By Gene Fowler
If you’ve ever been out West, you know the land is touched with God’s glory and grace. You know the majestic expanse of mountains, desert, rivers and plains speaks to your heart and soul. You know it’s a place where folks have for centuries ventured to spread out and explore; to find themselves and become who they always dreamed they might be in the finest inner reaches of their nature.
And you’ve also beheld that sky. You’ve seen the vast, cloud-blessed cathedral that Chris Ledoux sang about in Western Skies. You’ve sensed the mystical connection that Georgia O’Keeffe forged with a landscape that was “almost all sky….such wonderful sky.”
O’Keeffe wrote that description while teaching art in Canyon, Texas, from 1916 to 1918. In Big Sky Country terms, leather artist Sarah Bruton lives with her Texas cowboy husband and their two young kids just a tumbleweed tumble from Canyon, across the New Mexico state line. That same sky that Georgia saw awakens Sarah every morning; the same starlit heavens twinkle with her lullabies every night. “I grew up in Wisconsin,” she explains, “with trees everywhere you look. So there was nothing bigger or more beautiful to me than the skies and horizon out West. I wanted to convey that beauty in my name.”
So when Sarah started her custom leather company in 2008, she named it Western Skies Handmade. Her distinctive creations, “traditional leather artistry with a feminine touch,” include purses and clutches that combine hand-tooled leather with Tibetan lamb fur, bison fur and colorful Pendleton wool. Other specialties include unique Southwestern-themed cuffs, waist cinchers, bolo tie medallions and decorative items such as hand tooled picture frames and switch plate covers.
Once you’ve seen examples of Sarah’s fine hand tooling, it’s surprising to learn that she is basically self-taught. “My husband Matt is a saddle maker, and we both wanted to learn how to tool leather at the same time. There was kind of a tooling competition between the two of us. He figured out the wetness factor, and I figured out the drawing.” She adds that, at the time they started, it was difficult to find instructional resources online, aside from some Al Stohlman materials.
“So I did my own little thing,” she adds. “It was kind of a rough start, working by trial and error. For one thing, I had to figure out the tools. I started out with caveman tools, and I was working with leather scraps and no sewing machine.” Before long, she got hold of some Barry King tools. “That opened up a whole new world. Then, as time went on, I added other tool makers to my equipment. And I found other leather workers on social media, so sharing information and techniques provided lots of inspiration.” The artist quickly adds, though, that her work has a different style, perhaps in part due to her previous work with Native American jewelry. You can see in Sarah’s designs that she doesn’t copy anybody.
“I think a lot of traditional tooling is semi-abstract,” she explains. “Mine is much more representational. My flowers and other designs are accurate to a point. And now that I’ve become proficient in my carving, with a thriving custom order business, no two of my designs are exactly alike because I don’t use patterns. I draw the design right on the leather to be carved. So it’s not the same design over and over. And I have fun with it.”
The names Sarah gives her pieces adds to the aura that springs from a sense of place. Though she claims to “not be too serious” about the naming, instead going with the “first place or memory that pops into my head,” she does allow that they reflect the Southwestern roots she has established.
Sarah’s Bisbee Cuff, for instance, features painted copper insets that reflect the copper mining history of the picturesque town of Bisbee, Arizona. Other tooled leather cuffs, some of them with silver conchos, have names like Four Directions, Marfa, Rio Colorado, Metate, Rio Grande, Santa Clara and Basketweave. Her bolo medallions feature hand-tooled swirls, feathers and sunflowers.
The Santa Fe Skies Belt is one of Sarah’s distinctive waist cinchers, accented with a large turquoise and silver pawn cluster pin. Two more cinchers, the Belle Starr Belt and the Calamity Jane Belt, also have the older style lace-up closure in the back like a corset. “The name and design reflects a wild Western woman,” says Sarah. “And the cinchers can be worn several ways: around the waist, low on the hips or even under the arms with a sleeveless dress or romper.”
The Turquoise Princess Tote pairs a blue and brown Pendleton wool pattern with a hand-tooled top accented by a turquoise cactus blossom pendant made by a collaborator, Prairie Sky Jewelry. Deer hide fringe adds to the effect. Soft black Tibetan lamb fur forms the body of the Woolly Cactus Tote, which is topped by a leather band tooled with saguaro cactus and other Southwestern flora. “I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin,” says Sarah. “We used to joke that it’s the city where the Packers’ opponents stay because they’re not allowed to stay in Green Bay. But there were fur coats everywhere. My mom remade fur coats, so as a kid I was around fur sewing machines all the time.”
The gal from the Upper Midwest first went west to college and earned a degree playing flute and piccolo. After graduation she worked with youth corps across the country and then on a trail crew at the Grand Canyon, where she fell in love with the Southwest. After teaming up with her Texas cowboy, she wound up in northeastern New Mexico near the old Santa Fe Trail, in a patch of middle-of-somewhere paradise where grocery shopping requires some serious driving.
Sarah makes her business work with a seven-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter underfoot. “It’s not easy sometimes, but I’m a workaholic. And I like it that the kids see both Matt (who builds his saddles in a detached workshop) and me making our businesses work. I think it’s a good example for them. I work in a spare bedroom that adjoins the kids’ rooms and the kitchen, and the kids can bounce around from my workspace to Matt’s.” On occasion, Sarah even puts the youngsters to work.
“They’re both learning how to case leather, to stamp, to oil and antique it. My daughter can slick down the edges on purses.” Quality control, of course, remains Mom’s bailiwick.
Sarah credits Facebook, and especially Instagram, with helping to make her business a success. Her website includes a step-by-step guide for customers’ placement of custom orders, which come in from all over the West, especially Texas, but also from Australia, France, Germany and other distant lands. Her work can be seen in person each May, when she shows at Abilene’s annual Western Heritage Classic, and in December when she has a booth in Las Vegas at the National Finals Rodeo’s Stetson Country Christmas.
“I love being a Midwest-city-girl turned rural-Southwest-leather-carver,” she muses. “I know the people I buy my tools and machines from. I get leather straight from the tannery at Hermann Oak in St. Louis and Pendleton Wool directly from the Pendleton Mill. And the leather community is so nice—it’s just like a great big family.”
Western Skies Handmade