Deborah and Russell Shamah began their career creating functional art, furniture, mirrors, and frames. At that time Deborah was pyrographing her drawings on leather used in the pieces of furniture Russell created. It was at this time they discovered the art of leather carving and began incorporating carved leather into their furniture. Drawn to the organic properties of the wet leather they began sculpting vessels.
Working with heavy weight tanned cowhide Deborah and Russell hand cut each piece. The leather is wet sculpted by carving, tooling and hand manipulation. Asking the leather to go into forms that are uncharacteristic of its natural properties is very challenging; sometimes the Shamahs use natural properties in the leather allowing the vessel to take on a more earthy organic shape. The vessel is then dried in the sun or oven dried depending on the weather and desired effect. Once dry the vessel can now be dyed or painted.
Mixing dye the Shamahs create their palette of colors. Using brushes and scraps of sheep wool they apply dye to the leather in layers, each layer creating more distinct color. A natural element of the pieces painted with dye is through oxidation; the piece mellows and changes with age. Acrylic paint is used to achieve other desired effects on the sculpture and is less likely to be affected by oxidation. Once the piece is thoroughly dry they apply a water resistant protective finish. *The sculpture isn't water proof or intended to hold food.
Sometimes working en plein air from wetting the leather in a stream or lake, sculpting it, drying the piece in the sun or using natural sunlight to paint in connects Russell and Deborah to the natural element of the leather and connects the sculpture to the place it was created.
Fine Leather Jewelry
Having worked with textiles most of her life Deborah Shamah was enticed by the butter-soft yet durable qualities of deerhide. Unlike textiles the more it's worn and touched the more beautiful it becomes. Inspired by the textures in nature and Native American symbols Deborah wanted to try embroidery with leather working it into bracelet designs. She first created pieces for herself and Russell using US turquoise. Whenever the Shamahs wore their leather bracelets they would attract attention and complements. Designing a few commissioned pieces Deborah and Russell decided to make their jewelry available to more collectors and began creating pieces for Art Shows and Galleries.
Most of the embroidered leather jewelry Deborah creates with deerhide but elkhide is also used. To preserve a part of the American West the Shamahs work with many pieces of US turquoise and semi-precious stones in their jewelry collection.
Deborah first selects the stone and chooses leather that emphasizes the beauty of the stone. She selects stitches to give her piece the texture she desires often drawing on nature as her model. Other elements found in Deborah Shamah's jewelry are beads of sterling silver, copper, or semi-precious stones, and hand forged clasps.
Along with her embroidered jewelry, hand carved leather is incorporated into Deborah's bracelets. Using a swivel knife with a 1/4" blade her artwork is cut into the leather and depth added by sculpting around the cut edges. The intricate design that Shamah carves into the leather bracelets is usually more difficult than the larger artwork carved into her leather vessels. Layers of dye are applied with a paint brush and a hand rubbed water resistant finish. The piece is then ready for the application of beads or to be framed in wire. If desired, Deborah will attach one of her wire wrapped stones. She chooses to work with heaver gauge wire; "It gives the piece more substance."
Russell Shamah's bracelets and cuffs have different creative aspects applied. He uses elements such as his hand twisted leather barbed wire or hand forged sterling silver barbed wire, sterling wire forged into geometric lines and shapes, and numerous beads in his designs. Like Deborah, Russell's leather bracelets have layers of dye and a hand rubbed finish, some bracelets close with his hand forged clasps.
The bracelets and cuff's are lined with butter-soft deer which adds comfort in wearing the piece.
Russell and Deborah Shamah's unique creativity and attention to detail give the jewelry collector a fine piece of leather jewelry for years of enjoyment.
The construction process used to make furniture was very stifling to Russell Shamah. When he made the decision to purchase a wood lathe and began turning vessels it was liberating. With each turn of the lathe Russell became more free and expressive, his unique creativity was unleashed.
Creating a turned piece may take several days in the conception stage. He might see a shape and ask, "How can I make it with wood?" Finding the right piece of wood that will enhance the final project is another challenge. Sometimes when choosing a piece Shamah may start to turn it for one project and realize it is best suited for another. The grain pattern, bark inclusions, natural edge all must be considered.
When Shamah applies his chisel to the wood he becomes one with the nature of the wood. Through this process he sees the response of the wood under his chisel, he sees the wood telling him to leave it in its natural state, finish the edge, cut in here, and even the kind of finish he will use. While turning a piece of wood for a bowl with a natural edge the bark may not want to cooperate, improvisation comes into play. The piece may then be changed from the initial concept. Russell watches the wood slowly evolve as the chips react to the chisel and allows the wood to speak, in doing so he has a close relationship with the spinning wood. "You realize the wood will only yield its beauty if you become aware of the potential of the piece." He doesn't force the piece to become something it's not meant to be.
The technical aspects of turning wood are important but without the ability to know what the spinning wood is saying the piece is forced. Because Russell Shamah has this ability his turned vessels become more than just a turned piece of wood they become an object of beauty; an extension of the living tree.
Pyrography is an ancient art form that was first found in cave dwellings. Later it became quite popular during the Victorian era. The process today uses a hand held drawing instrument with interchangeable tips that are heated with electricity. The temperature is adjustable so Deborah is able to control the depth and texture of the burn. The technique applies some of the same principles as pen and ink or pencil drawing but the drawing is burned into the medium.
Shamah chose pyrography to draw her artwork onto the furniture she and Russell created because of its lasting beauty. Deborah started getting requests for the leather mats she used on their furniture to be framed. It was an easy transition for her from furniture to wall art.
Pyrography is very unforgiving if a mistake is made it can't be erased or painted over. If the mistake can't be worked into the drawing she has to discard the piece. To create a piece Deborah Shamah first does a pencil drawing this is where she is free to create. Once she's satisfied with the pencil drawing she draws a basic outline with graphite on the leather. Working side by side with her pencil drawing next to the leather Shamah begins burning the drawing into the leather. Working with two separate burning units and four hand-sets she gracefully moves from one to the other always adjusting the temperature to achieve different tones and textures.
Even though leather is a difficult medium to work in the thing Deborah Shamah loves about leather, "It loves to be touched." Because her drawing is pyrographed it can be touched without harming it. The natural oils won't harm the piece they actually help to preserve it. Feeling the texture of the drawing allows one more of our senses to be used when enjoying a piece of Deborah's artwork.
Summing It Up
Inspired by the spirit of the Rocky Mountain West, Deborah and Russell Shamah embody that spirit in each piece of art they create whether it's a piece of jewelry, a soft leather belt, a wood turning, a leather sculpture, or a pyrographed drawing. Their work is unconventional and unique, much like the spirit of the West.