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Artist Feature: Ben Mercil

Custom built leather goods

Tell us about yourself and your craft.

I was raised in rural Northwest Minnesota, where I grew up learning how to grow and preserve food in the spring and summer months. During the fall, we split wood, hunted, and prepared ourselves for the long winter days that were often filled with projects and crafts. The winter is still a time that I find conducive to hunkering down and focusing in on my craft work. 

I have never been one to pursue higher education, which led me to serve a year with Americorps on a wildland fire crew in Crown King, Arizona. Since then, I’ve been seasonally employed on a trail crew in Glacier National Park. After a couple of years working and living in Montana, I was inspired by the works of western artists and decided to pick up leather craft. I have primarily focused on small projects like wallets, belts, and bags with the intention to work my way up to large builds such as saddles and chaps. 

What does your creation process look like?

Since the majority of the work I do is custom, I begin each project by chatting with the customer to gauge what exactly it is that they are looking for. I then begin to draw out various design options for the customer to choose from. Once approved, I start the process of tooling the leather through something called casing: a process that involves incorporating enough water into the leather before carving and tooling the design. The majority of my time is spent creating and tooling the design onto the surface of the leather which is made possible through an array of carving knives and stamps. From there, I begin to resist, oil, and dye the project, which is then assembled through various stitching techniques.

Who or what inspires you?

As a kid, I watched my uncle make wallets, belts, holsters, etc. He was well versed in older style figures and floral carving (oak leaf patterns and such). Seeing his work and tools as a kid is what initially caught my interest in working with leather. Although, it wasn’t until my time working in Montana that truly pushed me to dive into this craft. Most of my work is inspired by the traditions of western leather carving: handmade construction and durability that will last for many years. It was very inspiring to work alongside master saddle builders. Seeing the work they have done put to use everyday on a horse is a work of art in itself. Although I am far from building saddles, I have been able to take some of the techniques from western leather craftsmen and put them into my own work on a smaller scale. This is when I began incorporating what is called “Sheridan” style carving into my work.

Best and worst thing about being an artist?

Being able to create something unique and original with each order is something I take a lot of pride in, and it’s what keeps me motivated to develop as a craftsman. Keeping orders organized and having them completed in a timely manner is definitely one of the more challenging parts of working for myself. 

Tell us something about yourself (or your art) that most don’t know.

I love cooking and baking (especially pies). 

Where can we find your work?

Given that almost all the work that I do is completely custom per order, I do not currently have any stock items for sale anywhere. The best place to view my work is my Instagram: @benmercil. Email can also be a great way to reach out, if anyone would like to discuss having something custom made: I am currently working on getting a webpage up and running, so be on the lookout for that in the near future.