Exotic leathers have a bad reputation. Animal rights groups have raised awareness of a shady history of overhunting and questionable ethics which has cast a shadow over the entire industry. But, all exotics are not the same. In my work, I focus on using exotic leathers that have a positive impact. For instance, American alligators are a vitally important species that was nearly extinct 50 years ago. Now, funds from the use of American alligators go to maintaining healthy populations and protecting their natural wetland environments. This in turn protects all the other flora and fauna that thrive in them, and which would otherwise be at risk of extinction. It also helps the planet, as wetlands are at least 30% more effective than rainforests at reducing climate change. Burmese pythons, on the other hand, are an invasive species, accidentally introduced to the Florida Everglades by the exotic pet industry. With no natural enemies in this part of the world, they’ve become the apex predator. Pythons have killed over 95% of the animals in this region and are now spreading further into the United States. Florida hires people to hunt these snakes, but sadly they’re inedible. So the pythons are just being killed and discarded. Using their skins is one of the only ways to create something beautiful out of this otherwise terrible tragedy.

Exotic leathers keep the original texture of the animal they came from and no two skins are ever exactly alike. The patterns that occur in nature are fantastic – complex, irregular, wild, and unpredictable. My goal is to frame them, give them color, highlight their most beautiful features, and show them in a new context as the unique and precious gems they are. In that way, I’m collaborating with nature – mixing my creativity with its beautiful randomness to create something totally new.

In my process, I often start with an inspiring texture or pattern and a desired form, like a round bowl, or dimensional wall piece. I may even have a color or combination of colors in mind. I glue the exotic to thicker cow leather for structure, soak it in water, and mold it into the desired shape. Once it dries, I dye the leather, trim and finish the edges, and sometimes add precious metal leaf. Along the way, I leave myself open to inspiration and happy accidents. I’d say, a good 50% of my work comes out differently than I originally intended. If I run into a snag, or make a mistake along the way, rather than discard the piece and start again, I envision a new direction for it. Sometimes doing that several times on the same piece. This can make the end result very different from the starting vision. Working this way forces me out of my comfort zone, and challenging myself to solve problems helps me grow as an artist.