Carving legends into leather

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— Jody Vetter, 62, sits back in his workshop in Yampa and begins to tell a story.

His plaid Carhartt shirt, blue jeans, boots and white cowboy hat testify to his ranching background. The art surrounding him, which takes the form of leather saddles, purses, chaps and bridles, suggests there's something more to this third-generation Coloradan.

The story Vetter tells is about Jack Link -- a legendary old-time Colorado leather crafter.

Link roamed the open range of Colorado, roping cattle, cowboying and finding ways to take people's money and run.

He also dabbled in leather carving, leaving his original print -- a desert rose flower with flowing lines and fern curls -- on his saddles.

Link came once to Cripple Creek, a small town outside of Colorado Springs where Vetter was raised. He offered to make saddles, and Vetter's father asked Link to make a saddle for his then-14-year-old son.

Link started work on the saddle, taking the carved-wood base and sewing layers of rawhide on it, then carefully cutting pieces of thick leather, carving his flowers and textures and shapes into them, and adding them one by one to the base.

"Oh, I'll tell you, I wanted that saddle pretty bad," Vetter said.

Then, Vetter said, Link suddenly disappeared.

Luckily, Vetter's saddle was found in Colorado Springs, and Vetter's dad found a leather worker to finish it.

"I got that saddle," Vetter said.

Along with the saddle, it seems he got a passion for working with leather.

As he worked on his family's ranch, spent time teaching agricultural vocation and mining, Vetter kept his hands in leather carving.

He made his first saddle as a freshman in college -- a present for his dad, not just because he wanted to repay his dad for the earlier gift, but also because his dad was the only one who could give him a little bit of money for the saddle.

His great-grandfather was a miner but had made harnesses on the side, Vetter said. Other than that, Vetter was on his own in the leather-carving world.

He learned by flipping through books, by watching friends who were carvers and by doing it by himself.

Now, Vetter's leather pieces are works of art themselves.

Vetter distinguishes himself as a leather carver, something more difficult than being a leather stamper.

Stampers take long, thin rods of metal with a pattern at one end, which they place on the leather, and then hit with a hammer, making an impression in the leather.

Carvers, on the other hand, use stamps but rely mostly on their swivel knives to make smooth, flowing cuts in the leather, leaving pictures of flowers, trees, people, horses.

"Man has tried many years to make things three dimensional -- with this, we can feel the dimensions," Vetter said as he carved a flower into a scrap of leather.

He sits at the edge of his chair, his tall frame perfectly straight and his feet flat on the floor. He held the leather still with his left hand and carved with his right. He is quiet, his hands moving smoothly as his body sways slightly with the tension of cutting the scrap. Though he looks relaxed, the tension in his body shows the strength required for making pictures in leather.

"That kind of gives it life and feeling," he said, putting down his swivel knife and picking up a stamp to add some texture.

Vetter always does his best to make exactly what people want when he builds a saddle, but he has a few ground rules.

One is that a saddle must always have a good base. Another is that a lady's saddle must always have at least one carved flower.

Finally, Vetter says, he must be able to envision his final product.

"You've got to be able to see it in your head to be able to make it," he said.

Though he may glimpse the future of his artwork, he always keeps a foot on the past.

Vetter can recall his first saddle -- which he still has -- as well as the legends of Jack Link and the work of his grandfather with each piece of leather he carves.

In that way, he lives out the legends of leather carving. And, it seems, makes his own legend at the same time.

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