For those of you who read Writing Horseback regularly, you know that Montana has a special place in my heart. I love the warmth and can-do attitude of the people, especially the cowboys and cowgirls. Being a third-generation California girl, I have no interest in riding out a Montana winter, but I do love the spring, summer and fall seasons of Montana. In Northern California we glide seamlessly from one season to another as smooth as a sliding stop on a cutting horse. My recent visit to Montana offered up more fabulous riding and a chance meeting with Master leather carver, Howard H. Knight.
Howard Knight creates handcrafted leather accessories from belts to boots and wallets, one at a time, that are one of a kind. I admired his fancy hand tooled leather work on several silver tipped Western belts, but it was the simple elegance of his Ranger style belt, made of rich brown English Bridle leather, that captured my attention. His promise of a special message inscribed on the lining of my custom belt* sealed the deal and made me a fan of Mr. Knight forever.
Q: I understand you started learning “leather craft” in 4-H Club? Who are some of your master leather carver mentors and what unique talents/skills did they pass along to you?
A: I am proud to say I did start out learning leather craft in my local 4-H club, it was that early feel and smell of leather that lead to my passion for creating things out of leather. I have studied under several master leather carvers/artists including Chuck Smith, Jim Jackson, Lisa Skyhorse, Don Butler, Jack Holland and most influential in the development and mastery of my skill was Ray Pohja. All of these men and women were open and willing to share their knowledge and skill with me. One of the other things that impressed me was that each of these people were involved in teaching 4-H kids. I do teach 4-H leathercraft here in the Bitterroot valley but it is harder than ever to keep young kids interested in hand crafts.
Q: What makes your leather designs unique?
A: I have always found my passion and taste in design leaning toward art nouveau, simple flowing stem lines, gracious full flowers and a happy feeling when the design is done. I want my work to make people smile, art is what the artist puts into the design and what he feels in his heart. I draw on my love of the rivers and mountains, the changing of the seasons and the rhythmic cycles that are life here in the North West. I actually grew up in Northern Idaho, Sandpoint to be exact. The Bitterroot and Sandpoint are similar only fewer people here in Montana. To many of the locals I will always be a transplant here, but the art community in the State has welcomed me as a true son of Montana. Three years ago I was inducted into the State of Montana Arts Council, Circle of American Masters. An honor I was humbled to be tapped for. Only the finest craftspeople in their field are chosen to represent the state. There are only 34 Masters in the whole State. As my mother so proudly states, “he’s a state treasure!!!”
Q: With the advent of cheap, mass-produced leather products flooding the markets from third-world countries, is custom leather design becoming a lost art?
A: I could rage on and on about the advent of mass produced goods dominating the markets here in the United States. Unfortunately, some consumers have become accustomed to seeing embossed leather and embossed fake leather so frequently that when they see the real thing, they think the real hand crafted products are fake too. Part of my mission in participating in shows and talking with people is to point out the difference in quality and craftsmanship in a handmade item. Buying a belt that sells for $22 made in China on an assembly line compared to a belt made by the hand of a skilled craftsman made here in the United States at $350 isn’t always an easy choice for the consumer. Most people don’t understand the difference. The need to make a living wage and the challenge of competing with imports makes recruiting young people to continue the trade difficult. I will now step down from my soap box.
Q: I hear that George Bush and Sam Shepard own some of your leather creations. Is there a unique demographic specific to your client base? In other words, do you mainly sell your leather works of art to well-healed baby boomers? What type of person wears your leather?
A: I have made many projects for famous, infamous and not so famous people.
I try to use the practice of discretion, but George W., Dick Cheney and several of Nashville’s elite do own pieces of my work. Some of my favorite customers are not famous but commission fantastic art pieces, whether it’s tooled sneakers, motorcycle seats and accessories or any number of other over the top projects. My average male customer is in his mid to late 60’s, highly educated and appreciates hand crafted items. My average female customer is in her late 40’s to mid-60’s. She wants hand crafted items that she will not see anyone else wearing or using, a high degree of fine design and she’s not afraid of a little flash, after all she is confident in herself and not afraid to make a statement.
Q: As all of your work is one of a kind, tell us about some of your favorite projects?
A: Some of my favorite projects have been working on custom cowboy boots. I don’t actually make the boots, the bootmaker sends me a template of the boot top or a wing tip to design. Most of the time the customer has an idea of what elements they want incorporated into their boot design. From there it’s all mine! Lisa Sorrell in Guthrie, Oklahoma and retired bootmaker Bill Shanor in Ashland, Oregon are two of my favorite bootmakers to work with, both are all about the detail and quality that go into their boots. I’ve had the pleasure of working on furniture pieces for several customers, in conjunction with their wood worker, master piece heirloom tables, sofas and custom cabinets are highlighting homes around the country.
Q: Depending on the commission, how long does it take to make a custom, hand-tooled leather Western belt?
A: The average wait time for a tooled belt is six to eight weeks, a little longer if the customer needs a silver and gold buckle set made to compliment the belt. I work with several silver and goldsmiths.
Q: I noticed that your work is on display in Ashland, Oregon at William Shanor Bootmaker. What is the rhyme or reason behind your partnerships?
A: So you noticed my work at Bill Shanor’s boot shop in Ashland Oregon, what a treat a visit to see Bill and his wife Julie are. Working with other artisans often makes me think outside of the box. How do I make my work compliment their style and what the customer wants from both of us.
Sometimes blending silver engraving style artwork into my old school floral design or incorporating semi-precious stones into my designs challenges me in a good way. I think I get more from working with most other artisans, it’s the challenge of marrying my work with theirs is not always easy, but the challenge is almost always worthwhile.
Q: Where else may we find your work on display?
A: You can find my work at Axel’s in Vail Colorado, Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana, Cayuse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Patrick Mavros in London and Mauritius. Please call or email me with ideas for projects, customer service and customer satisfaction are very important here at the shop.
*Special messages may be inscribed on the lining of each belt. My Ranger belt retails for $150. For additional insider tips follow @Nancydbrown on Twitter and @ridinghorseback.
Where to buy:
Howard Knight (406) 531-2589
Rocking K Custom Leather
3443 Baldwin Road
Stevensville, Montana 59870