Kat Kuszak - 1988 Al Stohlman Award Winner

Winner of the 1988 Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft

They say the “West” begins in Nebraska.  In Omaha, Nebraska something else had its beginning… a future awakening of the creative and aesthetic portrayal of that “West”… in the form of a girl child born to Pat and Chuck Leitch.  They called her Kathryn.  We know her today as Kat Kuszak… world class leather artist.

Her interest in the Old West and Native American culture had ample opportunity to be satisfied.  Even as a pre-schooler, she loved the rodeo, the horses, cowboys and the Indian dancers.  As a child, she also showed an inclination to be creative and artistic.  Her father, knowing the significance leather played in the history of the West, and attuned to his daughter’s interest and creativity began to bring her little leathercraft kits.  Her first kits were a coin purse and bracelet.  She loved it.  At age eight or nine, he bought her a miniature saddle kit.  A tooling pattern was enclosed, but they had no idea how to put it onto the leather.  Kat, being one to figure things out for herself, determined that it could be done by transferring the pattern to the leather using carbon paper and then burning it in with her girlscout wood burner.  She used magic markers to color it.  With a little help from her father (as the assembly instructions were a little difficult for her to understand) and some airplane glue, they put it together.

Her love for horses, and naturally leather, grew along with her love for art.  Her parents gave her a big surprise when she was in eighth grade… her first pony.  Later, as a high school girl, she took advantage of art classes, but her extra time was spent earning money to buy a horse and new saddle, etc.  So this is how her formative years were spent, and hot it all came together; her love for horses and the old west, and the connection with leather, coupled with her desire to express herself artistically. 

After high school, she entered Kearney State College as an art major.  It was here that she met her husband Lennie Kuszak.  They were married after he finished Air Force Basic Training in March 1973.  In 1974, he was transferred to Germany, taking Kat with him.

While in Germany, leather came back in to her life.  Needing something creative to do, she was given a leather saddle bag kit.  Still unfamiliar with basic leathercraft skills, she used her creative talents and figured out her own way to decorate and assemble it.  This was her introduction to using leather dyes.  There were no books available to her and no accessible help in this foreign land.  She also received materials and patterns to make a pair of Apache boots.  This was her first “from scratch” leather project.  This time in Germany was a turning point in Kat’s life. 

On her own, she bagan what she called the “learning and loving process that made leather a permanent part of my life”.  Using common sense, trial and error, and her creative abilities, she began teaching herself leathercraft.  As more and more projects reached their successful conclusion, she began to experience artistic satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and self-worth never before experienced.  The hook was set!

I cannot help but relate Kat’s struggling and learning years to those of Al Stohlman.  He too found himselve overseas, although during a war, wanting to learn leathercraft.  He had to fashion most of his own tools.  He, as she, did not know you cased leather to make it toolable, and worse yet, his source of leather was used conveyer belt leather that he said “had the consistency of concrete.”  Kat, like Al, seemed to be in isolated circumstances that prevented her from obtaining good instructions.  It is that struggle that is the foundation for her greatness.

1976 brought them home to Nebraska, out of the Air Force, taking over the family farm.  Here Kat was able to have horses again.  With time on her hands, she once again felt the need to do something creative.  That fall, Kearney State College offered a one semester leathercraft course in which she instantly enrolled, even though it would be a 120 mile round trip every day.

For the first time, Kat was exposed to leather carving techniques and tools.  It was a revelation… she saw at last how she could use leather as an art form.  This thought was confirmed when some snooping in the KSC leathercraft collection of instruction books and magazines turned up examples of Al Stohlman’s work.  She discovered for the first time that you could do pictures in leather.  Al Stohman’s picture “The Black Stallion” had a tremendous impact on her.  She says: “the color was vibrant!  It was not only riveting in it’s visual appeal, but it told a story!  My horse experience and years of reading about the old west helped me recognize the little details in the design or picture that made it so realistic, and allowed the careful observed to piece together the story of what was happening in the carving.  My artistic training helped me recognize that the drama and danger portrayed and brought out so skillfully in this carving had to be carefully thought out and planned ahead of time before the leather was ever cut.  I had no idea how he achieved those results but I was determined to learn…”  And she did learn!  So now we know why Kat always pays so much attention to detail and research… she got it through inspiration from Al.

Kat decided that her next class project would be a mountain man with a pack horse she had seen in a small Remington sketch.  She enlarged the drawing free hand to fit an old frame she owned.  Upon seeing the drawing her instructor questioned her ability to complete the project as the details required seemed out of scope of anything he had seen, or the tools he had available for her to use.  But that didn’t deter her.  She set about find out every kind of impression each of the tools available would make in leather.  She made up her own rules as she went along.  If she didn’t have a tool to do the job, then she would use whatever was available to create the texture she needed.

Armed with this new knowledge and inspiration, Kat began to get serious about her art.  She continued experimenting on her own, developing her skill and knowledge along with some necessary tools with which to create the textures and details required to tell her stories in leather.  She reached that point where it became necessary to earn some money to defray the expenses.  She began accepting private commissions and did small pieces to sell at local arts and craft show. 

In 1976 and 1977, Kat received many such commissions, and lots of encouragement from many who admired her work.  She came to the attention of Mr. David Stahmer, the President of Electrical Works of Omaha.  Being a patron of the arts, he felt Kat worthy of a $1,000 grant to encourage her to continue her experiments in the art form.

