Leatherworking is good therapy for John Norton
May 15, 2005
Leatherworking is more than a hobby to John Norton. It’s what keeps him alive.
Norton had a stroke in 1984 that left the right side of his face and the left side of his body paralyzed. He shows no lingering signs of the stroke’s effects, and he attributes that to leatherworking.
“I used my leatherworking as rehabilitation,” he said. “It did a pretty good job.”
Since then, Norton has been diagnosed with leukemia, high blood pressure, asthma and high cholesterol. He has had three stints put into his heart, is a diabetic and has suffered from more mini strokes than he cares to count.
“I have to have something to keep me going,” he said. “I have all kinds of sicknesses. My wife says if I didn’t have my leather, I would die.”
Norton’s uncle taught him how to work leather when he was 12. It’s an art he has been perfecting for 53 years. He took classes in junior high and high school — even taking over when the teacher was gone — and has taught himself some techniques using books.
His repertoire is unlimited. He has made pictures, wallets, holsters, brief cases, purses, knife sheaths, custom guitar straps — nearly anything that can be made from leather, Norton has made.
And he does it all, from lightly stamping a pattern, to carving it into the leather, to hand sewing every stitch. He has even painted some of his work, but he generally lets the design speak for itself.
Sometimes Norton sells his work, sometimes he gives it away, but mostly it’s a hobby. He said there are times when he wanted to open a business but just didn’t have the capital to start. He has invested nearly $4,000 in the tools he uses, not to mention the leather he has bought and other accoutrements.
“It takes a lot of tools to do animals that’s why I have so many” he said.
Norton’s biggest project was a picture of a moose and a bear. The bear was tearing up a campsite. He said it took him 72 hours to complete. Another 72-hour project was an attache case that was appraised at $1,200.
“I’ve always been fascinated with thing’s I could do with my hands,” he said. “My wife says I’m a perfectionist. Everything has to be just right or I won’t give it away.”
Norton said he has put hours into making something and if he made a slight mistake at the end, he’ll throw it away.
Norton would like to start a local leather guild. Part of his interest is as a teacher and the other part is an attempt to keep the art that he loves from dying.
“It’s to promote leatherworking because it’s kind of slowing down — going out,” he said. “I’m just interesting in keeping it alive. If someone wants to learn, I’d be happy to teach them.”
Norton was looking for a place to have meetings when he found the Boys and Girls Club. Before he knew it, he was spending one evening a week there teaching children basic leatherworking.
“They like it,” he said. “They’re very enthusiastic.”
When he saw a letter inviting community members to share their artistic skills with Ridgeview Elementary School fourth-graders, Norton volunteered. He walked them through the paces of making leather key chains for Mother’s Day.
End of the line
The path that led a man with such skill to Craig was a long one.
When he was found passed out in a room he was supposed to be cleaning, Norton’s doctor forced him into medical retirement in 1992.
Norton and his wife, Mary, moved to Craig in June to be closer to one of his daughters and several of his grandchildren.
Norton was a locksmith by trade for 23 years. He became a custodian after he sold his business.
Norton has children in Utah, Canada, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, but he wanted a place without heat and humidity. He had lived for a time in Rifle and Silt, so he felt like he knew the area and chose Craig.
“I don’t mind the winters,” he said. “I like it here.”
It’s where they plan to stay, something Norton’s not done for an extended period of time his entire life. Growing up, his father worked in ranching and moved Norton from town to town. Norton stopped counting the houses he lived in after 60.
“My dad just liked to move,” Norton said. “I got used to it.”
He’s still in contact with many of the friends he made over the years while traveling through different states.
He inherited his father’s wanderlust, but Craig is the end of the line.
“My wife said, ‘that’s it, no more moves,” he said.
The benefit of staying in one place is that Norton now has the time to pass on his hobby. He has one granddaughter who has expressed interest.
“None of my kids ever had the patience,” he said. “It takes a lot of patience.
“Leatherwork is good therapy. I really love to do it.”
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.