Arts September 27, 2022

Leather Tamer

Rick Bean won't be fenced in

Rick Bean wasn’t born with $45,000 saddles under him, but he has made them.

The Meridian, Idaho resident doesn’t hold much back when he talks, and it’s probably why he never lacked much confidence when corralled with a client’s elaborate dream of imagery carved into a custom western saddle.

Some of his most legendary work recently was exhibited and offered for sale in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, a showcase of the U.S.’ best in saddle, bit and spur making, silversmithing and rawhide braiding from fellow members of the esteemed Traditional Cowboy Arts Association.

That was the swan song for those saddles, as he looks to find new adventures in his art and craft. And an adventure in silver, or leather, it will be.

“The Nashville” by Rick Bean, handcrafted leather saddle.

Bean is a storyteller in every way. Every significant thing in his life has a vivid expression or memory attached. He likes adjectives.

His best stories often don’t leave his lips but his hands. Some of his richest tales are told through one of his signature “Legacy” saddles, where Western legends, scenery, and folklore were hand-tooled in leather with delicate swivel-knife cuts.

Like most stories, his work has a theme. They are historically representative and include outlaws and heroes. The ornate leather saddles are rideable but unlikely to gather any real dust.

“First and foremost, everything has to have form and function,” says Bean. “The same amount of rivets go into my show saddles as my working saddles.”

His brother, Bill, builds the tree of the saddle, its foundation. The leather comes from a tannery in St. Louis. His raw silver, from Albuquerque.

For his custom saddles, Bean took his final drawing to tracing paper and lightly stenciled the pattern on new leather. Floral patterns became three dimensional as the leather was dyed, creating dramatic and original effects. He cobbled them together on a vintage sewing machine.
These showy saddles are collected by those who are drawn to the history of the West and can afford to dream, and pay, big.

His induction into the venerable trade association known as the TCAA in 2005, “was a match made in Heaven,” that was initiated by a delighted client.

Like a tattoo artist, Bean had to be both talented and tactical, and able to spell well. Mistakes can be costly.

“The farther along I get,” say, 45 hours into the several 100 he usually invests, “I start to get a lump in my stomach. There’s no eraser on the other end of the knife,” he explains, sounding more like a plastic surgeon than a leather craftsman. “Once that knife cuts the leather, it’s cut. You drop that eyeball a fraction too long, and you just made Frankenstein. So, it’s not a matter of whether the face will look like a person, but is the cowboy or cowgirl cute and handsome, or will they look like something from a horror movie?”

“Rarely have I ever had to start over, but yes, I’ve had to,” Bean admits.

He is more relaxed when working with silver, which, like paint, can be obscured, blurred, or buffed out to disguise the mistake. He embellishes some of his saddles and stirrups with the shiny metal but also makes jewelry and buckles.

All of Bean’s creations start with hours of sketches. Drawing, often cowboys, was something he discovered in school as a distraction. The son of an artistic woman and her rancher husband, Bean, his two brothers and three sisters, grew up on a ranch in southwestern Idaho near his home and shop today.

His trajectory took root through a Tandy leather carving kit he received for his 12th Christmas. His neighbors were saddle shop owners who welcomed his daily visits seeking scrap leather and mentoring.

Harnesses for the coveted draft horses his father sold were his first major endeavors, and a retail business was born. RC Bean Saddlery opened in 1978.

It was there that he met, “the reason for all my success,” his wife of 23 years, Kristie, a horse trainer, and artist who is his partner in all things.

“When two people who are good at stuff are thrown together, they come up with some radical ideas,” says Kristie of their dynamic. “And then, if they are dumb enough to actually execute them…”

“I have three passions,” says Bean. “Kristie is the main one. My property in Star. And my store.” Though what the future bend will be is under wraps, Bean will stay in the artistic saddle. “I’ll do this as long as my eyes and hands work.”

This article appears in the Summer 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.