Rusty Dorr: Going Wild

Rusty Dorr: Going Wild

> Issue Home

Rusty Dorr is a creature of nature, living in the woods, on water, in the Catskill Mountains. Inspired by the forces and beauty of the natural world, she brings that “wild” quality to her distinctive leather coats and jackets. Elaborately fringed and beaded, sometimes sporting linings of coyote fur, each deerskin, moose or bison garment is cut by hand. She braids the cut pieces together and fastens her coats with natural horn. No two garments are alike.

What’s the Rusty Dorr back story? We know you work by yourself and have a limited production, but your Spirit Jackets and Bags have become much more than just merchandise for both you and your customers.
I grew up in a family of makers…so lucky! I had a horse as a kid, which got me out into nature and connected me intimately with the animal world. My parents told me I should be a veterinarian, so I started the schooling process but quickly discovered it was not my path. I opened a boutique in the late 60’s where almost everything was hand-crafted by local artists, so I began to make small leather items myself. For a few years I moved around a lot and eked out a living by selling my leatherwork. In 1971 I landed a job in a hip leather factory in SoHo, which was still actually a small manufacturing district in New York City at that time. A few months later I was production manager of fifteen or so multilingual workers.

The company also had a store in the East 60’s, and eventually they agreed to give me display space for my own handmade designs. My first piece there was a Bison Anorak which was sold to a famous French actor. Voilá…my career was launched! I left my day job and really let loose with Coyote Coats and more serious fringed jackets. Soon I was selling to shops across the country. I had to hire four people for four days a week to help me. It was crazy! I realized that I did not want to spend my days this way, managing people. I decided that all I really wanted to do was make one-of-a-kind spirit jackets, coats and bags for individual people, not stores. So, about 25 years ago, I began my solo career as an artist selling at craft shows.

Your Spirit Jackets and Bags are quite stylish, but seem to have an earthy, organic quality to them. Can you elaborate about the inspiration and philosophy behind your designs?
Creatures that live their lives in the wild, free to live a natural existence, speak to me. They have from the very beginning. That’s what drew me to this work. I use only skins that are the by-product of food. I intentionally leave in the natural marks and scars that came from surviving attacks by predators. When I work with the tannery, I have them buff the hides lightly, preserving the natural feel.

My Spirit Jackets and Bags are inspired by the working philosophies of indigenous cultures throughout history. I admire the way they made everything out of basic raw materials and created beautifully artistic and functional works using nothing more than sharpened bones and stones for tools. In that spirit, I limit myself to hand tools, using no machines or even thread. My studio is loaded with bundles of leftover pieces that I use for braiding. I hand punch one hole at a time, hand cut all my lacing with spring loaded scissors and hand braid the entire jacket. It’s all very relaxing and grounding for me…mostly. It is work.

Any news?
Actually, I’m gratified that a glossy national magazine for horse women, Cowgirl Magazine, has been featuring my story and some of my more elaborate jackets. I’m also proud that a piece of mine was part of an exhibit attached to a Native American Museum. I was asked to be on a radio show in December, answering questions about the business end of being a craft artist. But publicity isn’t the most important thing. Meeting the people who are drawn to collect and wear my work has been great. Here and there, over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have customers/clients who own over a dozen of my jackets. And not least, spending time in the company of some of the most creative artists in the country has been inspiring and rewarding on the highest level.

Any parting thoughts you’d like to share?
Because the scars of surviving attacks by predators are included in my jackets and bags, people have said to me, “If a deer can survive a bobcat, coyote, bear and even a mountain lion attack, then I can survive this cancer.” Or they say, “Putting on my handmade wild skin jacket makes me feel strong and good. I can feel empowered today to do what helps me move forward on my journey.” It’s great to believe that my work actually helps people in their own lives.

One thing I have discovered is that working alone gives me the solitude I crave. Ultimately, I realized that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. When it’s warm enough, my windows and doors are often open, surrounding me with a symphony of songbirds, water flowing over rocks and air whistling through leaves and needles. It keeps me on track.

The concept of the one-of-a-kind, totally handmade object is alive and thriving in Rusty Dorr’s booth at Paradise City Marlborough. Don’t hold back – go wild!