When most people look at a sheet of leather, they usually see just that: a piece of smooth, firm material. But leather crafter Jim Linnell sees each one hiding a new creation, like how a painter views a canvas or a sculptor a marble slab.
The 60-year-old has been in the leather profession for more than 40 years, going from making saddles and wallets in high school to more complex shapes and designs. In the backyard shop behind his house in Venus, Texas, tools, aprons, saddles, souvenirs, and his own work cover every inch of free space.
Linnell’s most recent creation is a leather wall art display that will be signed by the cast of Lonesome Dove in celebration of the TV miniseries that debuted in 1989. After the display is signed by Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Fort Worth’s Barry Corbin, and others, it will be auctioned off at the Lonesome Dove reunion, Thursday, March 31, at River Ranch in the Stockyards. Linell offered to make the piece for the reunion for free.
“It has really become a big deal,” Linnell said. “Lonesome Dove has some absolutely crazy fans. I mean, there’s people that think that was the greatest [television series] ever. It exemplifies the cowboy lifestyle and the breaking open of the West and the changing of an era. And for it to be hosted in Cowtown — Oh, my gosh, that was just the ultimate thing.”
Linnell spent four months completing the project.
“It’s not about tracking the time,” Linnell said. “It’s about doing it until I’m happy with it. I’m by far my worst critic. Most people look at it and can’t even conceive how I get there with a piece of leather.”
In a corner of the shop, a three-dimensional eagle protrudes from a flat sheet of leather, its feathers and beak as lifelike as the real thing. On a desk, a longhorn skull sits on a stump –– a skull that Linnell says is also made entirely out of leather. On another shelf, a pair of feather earrings hang from a hook. The feathers, too, are made of leather, a fact that seems unreal considering their fine textures and smoothness.
“I don’t like to do a lot of the same stuff,” Linnell said. “Doing flat pieces, saddles, wallets, belts, things like that, bored me pretty quick. I had more creativity in me than those things allowed.”
When he was 11, Linnell got his first experience at carving into leather in an industrial arts class. Finding it thrilling, Linnell badgered his parents to buy him a beginner’s set of tools so he could do his own work outside of class.
“It’s pretty much been a part of my life ever since,” he said.
As he continued practicing throughout high school, his peers really liked his work and even wanted to buy some of the items he made in class. He ended up working in a saddle shop after school, where he said he met his greatest teacher: experience.
“One of the best teachers is screwing up,” he said. “A lot of leather workers these days are self-taught. This isn’t a subject that is taught at most schools, so where do you learn it?”
After graduating high school, Linnell decided against college. He and his wife married young, and he immediately went out into the working world. “I grew up quickly,” he said.
At first, Linnell worked in construction to support him and his family. Eventually, an opportunity arose at the Tandy Leather Company. The beginning rate was $2.65 an hour, a significant decrease from his construction pay. Fully committing to leather crafting meant his wife would also have to get a job. They were both scared, but Linnell felt it was then or never.
“I felt that if we didn’t make those decisions and didn’t take that bold of a step at that age, when you got older, you wouldn’t do stuff like that,” he said.
He spent so much time in a leather shop that his children did too. His daughter Lindsey remembers growing up around leather crafting her whole life.
“I don’t have a memory of him not doing it,” she said.
From 1978 onward, Linnell had the chance to hobnob with some of the industry’s greatest leather crafters, including Al Stohlman, who is considered one of the greatest leather pioneers. Seeing their work inspired Linnell to redouble his efforts not as a leather crafter but as a leather artist.
Still, many years passed before Linnell decided to exhibit his work at a leather guild show. People were awestruck. Many thought some of it wasn’t even possible to make.
“They said, ‘Oh, my God. Where did this guy come from?’ It’s like some hidden talent that they had just discovered,” he said. “This is the stuff I had been doing for a long time. For all my life. It surprised me that it was regarded as it was.”
Linnell started filming instructional videos, publishing patterns, and writing articles on leather crafting. He traveled to 34 states and then to Europe, England, and Puerto Rico to teach. He also has received multiple crafting awards, including the much-respected Al Stohlman Award, in 2002. Stohlman’s wife, Ann, presented it to Linnell.
But Linnell wasn’t done yet. Now, he said, he needed to look like he earned all of his recognitions.
“I am 60,” he said. “I won’t live forever. But I would love to hope that when I’m done being able to do leatherwork, there’s more people in love with it, more people involved with it, that it continues on, and that there are more talented leather workers that pick it up who are around today. I hope they build upon that.”
Dave Smith, executive director of the International Federation of Leather Guilds, said that Linnell’s willingness to share his talents with other people is arguably one of his greatest contributions to the industry. Two of those students include Lindsey’s daughters, Analisa and Emilee, who frequently craft with their grandpa at his shop.
“It’s amazing how far he’s come, from our kitchen table to now having his own shop in the backyard,” Lindsey said. “It brings back memories of a good childhood to see [him and my daughters] work together.”
Linnell said he never thought leather crafting would take him this far, but he’s even more excited for how leather crafting will not only survive but thrive past his years.
“Leatherwork is alive and well,” he said. “And it’s actually going where it’s never gone before.”