Jim Linnell’s Leather Art
By Gene Fowler
Jim Linnell still remembers when the perception of fine leather first wafted across his senses and stirred his imagination. “I grew up on a ranch in Montana,” he says. “Once a month or so, we’d make the hundred-mile round trip into the nearest town, Miles City. Going to town was a major event and we’d often stop by Miles City Saddlery.”
The historic saddle shop was in its heyday in the late 1950s, with a dozen or so saddle makers on staff. “It was the sounds of the shop and the smell of the leather that I remember,” Linnell adds. “That really stuck with me.”
Recipient of the 2002 Al Stohlman Award and the 2013 Master Leather Artisan award from the Academy of Western Artists, Jim Linnell has long been recognized as one of the field’s most talented and innovative artists. Today, retired after nearly 40 years with the Tandy Leather Company, he’s more active than ever, creating new work and teaching workshops around the country, online and at his Elktracks Studio in Venus, Texas, just south of Dallas.
Linnell got his first hands-on experience when he was in the second or third grade, when a neighboring Montana rancher let young Jim try his hand at stamping. Then at the age of 11—about a half-century ago—the future artist got a real taste of his life’s work when he made 3 items for a leathercraft lesson in an industrial arts class. Spotting an ad in Outdoor Life for a Spiral Line wallet kit, he devoured the Tandy catalog that came with it and soon had his own “Lucky 7” tool set.
He continued learning and developing his skills in high school, where he was troduced to Al Stohlman instruction books. “I was amazed by the detail in his carving and tried to replicate it, unsuccessfully. I figured the photographs must have improved the work somehow, but years later when I first saw his work in person, I realized it was actually better than the photographs.” Nonetheless, Jim sold some of his pieces to high school classmates, and after graduation worked for a time at Boyd’s Boot & Saddle shop and also for saddle maker Jim Beeman, both in Miles City.
Married with a growing family to support, Linnell went to work in construction, laboring alongside his dad. He continued to develop his leather carving skills at night until arriving at a major life transition point in 1978. “I saw a Tandy ad in the Billings paper for manager trainees, and I stopped by after work. I was still dirty from working construction all day, and I had long hair and a beard. I must have looked like a choice individual when I said, ‘Are you guys looking for a manager?’ ”
The Tandy representatives asked Linnell to make a wallet to demonstrate his ability and experience, and they were surprised when he brought the completed wallet back the same day. They were also impressed with his work. When they offered him the job, Jim asked, “Oh yeah, by the way, what does it pay?”
He had been making $12 an hour working construction and his heart sank when he learned that manager trainees earned a whopping $2.65. “In hindsight, it seems like a bold and wise decision to have taken the job, but I was scared to death.” Still, deep down he had faith that the leathercraft industry would grow – and an abiding conviction that it offered him a path to artistic and career fulfillment.
Curiously, Linnell did not formally exhibit his own work until the late 1990s at an International Federation of Leather Guilds show in Denver. Attendees were amazed by the work, but Jim modestly recalls that he was surprised by the reaction. “I’d been doing this work for most of my life—I had no idea it would be so highly regarded.”
Following the lead of Al Stohlman and other leathercraft pioneers, Linnell began sharing his knowledge and experience, teaching workshops, making instructional videos and publishing his patterns and articles on leathercraft. He’s taught in 39 states and across the pond in Europe. He’s also traveled to Puerto Rico for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he presented a 10 day workshop for teachers who then taught leathercraft to the American territory’s 4H Clubs. Tandy donated tools for the clubs.
Leathercrafters who attend workshops at Elktracks Studio not only learn technique, they also get lessons in leathercraft history. And the studio in Linnell’s Venus backyard is something of a museum. “We’ve got works by many artists on display and letters from Al Stohlman, Ken Griffin and many others,” says Jim. Visitors also marvel at Jim’s own work on view, including a longhorn skull, an eagle and a pair of feathered earrings, all delicately rendered and hard to believe they’re made of leather until one examines them closely.
“I’m working now to turn Elktracks into a nonprofit entity, Elktracks Studio Foundation,” Jim explains. “I’m concerned about preservation of the craft’s history and I want what I’ve created and gathered to continue after I’m gone. Most of my life is tied up in this, and I would hate for it to end up in some garage sale. My goal is to make it more publicly available.”
Another personal passion concerns the context in which leathercraft is seen in the U.S., “The fine art world tends to look down its nose at crafts, but that’s just ignorance,” he adds. “Leather work is more highly regarded in Japan, China and Europe. It’s been such a functional part of our lives that it can be hard to see it that way, but we’re working to get the art community to recognize leather work as art.”
There’s certainly a lot of art in the Will Rogers portrait Linnell recently created for the program cover for this month’s Academy of Western Artists Awards Show. A piece he created for last year’s Lonesome Dove reunion inspired considerable artistic appreciation, not to mention its $28,000 auction figure. Jim donated his work on the classic Texas-style piece with a mourning dove and Western flora, with space for autographs of the television series’ stars, including Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane and Barry Corbin. The funds raised went to the nonprofit Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, a Southwestern art and photography center founded by Lonesome Dove screenwriter, Bill Wittliff.
For Jim, in a way, taking part in the reunion brought him full circle. “The event was held in Fort Worth, an important spot on the cattle drive trails and Gus, the character played by Duvall, died in Miles City, at the other end of the trail where I grew up. And the cowboys, when they delivered the cattle and got paid, would spend a lot of their money on booze and brothels, but they’d also invest in a good Miles City saddle. I’ve done some work for Fort Worth’s Texas Cattle Raisers Museum and it was no surprise to see Miles City saddles there. So I was proud to be part of the Lonesome Dove reunion.”
Jim teaches a workshop at Miles City Saddlery (http://www.milescitysaddlery.com) every year or two. It’s still an active shop and today includes a museum chronicling its role in the West. In May he’ll teach at the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show (http://www.sheridanwyoming.com/events/rocky-mountain-leather-trade-show/). The following month will find him at the Annual Leather Crafters Reunion in Fort Robinson State Park at Crawford, Nebraska, where he’ll teach two classes: Swivel Knife Finesse and Making a 3-D Longhorn Skull (https://signedevents.net/united-states/crawford-2/2018-annual-leather-crafters-reunion/). In July, he’ll teach four workshops at the Dimensions in Leather Conference in Brisbane, Australia (http://www.dimensionsinleather.com).
For more information, see https://elktracksstudio.com/