At the risk of offending many of the people whom I most respect, I think that fancy floral carving–popular on western saddles and belts–is incredibly gaudy. That is not to say that it is not executed without great skill; there are some absolutely amazing leather carvers who can sculpt a saddle with great skill and talent. I just find much of it ugly.
A rare exception was my old boss, John Egenes, at Cerrillos Saddlery in Santa Fe, N.M. John was a great carver (like many other saddle makers) but he also had an eye for design and finishing that was lacking in many western saddles and belts. John really made some nice looking work, and he loved to carve California poppies, which seemed to come alive on his saddles, belts, and spurstraps. John and I had a nice relationship: he loved carving flowers and didn’t particularly like basket stamping, which I love to do. He was happy (and very good) sewing as many things as possible with a machine; I always have loved to hand stitch, so I always got the saddle horns, cantles, and spur covers to sew. I loved it.
I have always felt slightly inadequate around real cowboy saddle makers, decked out with hats and boots, and carved belt with silver trim and a rodeo buckle big enough to hold a Big Mac. These guys love to carve leather and are very good at it. I’ve never liked it much and haven’t spent enough time honing my skills.
In my life as a university professor, I study small little worms called nematodes. Most people think that they must be ugly and scary, but it could not be farther from the truth. Caenorhabditis elegans is one of the most beautiful animals I’ve seen, and it can be meditative watching them crawl around on small petri dishes with bacteria for food. They make lovely shapes and curves, and I realized that the worms are so good at making beautiful shapes that I should try to bring some of that into my work. You probably won’t find too many saddles covered in worms, but maybe in the future someone will talk me into making one when I have a bit of time…