Joe Meling’s Pendleton Leather Arts and Education Outpost
By Gene Fowler
Location, location, location. Ordinarily, that overwrought marketing mantra doesn’t apply to most custom leatherwork outfits. Find a spot with internet and mail-order access, and you’re in business. But 23+ (Twenty-three Plus), the leather arts and education emporium operated by Joe Meling in Pendleton, Oregon, has what has to be considered a perfect location. “I can look out my front window,” says Joe, a former rodeo athlete himself, “and see the famous Let ‘Er Buck statue.”
The longtime symbol of the 111-year-old Pendleton Round Up, a granddaddy wingding rodeo that rolls into Pendleton each September, the Austin Barton sculpture of a rodeo cowboy atop the hurricane deck of a bucking bronc was placed outside the Round Up arena in 2010.
Similarly, Billy Shakespeare’s oft-quoted, “What’s in a name?” query falls flat when you muse about the creative handles of custom leathercrafters. And 23+ has got to be a top hand in the field. The name goes back to Meling’s bull riding days. “Traditionally,” he explains, “each of the two judges in a bull riding event gives the rider a score from 1 to 25, based on how well he rides. The bull is also scored from 1 to 25 according to how well he bucks. A perfect ride would then receive 100 points, but if you’ve ever ridden a bull—or even seen bull riding—you’ll know that any score over 90 is an excellent ride. And the effort that it takes to reach that mark of excellence in bull riding is the same effort I put in my leatherwork, striving to achieve that same level of excellence in every product or service I produce.”
Looking at Joe’s work, it’s no surprise to learn that he sure as heck put in the work to earn those 23s and above. He began riding calves and steers at the tender age of six and—gulp—climbed aboard his first whirling beast of a bull at age 12. “There’s nothing like it,” he says of the experience of riding a ton of el toro. “Things happen so fast and you have to train your body to react to the fundamental unpredictability of the bull’s movements. Also, you have to get your mind out of the way.”
Lessons learned in his bull riding career, though, helped when he started his own business. “It’s just like anything – you learn from your mistakes. Lots of mistakes.”
And a lot of his early leatherwork, as it did for so many accomplished artists, involved considerable trial and error. While competing in all six rodeo events in high school and college (Pendleton’s Blue Mountain Community College and University of Las Vegas), Joe wanted chaps and belts rigged out with fine tooling. And that necessitated the learn-and-do-it-yourself ethic shared with so many artists who went on to carve a career in leatherwork.
While in college, Meling took a tooling class with Pendleton leather artist Ty Skiver. (Currently making boots in Fallon, Nevada, Skiver must have the best leathercraft surname in the history of hides.) “The class was only four weeks long,” says Joe, “but I loved it. And Ty couldn’t get rid of me afterwards—he continued to mentor me as I built my leatherwork into a part-time business. I would take any order at that time and then figure out how to build it.”
With his rodeo days sunsetted by injuries, Joe’s tooling skills got him hired on at Ansur Saddlery in Camas, Washington, an outfit that specializes in treeless saddles. There, he refined his finish work and acquired construction know-how that’s come in handy on multivarious projects since.
23+ was launched in 2013, in a friend’s garage, moving several times around Pendleton before settling earlier this year in the same building that houses the Round Up’s Happy Canyon Hall of Fame and looks out at the Let ‘Er Buck statue. The retail side of the new 23+ offers a twofer. First, there’s the supply aspect: providing leather, tools and hardware for crafters. “There’s no place around here for leather artists to look at the nuts and bolts of the craft, touch things and get the feel of them,” says Joe.
Second, the shop will feature a gallery of high-end finished leather goods. “I want to highlight different makers, including jewelers and silversmiths as well as leather artists,” he explains. “We’ll have my own work such as belts, chaps, folios and briefcases, but we’ll also be providing resources for customers to get in touch with various other makers for custom orders.”
The revamped 23+ will also host a People’s Choice Tooling Contest. “One entire wall of the shop will feature coaster-size pieces of tooled leather. It’s free to enter the contest and each artist may enter up to four pieces,” says Joe. “We’ll have a live vote for the favorite during Round Up in September, and Pendleton Gift Package prizes will be awarded to both the winner and to visitors who enter a separate drawing. I really want to bring light to the industry.”
The gallery will also inspire students who attend in-person classes in the shop. “I want them to see what’s possible,” Joe adds. An overhead camera will focus on intricate tooling demonstrations, which will be shown on a 75-inch TV screen. “Our classroom will also have cutting tables, a dye station, everything students need to learn how to produce finished pieces.”
23+ also offers an online Leather Life Classroom. Released on the first of each month, these pre-recorded instructional videos walk students through projects from start to finish. The fact that they are pre-recorded allows aspiring leathercrafters to work at their own pace and go over each step as many times as necessary.
Anyone who thinks the leathercraft profession and hobby is declining in popularity should take a look at Meling’s YouTube page, which has 6,280 subscribers. Videos on the page address subjects such as pricing custom leathercraft orders, increasing sales and social media reach, specialty patterns and tooling, the basics of getting started in leathercraft and building a new leathercraft shop.
If you think those numbers are impressive, hold the phone. Joe’s video “Introduction to Floral Carving” on Weaver Leather Supply’s YouTube page (Weaver brought Joe on as a signature artist in 2018) has been viewed a whopping 239,000 times. On the 239,001 viewing, he gave a handy rundown of the basics of using tools that come with Weaver’s starter tooling set: the swivel knife, bevel, pear shader, seeder, veiner and backgrounder. And, he also provided an introduction to tools he recommends beginners add to their set: the steep bevel, small pear shader, mule’s foot, leaf liner and flower center.
And while it might sound like a broken record, it’s worth noting that Joe has been amazed by the response he’s gotten from Instagram, his own website and other internet outreach. “My wife, Marti, encouraged me to publish pattern books and sell them online,” he explains. “When I put the first one out three years ago, within two days I had orders from 20 states and eight countries. I heard a little ‘I told you so’ on that, but I didn’t mind. She’s been a great encouragement.”
A clothing designer herself, Marti operates S&D Design Company. “She takes line cuts from some of my specialty patterns,” Joe adds, “and puts them on t-shirts and sweatshirts.”
One of those original designs, a Buckin’ Horse, presents an equine uproar in silhouette with no border cut in. “The floral tooling creates its own border.” A thunderbird design looks a little abstract, the wings and other features of the mythical creature depicted in sweeping flourishes of bold tooling. Yet another pattern, evokes a cowboy’s mind with visions of a bucking bronc flying through his dreams.
While examples of Joe’s work will be available in the retail area of the new 23+, he’s decided to only accept custom belt orders from walk-in customers. (As you can tell, he’s one busy cowboy.) He’s happy, though, to recommend other makers for projects that folks might have in mind.
His own mind, when not imagining a fantastic new design, often turns to philosophy. “Don’t allow your truths and beliefs to be merely someone’s impression on you,” he posted this past February. “Impressions are shallow and temporary, fading with time and pressure. Instead, search your heart for the truths that are cut into the very fiber that make you. You were created for a purpose. Now is the time to stand firm in your beliefs and move forward in your purpose.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d give that ride a twenty-five.