Leather Art Story

Leather is a tradition bound to Santa Cruz. Since the first missionaries and pioneers settled here, leather products played a big role in the economy and development of the area, yoked to the limestone processing and mining which spurred major growth, as well as abundant tan oak forests. An integral material from millennia past into 18th and 19th century technology, its durable uses ranged from clothing, furniture, weaponry, decoration, bookbinding, manuscripts and important documents, horse and animal tack, to drive belts for the first bicycles and hydro-powered machinery in small shops.

Now its history is honored in this era at the transformed Salz Leather tannery situated on Highway 9, the oldest tannery on the west coast, (??) now a haven of art and design in the 21st century, a formal acknowledgement of the broadly creative sometimes-visible spirit which permeates Santa Cruz.

It comes as no surprise in an environment like Santa Cruz that a new art form could emerge, this one merging graphics, metalwork and print methods, in a nuanced appreciation for the potentials of this material.

In 1985 Dan Carey started a small cleaning company at just the right time, when the need for pressure washing and steam cleaning services exploded. And along with that business came a collection of tools and equipment, and later, digital cameras, all required to keep the wheels turning. A lifetime of artistic experiences and practice couldn’t resist the urge to fiddle and incorporate the materials and technology at hand.

One night, after building something with expanded metal on one of his trucks, and some recently seen sign or something embossed in paper, (another popular Santa Cruz art practice, of course), he wondered, well, if that were done in leather? Leather gets soft if you soak it in water. And there happened to be a really cool leather shop right across the street…

So it began. A small scrap of rawhide leather from Leatherwise, a couple of chunks of industrial metal, some welding clamps…and a couple of days later… Hey! That worked! This is pretty cool…and look at those rusty lines.

That was just the beginning. A birthday gift of a small used book press from a thoughtful son led to pressing small plates of steel with welded designs on them, squares of leather with rusty images that didn’t fade, and held a golden light within. After a while my neighbor Andy Lenz told me, “Now you’re a printer”, a label I’d never even considered, but, whatever. It was just fun, making this stuff and figuring out how to make it something more.

All that, until a fateful spring day in (2004?), while working on a painting in his (my?) open garage / company workshop. Neighbor Andy Lenz, art store owner and artist in his own right, happened by, and paused to watch…

After a couple of minutes watching, he offered “Well, you know you are wasting your time, don’t you?”. Of course I replied something like “Yeah, I know.  Painting doesn’t really sell, or even pay the bills”. “No”, he said. “I mean running this company, cleaning stuff”.

I countered with “Well, I make XXX$ doing this, and always have work”.

“Yeah, well, that’s 3 of those paintings, in the right place”.

I figured he just wanted to sell me art supplies!

Now all these years and a host of projects later, in a wide variety of mediums and across a spectrum of styles, I am putting the present works my skillset coalesced into on show. Over decades, from drawing to ceramics, phasing into painting, metalwork, industrial design, photography, a smattering of woodwork and construction and various trades, and finally, in the now, the present show, merging print and sculpture.

From elegant handmade wooden tortilla presses, photo prints, original ink paintings, to printed shamanic drums to stunning iconic totemic masks, this will be a show to see!

—Dan Carey