In Pursuit of Art
By Nick Pernokas
The attractive, fiftyish artist concentrates on cutting in her scroll pattern in the cased leather. A book on tape plays in the background. An orange cat, Minkey, ignores both the woman and the mystery thriller. At 19, she needs her beauty sleep. When the woman begins to stamp out the pattern, the cat leaves the small, converted garage for a quieter place.
Carol Gessell was raised in Seattle, Washington, only a couple of hours away from where she works tonight. But her Monroe shop is a lifetime away from where she spent her childhood.
Carol lived in Seattle until she was eight. Then her family moved out into the country, and she got a pony. More significantly, perhaps, she also got a Tandy Leathercraft kit that year. She played around with it for several years. As a teen, Carol developed other interests. Horses, and leathercraft, were forgotten. The Tandy kit went into storage.
Carol got a college degree in Criminal Justice, and then went to work in a consulting firm in downtown Seattle.
When Carol was in her mid-thirties, she became involved with Friesian horses. She started out trail riding, and eventually began carriage driving. When she began to look for tack for her horses, she realized that most of the good quality gear was pretty expensive. She thought back to her childhood and the Tandy kit that was in the closet.
“I wondered if I could do the leatherwork a little better as an adult than I did as a little kid,” says Carol.
Carol got the leather tools out again, and started reading about building tack. She began to buy more tools.
She started making headstalls for herself, and other people saw them. Carol taught herself to build chaps. She also built harness for Friesians. Soon friends were asking her to build things for them. Carol began selling her wares on eBay, and through some local tack shops. She was literally moonlighting; she didn’t quit her day job. As she edged into full-time leatherwork though, her focus changed.
“I enjoy the English bridle making, but it involves a lot of hand sewing, and I charge a lot. I don’t push it either.”
Carol also doesn’t push her beautiful harnesswork anymore either. Her work has taken a shift towards tack that can allow her to express her creativity more.
Carol took some carving classes, including one from Pete Gorrell, in 2002. A year later, she went to Pete’s saddle shop in Darby, Montana, and spent a month and a half learning to build saddles.
It was only natural that Carol began to build saddles to fit Friesians. A Friesian’s back is a little shorter than a typical Quarter Horse, with a little wider barrel.
“If you had a tree made to fit a robust Quarter Horse, with a little shorter bar, that’s pretty much it.”
It only took a little tweaking to make these saddles, but Friesian owners were willing to pay for the care in fitting, as well as for a high quality saddle. Today, half of the saddles made at Black Horse Leatherworks and Saddlery are made for Friesians.
Carol still competes in combined driving events. These three-day, event-style shows require the contestant to drive in a dressage pattern, drive a marathon course and a precision course between cones. In the dressage portion, you are also judged on your attire and harness. Occasionally she competes in astride classes as well.
Most of Carol’s business is web based and primarily for show horse clientele. Her chaps are popular with horsemen who compete in reining or stock horse versatility classes.
“I rarely meet my customers,” says Carol. “Most of my work goes to California and Texas.”
Most of Carol’s saddles are carved. A majority of her customers are women. Her show saddles are a little more contemporary in appearance, while many of her pleasure riding saddles have a more “nostalgic” look. Her base price on saddles is $4300.
“I love to carve. That’s what I specialize in. I do a lot of background dyeing and antiquing. I really want the carving to stand out.”
Carol blends intricate scrolls and vine work, with California-style flowers in her carving.
Most of Carols chaps are fairly elaborate as well, with carved trim. She can add buckstitching that ties in with another color on the chaps, as well as a second layer of fringe. A plain pair of her top grain chaps starts at $595.
Carol took some carving classes from Traditional Cowboy Artists Association member Cary Schwarz. He suggested that she apply for a TCAA Fellowship, which is a scholarship to study with TCAA members. The second time she applied, she received the $12,000 fellowship. During 2017-2018, she was able to visit many of the TCAA members in their shops and receive some personal tutoring from them. Saddle and tree maker Dusty Smith was also awarded a fellowship that year, so Carol and Dusty traveled to the various shops together.
“The Fellowship is a real commitment, but it’s a once in a lifetime deal and you just learn so much.”
Carol feels that her experience improved her tooling, saddle construction, and every aspect of her leatherwork. This summer she’s looking forward to spending some time with Canadian saddlemaker Chuck Stormes. She will be building a saddle alongside of him. Carol has tried to slow things down and advance her work in the direction she wants to go.
“That’s what I’m concentrating on now: the art of things.”
Her plan is working. This year, Carol’s Visalia-style saddle won second place in the full carved category at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyoming. This follows a win from the year before for a pair of chaps she made, and a third on a previous saddle.
Carol likes the Sheridan show because she can get some excellent critiques of her work there, and there are always good classes for her to take. This quest for knowledge and self-improvement is not without purpose.
Carol’s goal is to apply for membership in the TCAA. Because of this, she’s trying to focus primarily on her saddle work.
Carving leather can be tedious work and hard on a leathercrafter’s body. Fortunately, Carol has a black belt in karate, and more recently earned a black belt in taekwondo. She works out in the martial arts five or six days a week and finds that this keeps her from getting stiff from her tooling.
Carol hopes to teach some facet of leatherwork someday.
“This is a trade that a person can’t keep to themselves. You have to pass it on.”
With the beautiful work Carol is creating, she will be contributing to the world of leather art for a long time.
To find out more about Carol’s work, call her at 206-919-9194 or check out her website at www.blackhorseleather.com .
Black Horse Leatherworks
15322 High Bridge Road,
Monroe WA 98272