A Love of Leather
Maryann Abeles poses with some of her handmade Wild Heart Leather items at the Juniper General Store on U.S. Highway 27 west of Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
Leatherworker and equestrian handcrafts functional art
Necessity was the mother of invention for leatherworker Maryann Abeles.
“My husband and I started cowboy mounted shooting,” the longtime equestrian explained, describing the sport in which riders fire Old West-style revolvers, shooting at balloon targets while riding horseback.
“I could not afford to buy a really good set of holsters and a belt. The stuff I could afford was made of really terrible leather. So I got this brilliant idea of maybe I’ll try making it myself. And that’s where it all started.”
That was 15 years ago. Abeles watched YouTube videos about leatherworking and learned a lot by taking pieces apart to see how they were made.
“I keep my old set around as a reminder of how far I’ve come,” she said. “It worked OK. And it was fun.”
After living in Colorado for 35 years, the native New Yorker downsized from a large ranch to just two horses when she and her husband Ken moved to Ocala five years ago. Hank and Gus, her quarter horses, are her biggest source of inspiration.
“My horses have custom nosebands. I don’t make things for myself,” she admitted. “Everything I decide I’m going to keep for myself, I end up selling off my body,” she added with a laugh.
Much of her WildHeart Leather line consists of custom-order equestrian gear – from cattle counters and spur straps to nosebands. She takes great care to make each item beautiful and functional, starting with the highest quality leather.
Abeles can get more creative with the hand-laced tote bags, belts, phone cases, belt loop bags and other smaller items, such as carved bracelets, that she sells at Juniper General Store. She especially likes using embossed leather, western designs and sometimes, just a little bit of fringe.
“I’m not a very ‘blingy’ person,” she admitted. “I’m not the rhinestone cowgirl kind of western. It all needs to be functional and what I call ‘classy bling.’”
One popular item, leather-covered flasks, was inspired by another of Abeles’ favorite pastimes.
“My girlfriends and I used to ride every Friday night, sorting cattle. And just as a goof one day, I made a bunch because these fit in the top of the cowboy boot. I made one for each of my friends, so you never had to get out of your saddle or get off your horse.”
A retired hairdresser, Abeles crafts her leather goods in a workshop at her home, hand-cutting each piece and using carving and stamping techniques.
“To me, leather’s just like modeling clay – it’s amazing what you can do with it,” she said. “There’s no limit to what you can do with leather. Just be creative. I try to be out of the box a little.”
She enjoys experimenting with new designs, said Abeles, who recently took on a new challenge: creating a custom console cover for a customer’s pickup truck. But her love of horses will always be her primary source of inspiration.
“I’ve always loved leather,” she noted. “And I’ve always loved good leather. There’s no better smell than leather on a sweaty horse.”