By Gene Fowler
Pioneer German immigrants contributed greatly to the settlement of frontier America. Tales and legends of the Wild West enchanted many Germans who remained in the Old World. Even the great Deutsch writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), considered making the voyage – writing later in life, “America at that time  was perhaps even more so than now the Eldorado of those who felt oppressed by their current situation.”
I found that quote in one of my favorite art books about the West, I Like America: Fictions of the Wild West, produced for an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 2006. The book noted that Karl May (1842 – 1912) sold more than 100 million copies of his novels in which he explored frontier America as “Old Shatterhand of the West,” making him the all-time best seller of German language fiction. “During May’s lifetime,” observed one I Like America essayist, “approximately four million people emigrated from the lands of the German Reich to North America.”
Back in the homeland, thousands of Germans saw Buffalo Bill’s Wild West on the company’s tours between 1890 and 1906. They thrilled to the cowboy theatrics and marveled at the exotic Native Americans. Indian scenes filled the pages of German periodicals and the easels of German artists. Even today the country is home to innumerable Wild West Clubs and a thriving Indian Hobbyism scene, where folks dress like cowboys and Comanches and re-enact the world of the Old West. Of Apache, Cherokee and African-American heritage, the poet, novelist and filmmaker Red Haircrow—born in Frankfurt in 1972—helps fellow Germans navigate the socio-political landscape of Native American iconography. I was reminded of that cultural proliferation when I saw the extensive Native American imagery in the work of the Cologne, Germany leathercraft artist Jürgen Volbach.
It was on a trip to the United States that Jürgen first got interested in leathercraft. He had become intrigued with painting and other representational art forms as a child in the small town of Bergisch Gladbach, where he was born in 1962. His artistic talent was discovered at age 10 and supported by his parents. Together with the family’s pastor, Jürgen’s grandmother approached the region’s master engraver Rudolf Niedballa, showed him some of Jürgen’s drawings, and asked if her grandson could study with the master. Niedballa recognized his talent and accepted Jürgen as a student after he finished school at age 14.
“Rudolf Niedballa was a true master engraver,” Volbach recalls. “He created many engravings for the Vatican, the English Royal House and the European aristocracy. I orked there for 3 ½ years, learning heraldic engraving, floral engraving and other special techniques from the grand old master. After that I studied goldsmithing and working with gemstones with Elisabeth Treskow and others in Cologne, where I live now. It’s the most beautiful city in the Rhineland.”
A 2,000 year-old metropolis of more than a million people on the banks of the Rhine, Cologne today preserves relics of the Three Wise Men that were said to have visited Jesus after his birth. The twin-spired, centuries-old Cologne Cathedral was spared from total destruction by Allied bombers in World War II, possibly because the airmen wanted to use its height as a navigational landmark. By his mid-twenties, Jürgen had his own Cologne jewelry shop.
During that time, while at a jewelry and watch auction, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle inexplicably also went up on the block. No one else bid on the bike, and so Jürgen made a bargain buy, especially considering the impact Harleys would eventually have on his leathercraft enterprise.
During a 1986 trip to Miami, Florida, he also checked out the festivities at Daytona Bike Week. “The floral patterns I saw there on some Harleys were very similar to the English engraving style I knew as an engraver of weapons and other gold and silver items,” Jürgen recalls. “Then later I went to the Sturgis [South Dakota] Bike Week, where I saw more of the same works that I made in silver created in leather on Harley-Davidsons, and my interest in this artwork was born.”
On a 1999 trip to Texas, fellow bike enthusiasts led him to the workshop of legendary boot and saddle maker Don Atkinson (1929 – 2011) in the Hill Country village of Ingram – the Guadalupe River wonderland where Jimmie Rodgers moved for his health in 1929 and built his home called Blue Yodeler’s Paradise. It was a most fortuitous meeting.
Atkinson’s own apprenticeship in leathercraft had begun in his hometown of Trenton, Missouri, at the age of nine, when Monroe Veach—designer and builder of the Fred Lowery Roper saddle—found the wide-eyed boy outside his boot and saddle shop. When young Don told Veach he wanted to make a holster for his cap gun, Veach gave him some leather and how-to pointers. After seeing the boy’s finished holster, Monroe Veach invited him to drop by the shop every day after school and learn the ropes of making boots and saddles. By age 12, Atkinson had made his first saddle.
