Making Art That is Literally Skin Deep

by Angie Ezekiel

photography by Jeremy Rodgers

Leather working is one of man’s oldest crafts. As soon as mankind started hunting, they started tanning the hides of their kills to keep warm, to provide shelter, and to fashion tools and decorations. Early societies learned to soften the leather and make it useful. As their techniques in working the surface improved, so did the designs and uses of leather. However, most leather work today is done in factories. Machines cut, press designs, and stitch items for mass consumption. There is little art or handcrafting involved, with the exception of a few artists that still choose leather as their medium, making individual items into functional art.

Filip Johnson is one of those artists. Growing up in Texas, he was a boy scout when he was first introduced to leather working. Eventually, he left the boy scouts, but he was still drawn to tanned animal skin. In high school he started teaching himself how to manipulate it, developed his skills as a hobby and eventually sold his creations to friends, and at Renaissance festivals, but that’s as far as it went.

He attended law school and worked as a corporate attorney for 6 years, but he knew in his heart practicing law wasn’t what he wanted to do. He felt that he needed to do something else with his life,
as many people do. He started to think that maybe his hobby was worth exploring, so he gave up his license to practice law and reunited himself with his true love of leather working. As of today, he has been a serious leather artist for three years, and a professional for the last two of them.

He was living in Denton, Texas when he made the decision to be a serious artist. He set up merchandise booths at shows, festivals, and conventions all over Texas. Filip is a tall, broad-shouldered man, which has earned him the moniker Beastman. The bicep of his left arm is covered in a tattoo influenced by art from Conan the Barbarian. Looking around his home and workspace, one can see the fantasy artwork of Frank Franzetta and books about Norse mythology and Celtic art. His coffee table and work station have stacks of drawings, intricate knots and animals. His leather pieces strongly echo these surroundings. He says, “I’ve been called Beastman for a long time. I was packing all of my stuff and hitting the road full time when I started, so (I added) Caravan. And it rhymes.” All of that exposure helped him build a clientele. He now has an Etsy store called Beastman Caravan, where he sells the majority of his inventory.

This need to work with leather is not just about bringing his drawings to life. He is an active individual who understands the value of a good, strong piece of rawhide. He makes a few decorative items, but his passion is making items that people will use while doing what they love. A glance into his storage cabinet proves this. His finely tooled designs adorn canteen carriers, knife sheaths, bracers, axe scabbards, and even toothpick holders. Each item is clean and well designed. Each one is a functional piece of art.

Filip’s workshop is devoid of a sewing machine, or any other piece of powered machinery for that matter, besides his computer. Each item is measured and carefully hand cut. Every detail is tapped or carved into the surface with a variety of picks and hammers. Each hole is expertly punched and the seams are hand stitched with precision and care. His work is not about short cuts or quick fixes; he is making products that will be rugged and useful for a lifetime.

The details in each piece don’t just involve the hand-tooled designs that Filip imagines and creates, there is more to it than that. Over the years he has formed a network of like-minded artists and craftspeople. His inventory includes hand-made knives and hand-forged buckles, rabbit and deer pelts, and other items made by people that he has met along the way. Each item tells a story about his life throughout the years. And it is because of the connection he has formed with other artists that his work stands out. One can’t help but become enthralled with the detail of each piece he creates.

The nature of the business started to weigh on Filip; the hustle and pace of the big city, the traffic, setting up and tearing down booths at shows, renting houses that were not big enough to have space to work. He started thinking of moving somewhere else and handling his business entirely online. His grandmother lived in Hot Springs and he used to spend his summers here, so he
made a trip back to gauge his surroundings. “There is so much to do here and the cost of living is so much lower. I was able to buy a house and fix it up.”

Filip and his girlfriend, Vanessa, have been residents of Hot Springs since April, calling historic Park Avenue home. They love being able to hike every day, finding new trails and places to explore. “This town is small enough to walk most of the places that you need to go and everyone is so friendly. I love running into the people that I have met while I am out doing my daily stuff.”

He keeps in contact with his customers and gains new ones through his Etsy, Pinterest, and Facebook accounts on a regular basis. His accounts show him using his leather goods in his everyday life, as well as detailing his creative process. This handson approach gives his work an authenticity that product pictures and descriptions could never do alone. Filip might post a picture of a sketch he was working on while enjoying his coffee at Kollective Coffee+Tea and get a message later that afternoon, asking to have it used on a custom piece. People have even asked if they could use his designs in tattoos.

The Beastman Caravan shop is full of wallets, belts, bracelets, flasks, satchels, pouches, and books, but he does not limit himself to those items. He loves producing custom items and is glad to take on big projects. You can find some of his items at Churchill’s Cigars and Fine Gifts, in downtown Hot Springs. You can also locate his offerings at State and Pride Provision Company across from The Buckstaff Bathhouse. Sometimes he even sets up at the Downtown Farmer’s Market. He may pop up in other places around town before Christmas, but you can always find him on Facebook. Or just look for the big guy with the bandana over his hair and the big smile, he’s not hard to find.