With her new found confidence, she decided to enter the Make It With Leather Picture Contests.  Much to her delight and surprise, she won first time out with “Cheatin” and took the top honors for the next three years as well. 

In 1979, Kat attended her first leathercraft show, The International Leathercrafter’s Coalition at the Mississippi Valley Fair at Davenport, Iowa.  After driving the 500 miles in the old farm pick-up truck, she was surprised to find that her entry “Rendezvous” had taken First Place and Best of Show.  But she said, “The best surprise of all came that night when I actually me the other leathercrafters at the banquet.  They were warm, friendly and I had never felt so accepted.”

She was invited to demonstrate the next day.  Nervously, she accepted and that night drew a few mountain men faces, thinking she would be more comfortable with something familiar.

The next day, the group had some surprises of their own.  Here sat this wee lass of Scottish descent with her beginner set of tools, a cheap wooden mallet, the “wrong” blade in her swivel knife, her leather soaking wet and dripping with water… and she was going to demonstrate how to make a winning picture?  They watched in amazement and disbelief as what she did actually worked.  They were flabbergasted when she put down her knife and began to model and texture the beard and hair with her thumbnail. Some “old dogs” learned a few new tricks that day!

Kat says of this time, “I’ve learned how important it is to share our knowledge, so others can avoid pitfalls, or pass on creative tips to help them develop and grow in their craft.  My craft has made me a better person.  Participating in competitions” she continues, “has taught me the importance of good sportsmanship of both winning and losing.  I have learned to respect and admire other people’s styles and techniques even when drastically different from my own.  I’ve learned to look forward to critiques and constructive criticism, to use them as tools from which to grow and expand my knowledge and skill.  When I help someone else by passing on my knowledge, I am helping myself.  By allowing someone else access to my ideas, techniques and tools, I will have the pleasure and new insight of seeing it re-interpreted through their hands, mind and heart, thereby expanding my own skills.”

Kat added, “doing leathercraft for resale and private commissions has taught me to always do my best as my reputation rides on how well I can interpret their desires on to leather.  This has forced me to listen to other people.  Leather has been to me a tool for communication.”

Another turning point in Kat’s career was when she decided to attend the British Columbia School of Saddle Making in Walhachin, B.C., Canada.  This was a pretentious name for a small three-room shop where as the first, last and only pupil Kat learned the basics of saddle making. 

But that is not the story.  ON the way, her car engine blew up and she had to spend two weeks in Drummond and Hall, Montana.  During this time, Kat discovered another secret to life… for every adversity, there is an opposite and equal benefit.  It was during this time that she met J. Hendrix and was able to line up a job for her husband.  She was introduced to new friends who saw her work and purchased it.  She was able to defray these extra expenses by doing her craft in the motel room. 

The offsetting benefit from attending the saddle making school was that the teacher just happened to be an old card playing buddy of Al and Ann Stohlman.  He took her to Cache Creek to meet them.  “What a thrill it was” Kat relates, “to meet the foremost leathercrafters in the world.  People I had read about and looked up to as an example and for inspiration.  I saw his collection of the first tools he had ever made.  This planted the seeds in my mind that if he made tools to fit his needs, then perhaps I could do that too.  I saw Al and Ann’s saddles and marveled at the workmanship, vowing to myself to practice and to use this as an example of how it should be done right.”

Lennie accepted the job in the Hall and moved their belongings while Kat finished her schooling in Canada, after which she returned to her new home.  Here she began her professional career as Flint Creed Saddlery and Leather Art.  She was a welcome to member in Hall, Montana.  Here she continued her art and learned saddle making and repair while gaining some valuable lessons from her new found friends Al and Ann Stohlman through the mail.  This help from Al and Ann reinforced her desire to be of service to her fellow craftsman.

In 1980, Kat’s work began to attract the attention of those in the leather industry.  Mr. John Jacobson of leather Impressions, Inc. commissioned her to do several pictures that were to be reproduced as “leathograph.”  In the following years, more companies sought her out for her superb leather knowledge and artistic ability.

The pregnancy of her first daughter, Echo, made it difficult for her to do tack and saddle work.  She took a part time job as a guide with the Grant-Kohrs Rance National Historic site at Deer Lodge, Montana.  After the birth of Echo, the demands of motherhood required Kat to devote what precious little time she had to herself only to her pictorial and artistic leather work. 

In the Fall of 1982, Kat joined the Platte Valley Leathercraft Guild.  Even though it was 150 miles east of Ashton, she and her daughter made the meetings regularly in order for her to share ideas and fellowship… something extremely important to her.

Kat has since added another daughter, Keelia.  She has continued helping and working with others to the betterment of our craft.  She has continued to compete and win many awards as well as inspire us with her work.  The balance of this collection will illustrate Kat’s involvement in leather to the present time.  I will let the pictures speak for themselves. 

But the story doesn’t end here… let Kat say it in her own words, “IT has been very important to me to diversify and become as proficient at as many aspects of leathercraft as I can.  I have big plans for the future, both as an instructor and for experimentation and the development of our craft.  Leathercraft has made great strides just since I began in 1976, and I hope that I can be as good for leathercraft as leathercraft has been for me.”

In 1988 Kat Kuszak was awarded the high honor of the Al Stohlman Award for her service and excellence in leathercraft.

Paul Burnett.  "Presenting Kat Kuszak: Winner of the 1988 Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft”. The Leather Craftsman.  January 1989: p 12-15. Print.