He went on to make boots for John Wayne, Bob Wills and Hank Williams Sr. during his long career. The Todd Whatley Memorial Saddle he made for the 1967 RCA National Finals resides today in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. As one fan said, “Don Atkinson made saddles and boots the way Michelangelo painted ceilings.” He also made seven years’ worth of trophy saddles for the European Rodeo Association based in Germany.
“If you thought all cowboys lived in the Wild West, think again. The Cologne Rodeo is proof of that; for quite a few in Germany, being a cowboy is not just a costume, but a way of life,” asserted a 2010 article on the Deutsche media website www.dw.com. The report was headlined, “Buckskin meets bratwurst at the Cologne rodeo.”
Jürgen found that Don Atkinson, like most old-time boot and saddle makers, truly embodied the Native American definition of Tejas: friend. “He was so friendly,” the German artist recalls, “and he spent a great deal of time with me, showing me how to make carvings in leather. When I got back home, I made my first leather tools myself from nails and screws. And through Don I bought my first Barry King tools.”
He returned to Texas the following year, learning and working with Atkinson for two weeks. “I was so excited, planning that trip for a whole year. Don showed me the different ornaments of floral carvings and flower designs, and how he utilized his stamps. When I returned to Cologne, I bought my first tools and leathers from the only Tandy shop in Germany, in Berlin at that time. As an autodidact, I continued learning on my own, developing techniques in which I mix different carving styles and model works in 3D.”
Jürgen found distinct similarities in the traditions of silver engraving and leather carving. “The works are just smaller in the silver engraving,” he explains. “But every engraver learns this style and that made the floral patterns and designs very easy for me to learn and create. The leather, of course, is softer to work, while the silver and iron are harder. I am very glad to be able to work in all these mediums.”
A book of Native American images by the celebrated photographer Edward S. Curtis inspired Jürgen to create stunning 3D designs for a briefcase. One side is modeled after Curtis’ classic image of Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. Commonly known as Chief Joseph, the Oregon Nez Perce leader became nationally renowned for his eloquent 1877 speech of surrender after a long and tragic clash of cultures. “I am tired of fighting,” he began. “….My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
The briefcase’s other side features a warrior on a rearing horse with a colorful shield and lance. Turquoise bead accents further highlight the Native American iconography.
Through his visits to the U.S., Jürgen also learned about the unique world of Harley-Davidson riders. He learned that for many the powerful motorcycle represents the same kind of independence and freedom of movement inherent in the legends and stories of Native American ponies and wild mustangs. And he established a relationship with Germany’s Harley dealers. “They send me their clients with special wishes,” he says. “Many of them want Native American motifs and customized seats, bags and accessories. The story of the Wild West never ends in Europa.”
Deutschland, of course, has its own time-honored leathercraft traditions. Last year the German Leather Museum in Offenbach—once known as the leather center of Germany—celebrated its 100th anniversary. According to a post on the Berlin-based website www.leatherbagstage.com, the institution “is the only museum in the world that exclusively collects and presents everything related to the material of leather.” Asked to name a particularly notable item among the museum’s 30,000 artifacts, director Dr. Inez Florschütz singled out an 11th-century bag made from a bovine stomach. “In times of need,” she pointed out, “one had to look for substitute material to the valuable raw material leather and so it happened that one also turned to beef stomach for a lady’s handbag.”
Those resourceful early Europeans remind us of Native American lifeways, in which, for instance, every part of the buffalo was utilized. And today’s European leather scene combines traditions from both the Old and New World. “In Germany and Europe, the last five to six years have seen a boom in leathercraft work,” says Jürgen. “There is more and more interest in leatherwork and tooling for everything from Nordic designs to western floral designs. There are more and more Wild West clubs and Harley riders, also more Western-style horsemanship. There are dealers for leather and tools without end. I buy my leather and tools from DS Leather here in Germany. It’s very good veg-tan leather. It’s hard to get leathers like Hermann Oak in Germany, so we have the lighter European tan, which is very good for coloring works because it’s not so yellow-brown. I think there are now three dealers with Tandy products in Germany. It’s hard to buy top tools from Barry King or Clay Miller in Europe, but it’s easier over the Internet. The world is smaller with the Internet.”
Jürgen Volbach has become so adept with leatherwork that he now teaches others, giving workshops over Facebook (see the “My Workx” Facebook page) and in person across Europe. “Most of the people want to learn the Sheridan style,” he explains. “The next step for me is to create a school for leather art in Cologne. And after that, my dream is to give classes in the U.S.A. and bring my leatherwork in die ganze Welt, to the whole world.”