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Nationally Recognized Wyoming Leather Carver Says State Inspires His Work

Catherine Wheeler
James Jackson

A Wyoming artist, James Jackson has received a National Heritage Fellowship. It's the nation's highest honor that celebrates traditional and folk art. Jackson is most well-known for his intricate leather carving and spent most of his career at King's Saddlery in Sheridan. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler sat down with Jackson in his leather shop at the Brinton Museum to talk about how his career has been infused with Wyoming's culture.

Catherine Wheeler: Tell me a little about how you got started in saddle working and leather work in particular. What about it interested you and made you want to pursue it for a career?

James Jackson: Well, when I started doing leather work it was in my father's shop. And this went on all the way through high school. When I was a sophomore in high school, I started working at the old Ernst Saddlery, and that's where my father was the head saddle maker. Now at that point in time, I was just getting out of high school. I was doing a lot of drawing and painting. And I wanted to pursue a career in the arts because working in a leather shop was just too much work. But as time went on, I really developed a love for working with leather, with the material. And I started building my own tools and doing various kinds of things like that. And after I graduated from the university, I went down to Denver for a few years and made a living as a painter. But I still maintained a leather shop as well. I always loved Sheridan, this area, and so I came back here and when I came back Don King wanted me to work for him. And I worked for King's Saddlery for close to 30 years.

CW: How do you feel about the National Endowment for the Arts recognizing the value in not only in your personal work but the entire the trade you're a part of?

JJ: I think maybe the reason that they found my work interesting, at least I hope so, is the fact that I think in my work, I try to draw it directly from my experience in this particular culture, in Wyoming. It's a slow process, but as you work, and over the years, you tie more and more of your culture into the type of work that you do. It's hard to explain how tooling of flower in leather talks about your culture, but it does. The things I've built over the years, there's a lot of long hours, a lot of hard work, and I tried to absorb as much of the culture as I possibly could. The arts have a way of telling us who we are. So for me being recognized on the national level like that is wonderful.

CW: Like you said, you're retired from King's. What are you doing do and how do you see your work progressing in the future or what are your plans?

JJ: You know, I can't retire. It's not the way I am. I've always had a need to produce work, and there is this creative need inside of me somewhere to want to create and build things and work. It's a stimulation for my mind and for my soul. I was very fortunate because the Brinton, when I left Kings, they said, 'well come out here a few days a week, and you have a little shop, and do a kind of an educational kind of thing." I've been doing some other things as well as doing the leather work. I'm helping to curate some shows because I worked as a curator at the university and the director here Ken Schuster knows that. So he taps into my curatorial experience as well. So those things continue on even though I'm getting to be an older guy, I still want to do these creative kinds of things and continue on in that direction.

CW: Thank you, James, for sitting down with me, and again, congratulations on the fellowship.

JJ: Well thank you, Catherine, I appreciate your interest in my work and it's been lovely talking with you.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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