By Nick Pernokas
When we speak of an “up and coming” artist, we usually think of a young person. That is an assumption that is not always true. Grandma Moses, for example, began her painting career at the age of 78 and became one of America’s most famous painters. Another case in point may be Sullivan, Missouri-bootmaker Ty May. At 55, Ty is really just at the beginning of his journey in the leather arts. And he’s making up for lost time.
Ty’s dad, Rusty May, shod horses and made saddles in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One of five boys, Ty didn’t look like he was going to follow his dad’s footsteps. He had little interest in pursuing the leather business as an occupation, even though he learned to do repairs on his own boots and gear. It was an attitude that he has come to regret.
“Growing up, all I dreamed of was riding bulls,” says Ty. “I didn’t want to work for Pops.”
Ty would ride bulls for 24 years, including 12 years in the PRCA.
Ty’s parents moved to Loveland, Colorado, his senior year of high school. It was there that he met his future wife, Lisa. They both graduated from the University of Wyoming. Lisa earned a marketing degree and Ty earned a biology degree. Ty wanted to get a masters degree in marine biology, and that took the couple to Oregon. Oregon State University had an excellent marine biology program, but Ty wanted residency before he enrolled and had to wait a year. During that year, he went to work at a national primate research facility. The job was good and Ty worked in biomedical research for the next 22 years. The last 12 years were in San Antonio, where he was operations manager in charge of care of over 8,000 primates and 75 employees.
Love for the Western lifestyle ran in the family. Lisa, a CPA, was an avid trail rider. Ty’s daughter, Kylee, competed in high school rodeos in several events. In 2013, she won the FFA Individual Horse Judging Championship for the state of Texas and was third at the FFA Nationals. Maybe it was being immersed in the Western culture of Texas that was the catalyst, but a change was coming.
“Sixteen years ago, I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to start messing around with leather.”
Ty returned to his dad’s saddle shop in Colorado, and asked for some help. Rusty showed him some of the basics and Ty went to work. The leatherwork started out as a hobby, but Ty soon decided that he had a passion for it. Ty found his favorite job was carving leather.
“I get to carving leather and I just lose track of all time.”
Ty started doing some boot repair, and pretty soon some of his friends were telling him he should start making boots. Ty went to Abilene, Texas, and took a bootmaking course from Tex Robin.
“I learned how to make boots and I’m still learning how to make boots,” laughs Ty.
Ty usually builds a plain “everyday” casual boot. Water buffalo is his favorite leather to work with, although he has done a few ostrich boots as well. The water buffalo is easy to work with, durable and economical. Sometimes Ty will do inlays for initials or brands. Round toes and cowboy walking heels seem to be the most popular styles with his customers. Ty’s boots start at $1300.
Ty has done well in competition with his work. In 2018, he won the Wichita Falls Boot and Saddle Makers Round Up award for boot artistry in the intermediate category. The beautiful boots featured a floral tooled top. In 2015, Ty had won the journeyman division at the same show.
Ty has picked up many orders from people he meets on some of the organized trail rides he goes on. He also gets some from the internet. Ty has a YouTube video with a link on his website, which shows a customer how to measure their foot for a boot order. Still, he prefers that they come in to his shop to be measured, and he won’t guarantee the fit unless he does it himself.
In 2013, Ty and Lisa moved to her family’s farm in Missouri. It has been in the family since 1861. Ty takes care of the general upkeep on the farm facilities, which are a beef cattle operation. Ty also has some horses on the place, which he and Lisa use for trail riding. Ty uses them when he judges rodeos for the Ozark Rodeo Association.
Ty converted a two-car garage into a nice, functional 30 x 30-foot shop, which became the new home of May’s Custom Boot and Leather.
Bootmaking is Ty’s primary occupation, even though he makes quite a few other things like belts and wallets. He has built two saddles and repaired some saddles with his dad. Ty hopes to be adding saddlemaking to his job description soon.
“I consider myself a green horn. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning.”
Neither did Grandma Moses.
To see some of Ty’s work check out www.maybootandleather.com or call him at 636-208-1099.
May’s Custom Boot and Leather
7032 Schubert Road
Sullivan, Missouri 63080