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Leather heirlooms

Leather artist is referred to as the Norman Rockwell of leather work

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Forty years ago, back when the This Is The Place Monument was a state park, Richard Passey worked there as a supervisor. "During the winter, after we'd washed all the windows and cleaned all the fixtures, there was nothing to do. My boss suggested I find a hobby that I could work on in my spare time. He did leatherwork, so I started doing it."

Back then, Passey couldn't afford the tools he wanted, so he made them out of old nails. He made 120 nail-tools that he could use for stamping and marking the leather.

"I had a lot of fun with it. I entered some shows, got some ribbons."

Then in 1972, "for whatever reason, I stopped doing it and put everything away." Part of the reason was that he had moved on to do landscape architecture at McKay-Dee Hospital and then landscape work and grave-digging at cemeteries. Plus he was busy with family and church and community work.

Fast-forward to about four years ago. Passey had a nearly fatal heart attack. "That got everyone in the family thinking about what would happen if I did kick the can. And six of my eight children said they wanted as a family heirloom the leather Christmas pop-up book I made back when I was doing leather work. I knew we couldn't split it six ways, so I said maybe I could make some more."

Passey had to quit work and go on disability because of his heart attack, so he was looking for something to do. "I rounded up all my old tools and projects that I'd put away half-done." It took him a while to get back into it, he says. "I knew the bar would have been raised in the past 40 years, so I tried to see what new techniques and methods had come along."

For the past year-and-a-half or so, he has been fulfilling his promise (now all eight wanted books) to his children.

"Some of them still wanted Christmas books, but some said as long as I was making something new, I could try something different." One of his daughters

wanted cats in her book, another wanted a biography of her father's life. "It's been interesting to change and adapt and do things differently."

The pop-up book was his own design 40 years ago. "I always liked those pop-up cards. When I was in Switzerland (on an LDS mission) I saw some pop-up advent calendars. I always thought it would be fun to try something like that."

Passey puts a steel plate inside each of the book's covers so that it will lie flat and have some stability. The pop-up part includes three separate tiers of leather, each covered with detailed designs. The back layer contains a house or building that you can look into to see more leather figures, adding to the 3-D aspect of the books. The leather is painted with acrylic paints.

The paint and the leather make the books extremely durable, says Passey. "I'd guess that my original Christmas book has been opened and closed half-a-million times." No only did his kids enjoying looking at it, but some of his leather-working friends have borrowed it to take it to shows around the country. One woman sat in the corner of her booth, opening and closing it at people walked by."

The initial reaction is always the same, says Passey. "The jaw drops and the eyebrows lift, and there's a big smile. No one's seen anything like it."

Since finishing books for his children, Passey has moved on to some other special projects. "When I first had my heart attack, I was very depressed. And the one thing I looked forward to was watching 'Oprah.' So I decided to do a book on Oprah's life." He is currently in contact with Oprah's staff, working out the details of how to get the book to her.

"Then I thought, if I did Oprah, I should do one for President Hinckley for his 95th birthday." That book was delivered to the LDS Church president in June. "His staff told me it was the highlight of the family and staff birthday party."

Passey is currently working on a book about pioneers, which he calls his "pioneer 'heir'-itage because everything we have started with what they left us." He also has plans to do a religious book on Jesus Christ, and books on knights (which have always been a particular interest), cowboys and Indians." Each book incorporates 40-50 different subjects and as many as 200 different images and items.

One of the things people always want to know is how long it takes to make a book, and Passey knows exactly. The Christmas books are easier; they take 125-150 hours. The biography books are more detailed and take about 350 hours to complete. Passey started keeping track of his time because if he ever decides to sell them, "I didn't want to be working for 20¢ an hour."

The books are not all he does with leather work. Passey also enjoys making 3-D pictures of birds, wildlife, knights and other scenes.

They are all made of one piece of leather, he explains. You draw on the design and then carefully cut away the top layer of leather. Then using a product called Leather Dust, you fill in behind the leather to create the contours and shapes you want. "That's something I wish I'd had 40 years ago. I used to use sawdust and cork. This is much better."

He's also made some clocks, lampshades and other projects. But the books and pictures are his favorites. "I wanted to do something besides belts, purses and wallets. My wife, Gaye, calls me the Norman Rockwell of leather work."

Passey still uses some of his original nail tools, but he's also bought other tools over the years. "You can do pretty much anything you want with seven to 10 basic tools."

Eventually, he would like to teach some classes in leather work and pass on what he knows. "I'm basically self-taught, but I had some great mentors. They used to tell me, 'The only difference between you and me is acres of leather.' A lot of things you just learn by doing."

He enjoys the therapeutic aspects of working with his hands. "It gives me something to do, lets me make something beautiful." Because of his health, he can only walk short distances. His son got him into an electric wheelchair and built a ramp on the back on his house. "That gave me 70 percent of my life back." But with leather work, what he appreciates most, is "there are no limits. You can do anything you want. You can create unique family heirlooms."

E-mail: carma@desnews.com