“It’s the ultimate high to so completely lose myself in a piece that when I come out and look at what I’ve created I find myself thinking, wow, did I do that?”
Leatherwork is a dying art with some strong pockets still thriving in the Northwest part of the country. Inspiration came to Debbie the moment she walked into a leatherworking booth at the Festival of the Masters at Disney World in 1980. The leather smell caught her imagination and the pictures her fascination. The artist happened to be local and had a small leathershop in town. She started hanging out there where he taught her the basics. He was a very traditional leatherworker in that he used mostly earth hues. Debbie wasn’t satisfied with the confines of those limited colors and wanted her artwork to look as real as possible while still allowing some of the original leather to show through.
Some works take as little a day to complete to several weeks. She has experimented with many mediums and uses vegetable dyes, acrylics, water colors, and inks, sometimes all on the same piece. She has spent many years perfecting her art and is still learning every day.
Debbie does her carving and etching work the old fashioned way, with handtools and a hammer, no machines. Hides are bought directly from tanneries out west and pieces are cut from the hide as needed. She literally has 100’s of tools that do 1000’s of details. To start a project the “pattern” or drawing is done on plastic tracing paper, as mistakes can’t be erased from leather. After the pattern is drawn, the leather is then “cased” or dampened to receive the trace. Once this is accomplished, the main lines of the pattern are then “cut” with a swivel knife. On a floral pattern, shading is done next with tools that leave “shading” impressions. Beveling tools are used next to bring the pattern into relief or up out of the background. Detail tools are then used to add detail from needles on pine trees to hair on a horse. When all carving is complete, the project is allowed to dry. After dry, then any dying, antiquing and finishes are applied. If the project is something like saddlebags or handbags, this is when all holes are marked for sewing and any additional skiving is done. Holes are made using a hand awl, and natural sinew is used for thread. All edges are then burnished smooth for a “finished” item. If a picture, framing is then chosen, as this is an integral part of the piece.
Debbie Johns was born in Hollywood, Florida in the mid 50’s and in subsequent years her gypsy father moved his family around to so many different locations that she can’t pinpoint exactly where she grew up. When she started her own family, she chose her birth state as home and and never wanted to live anywhere else. She currently lives in Jacksonville Florida, has two sons and two cats and can’t decide which is more entertaining. Debbie has published previous work as Debbie Mann and Debbie Huffman and is a member of the International Leatherworkers Guild.