Robb Barr’s contributions to the leather industry live on in his work
By George Hurst
In over five decades of working within the leather industry, I have had the privilege of knowing and working alongside many of those regarded as legends of the craft: Al Stohlman, Lou Roth, Robb Barr and more. Each of these historical figures have made lasting contributions to our industry that you can still see present in the most modern of leather art. Each of them is a character in their own unique way. Perhaps none more than Robb Barr.
Throughout his career, Robb taught all around the world. He was the third ever awardee of the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft in 1986, recognized for his teaching and advancement of the craft. As a Tribal member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation, he combined popular leather techniques of the time with Native American themes, contributing to the popularity of feathers and animal portraits.
I first met Barr at a show for the International Federation of Leather Guilds and kept getting to know him at later shows as well. We went on to work on many projects together, including a number of recorded video tutorials, and we even wrote a book. I was fortunate enough to collect many of those unique pieces from our projects, several of which have been donated to the permanent collection at Elktracks Studio, where they are admired by the many students who visit.
I’d like to share with you a little about my experience working with him. He was an incredible artist, quite funny and a good friend.
Barr’s Extreme Embossing Technique
At the beginning of his leathercrafting career, Barr did like most everyone else in the business – he started out making things like belts and wallets. He began to see the full potential of leather as an art medium when he began learning from Christine Stanley, another well-known figure in the leather industry. Whereas most were making wearable goods with Western floral designs, Stanley was making three-dimensional art. He learned by watching her that leather can be molded, painted, dyed, tooled and just about anything else.
Robb took what he learned from Stanley about her embossing techniques and brought it to a new level. After a few years of working with basic embossing, he began to refine his craft and introduced an innovative technique to the leathercraft world. Extreme embossing, the significant lifting of the leather into realistic-looking, three-dimensional pictures, evolved leather as an art. The pieces he created would boggle most people’s minds, but perhaps more importantly, it challenged the perceived limitations of other leatherworkers, as it still does today.
Robb Barr and His Extreme Embossing Videos
I started a company called Hide Crafter Leather Company and we did a lot of work to promote leathercraft. Robb’s work was so inspiring that I knew I had to include him in some of the video tutorials we were making. I reached out to him and suggested it would be an excellent opportunity to do some recorded workshops with him, and he also thought it would be great.
I packed up my van with all of the recording equipment and drove to Bismarck, North Dakota. I moved in with Robb, and during the one month I was there, we made quite a few leather crafting video tutorials in his basement. This was the beginning of what became a series of 19 incredible videos.
It Wasn’t Always About Leather
Robb Barr was a serious artist, but he wasn’t always serious in all parts of his life. He was a jokester and he pulled off some legendary pranks. When I stayed with him in Bismarck, I remember that he would do some of the craziest things and get into all sorts of trouble.
When he would teach classes, he would often make jokes with his students. On more than one occasion, a student would ask what would happen if they accidentally cut off part of a project they were working on. He would look around mysteriously and would promise to share an ancient Native American secret to fix a grave mistake like that. Drawn in by the promise, students will pull in close to hear this secret and he would say something like, “It’s an ancient Sioux fix called tub-a-glu,” and then pull out some Barge cement.
Robb made beautiful eagle feathers out of leather that almost got him into trouble on multiple occasions. On a trip to teach in Japan, he was stopped by customs for having an “illegal eagle feather.” Rather than tell them that it was made of leather, he went on to explain to them that it was okay because he was Native American. They eventually let him through, but he enjoyed getting a rise out of the airport security.
His sister, Cheryl, was almost as wild as he was. For his 50th birthday, she gathered 50 of those plastic yard flamingos and put them in his yard. She called to get him to come outside, and when he did, the local press and lots of people from the town were there to see his reaction. Although Robb was a large tough-looking guy, he was part of the garden club and never wanted to see a blade of grass out of place, let alone 50 plastic flamingos in his yard. He yelled and cursed at what he saw in his front yard, but all in good fun.
I went to dinner with Robb and his father when I was in Bismarck, and I had never met his father before. Not even 10 seconds after we walked in the door, Robb’s father said, “George have you heard the one about…” and continued the story. That is when I realized that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, I knew where Robb got his personality from.
It seemed like Robb always had stories to tell. Even when he was connected to the machine at the Mayo Clinic when he was getting a new heart, I would call him and he would tell me all of these new exciting stories. I asked him where he was getting them since he was hooked up to this machine I could hear in the background of the call, and he said, “I get them from the nurses. Where else could I get it?” He really had a fantastic personality and was so joyful to be around.
Robb’s Last Project
When we were producing videos for Hide Crafters, most of the time, I left it up to Robb to decide what he wanted to showcase in the videos. We made many animals and fish, but one time I asked him to do an owl because I love them and I mentioned that to him.
Robb was a Sioux Indian and told me that owls and Sioux Indians don’t get along well, so he did not want to make an owl. He said in their culture, the owl was an omen of death and that wasn’t something he wanted to mess around with. After a few months, he told me that we should do the owl video and the final product was magnificent. One week later, he passed away on March 17, 2002.
His Legacy Lives On
Even though Robb Barr passed away nearly two decades ago, his influence is still felt worldwide. Every time you go to an event somewhere, like the International Federation of Leather Guilds or other leathercraft expositions, you will see the product of Robb Barr’s teaching. It’s everywhere. Robb would be more than happy to see how much he has done for other leather workers. Robb Barr’s legacy will live on forever in the leathercrafting community because of his unique and inspiring art, personality and friends.
Sidebar: The Continued Impact of Robb Barr by Jim Linnell
I was able to take a class from Robb Barr when he was in Fort Worth, producing one of his later extreme embossing videos. As his student, I was in awe of his technique. I was working with George at Hide Crafter back then and was often behind the camera as many of his videos were recorded, having the opportunity to watch his creativity firsthand.
Since that day, I have been intrigued by the limitless qualities that leather has as an art medium. While others were producing embossed pieces of leather art, Robb popularized this leather working technique by teaching classes and workshops around the world. Many of today’s leather artists have taken the techniques that Robb shared to new levels, producing pieces of art that are beautiful and inspiring. I think it is so important that today’s leatherworkers have an opportunity to learn from this award-winning leather artist.
Sidebar: Robb Barr Extreme Embossing Videos Available as Digital Downloads
George Hurst moved on from Hide Crafter Leather Company and the videos eventually became property of Silver Creek Leather Co. The VHSs had been converted to DVDs, but the production and distribution of over 100 different videos was cost prohibitive. The recordings of Barr’s videos still circulated around, often bartered as collectors’ items being traded between leatherworkers.
Greg Sartor, founder of Silver Creek Leather Co., recognized the need to make these available again for a new generation of leatherworkers. After discussions with Jim Linnell, the pair saw an opportunity to utilize Elktracks Studio’s platform for digital leathercraft workshops as a way to make these videos available to the public again without the high-cost of production, storage, inventory and shipping.
It has been a slow process converting these DVDs to digitally downloadable formats, however many of them are now available again by going to elktracksstudio.com and clicking “Instructional Videos” and choosing “Robb Barr Videos” from the list. New videos are continually being added, so check back regularly for what’s new!
Photographs Courtesy of Michael Magnus