two for that. I thought that I’d just made $16 for not doing anything, and that was really neat.”
Thus, Rick’s career in retail was born. He went to town, got some tags, and hung the cinches on a nail in the wall. Since then R.C.Bean Saddlery has grown, but it’s still at the same location in Star. In 1986, Rick’s cousin, Rod Bean, came to work for him to learn the saddle trade. He was a creative guy who also took to saddle making. In 1990, sadly Rod’s promising life and career were cut short, when he was killed in a car crash on his way to work.
Rick was spending more and more time answering the phone and waiting on customers in the store. So in 1990, he hired his brother, Bob, to work in the store, so he could devote more time to his saddle work. Most of Rick’s saddles were a plain, useful type. Many were basket-stamped, Buckaroo-style saddles. The Star area was not a very artsy one – Rick found most of his customers weren’t willing to pay what he wanted for a fancy carved saddle. Gradually Rick’s customer demographics shifted from cowboys to weekend, pleasure riders. By the end of the Nineties, he had a few customers willing to spend more on a saddle. As he built more carved saddles, he built fewer saddles overall.
“I grew up studying F.O. Baird’s saddle work, so I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to put figures on my saddles. Back then though, I was more interested in making a living.”
Rick wanted to make his own conchos for his saddles, so he took a silversmithing class from his friend, Elmer Miller. He found that he really enjoyed working with silver, and today he uses his own silver exclusively. His silver is notable for the three-dimensional figures that he “carves” out of the silver. To obtain this effect, Rick starts with thick sterling silver (at least nine gauge), so that he has enough material to “whittle” out of. Sometimes the thickness of the starting piece is achieved by soldering several layers of silver together.
Rick’s figure carving on leather expanded to include embossing, which creates a three-dimensional effect by pushing the carved figure out from the back, and then plugging the created space with leather. Sometimes it only takes a little of this for a three dimensional effect. The leather has to be thinner for this type of modeling or the embossed area must be skived thinner than the surrounding area. Rick will occasionally use a little color, but he really doesn’t like color in leatherwork, and he sticks to Hermann Oak skirting leather.
In 2004, Rick was accepted into the Traditional Cowboy Artists Association. An honor that recognized his creativity and artistic ability had reached a high level, but it also brought new deadlines for completing work for the TCAA show every year. Immediately, Rick went from building 18 saddles a year – to half that number.
“I started directing all of my thoughts and energy into the TCAA projects. It was great fun and you could almost make anything you wanted to. There was a market for $40,000 saddles. But unfortunately, it’s a small market.”
Rick feels that while there are some great high-end Western collectors today, many of them are running out of the capacity to keep enlarging their collections. The problem is not enough new collectors are entering the market place. The TCAA is trying to address this problem by promoting the market in the media.
In 2008, the recession reached Star, Idaho.
“I don’t sell anything that anyone needs. It’s all for fun or therapy. But they don’t have to have it. The 2008 recession hit us pretty hard.”
By 2014, Rick had to let his brother go. His wife, Kristie, stepped in to run the store. Business picked up, but Rick still had the problem of having to spend too much time in the store.
“I really like our little store, but it’s hard to get anything done there because people like to visit. It’s really a problem, and I don’t know how to solve it.”
To help with this, Rick has a second, smaller saddle shop at his house, a half mile away from the store. He also has his silver shop and a woodworking shop nearby as well.
Today, Rick doesn’t take any custom saddle orders for under $20,000. Instead he builds some nice, high-quality, stock saddles that he sells in his store. These start at $5000. He also carries some other saddle brands in the store. Rick’s brother, Bill, builds the rawhide-covered saddle trees he uses.
At 56, Rick is currently focusing on his store, which is the “meat and potatoes” of his operation, rather than his more artistic work. He feels that the local business is an important part of his income that he can’t neglect. He also has to divide his time up between farming on the family ranch, his saddle shop and his TCAA obligations.
“I feel like I’m a juggler, trying to keep all these balls in the air.”
When Rick is asked about his plans for the future, he wistfully replies, “We have a really nice deck at our house. It’s in the shade with a beautiful view. We’ve never used the stinkin’ thing. I’d like to be able to use it once in a while.”
To find out more about Rick and his work, visit: rcbeansaddlery.com or call 208-286-7602.
7100 Star Road
Meridian, Idaho 83646