Creators and crafters of practical art
photography by Tina Sargeant
Dan Tabb smacks away with a large hammer, seaming a piece of leather against the cutting board atop the work table. Stacy, his wife, lets out a sigh and says, “This used to be our dining-room table.”
The large black table, located in the center of what is both the Tabbs’ family living room and current work station, is coated with specks of colorful paints and dyes, and overflowing with leather pieces in the midst of production, currently being seamed, trimmed, and sewn into leather goods of all kinds.
Stacy smiles. “It was a nice table.”
Dan and Stacy, founders and owners of Boondock Studios, along with their equally creative kids, Kier and Molly, have been in business as “makers of practical art” for the past four years selling genuine leather goods such as bracelets, handbags, messenger bags, leather-bound journals, and whatever else they may dream up in the process.
Before one can understand how this hobby evolved to a business and retirement plan (sans the retirement), one must understand how this love for leather began.
Dan grew up around leather production for most of his childhood, though it wasn’t until later in life that the love of producing leather goods himself evolved. “My dad taught me this as a kid,” Dan says. “But you know how kids are. I wanted to go outside and play with my friends. There were bikes to ride. So for being stupid — well, let’s say for being a kid — I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have. But I did learn some things. And he taught me all this stuff I know now.”
At this point, Dan lifts a dark, intricately ornate leather holster that could have come straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “[My dad] made this in 1969. And he made this by hand, all the carving. So he taught us to do stuff like that. And a lot of these tools here are his tools.” Dan points to the dozens of unique metal devices on the table. “I got them after he died. You could say we’re traditionalists.”
But it wasn’t until the Boondocks found themselves in Lakeland that this love of leather production became a real part of daily life.
Innovation is fine and great, and it’s what makes the world go round, but you have to have the root, the base, or else it doesn’t mean anything.
While Dan and Stacy are craftspeople by night, Dan is a stereo compiler (creator of maps) by day, and Stacy works in tech support for a hosting company. It was Dan’s unique job that brought the couple to Lakeland in the first place, where he hand draws three-dimensional maps to a 10th of a foot. Stacy (originally from Huntsville, Alabama) and Dan (born in California but “raised everywhere else”) both agree that when they found Lakeland, they found where they belonged.
“When we came down here,” Stacy says, “we went outside and immediately stayed outside for a decade, tromping around, exploring Florida and taking pictures of all of it, and really had developed a skill and love for wildlife photography. And then Dan’s health became an issue; he began to deal with spine issues and had to go in for surgery.”
Dan had served in the Navy on board the aircraft carrier USS John F Kennedy for three years, first during Desert Storm and then for another four years at Intel HQ for the Atlantic Fleet. He had gone to Tampa General Hospital for surgery on a disc that had fused in his neck, so that he could begin to use his left hand again which had become severely weak.
“Even after the surgery, my hands and arms were weak,”
Dan says,“They were just atrophying.” Through the time off for the surgery adjusting to the chronic pain, Dan had to rest for three months. No work, and no using his hands for three months. “It was a frustrating time. A terrifying time,” he says.
A year later, when the pain still would not subside, Dan continued to receive physical therapy at Tampa General, where creative projects were provided from the national charity Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV) to distract patients from their chronic pain, help rehabilitate the use of their arms and hands, and instill a sense of accomplishment. Veterans are taught how to live with the pain, how to exercise, and “basically how to manage it so it doesn’t make them crazy,” Stacy says. “While Dan was an in-patient at the VA, he was instructed, ‘One of the things you’ve got to do is move. It doesn’t matter how much it hurts, you have to use everything. You have to move.’”
Dan adds, “They told me, ‘If you don’t start using your hands, you’re not going to have hands to use.’”
Ironically, crafts were the activity the program emphasized. And one of them was leather projects. Stacy says, “Help Hospitalize Veterans would send us leather crafts and wood crafts. To this day they still mail them to us. Every month he gets a new little project in the mail.
“So he got out of the hospital, came home, got hold of his dad’s tools, and went out to the garage. He would read on the internet, watch videos, and then go work in the garage. He’d be hammering and making all kinds of noise. He would come back in with a little hybridized monstrosity. And it would be so cute! It was just out of scrap leather that we picked up from Hobby Lobby. And then he started getting good. Things started piling up around the house, and we said, ‘We’ve got to go to the [Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market].’ So we started going to the market, and this September will be our fourth season there. And it’s been wonderful.”
Though they may be traditionalists and have much of what you would hope to find at a leather studio, the Boondocks don’t hold back from creating “practical art” that is entirely unique. “We’ve stuck with our philosophy,” Stacy says. “We’re going to build one-of-a-kinds. We’re going to build what the material is in front of us. And obviously we do custom work — that’s our favorite thing in the world!”
Now with a direct source for bison leather, Boondock Studios can invest in genuine materials only to spur on more ideas for unique designs. Explaining their design philosophy, Stacy says, “We use it and match the material to the designs that would fit it best. And with some of it, we may think we’re working on one piece, and the material says, ‘No I don’t want to do this. I want to do that.’
“We have our great book of sketches,” she continues, pulling out a notebook nearly full cover-to-cover of penciled sketches of pieces they’ve dreamed up with potential dimensions and details. “While Dan was teaching himself leather work, I was teaching myself to knit, crochet, and eventually weave.” On her left forearm, Stacy has a tattoo of a ruler, disguised as nouveau art, for the purpose of measuring her thread and yarn — quite possibly the most practical tattoo to date.
“So we do all of it,” she says. “But right now we’re in pure leather production mode, with the Downtown Farmers Market resuming at the start of September.” It could be said the couple is in full creative-production mode as well, as Stacy is even set to be the featured artist at Mitchell’s Coffee House this November.
But the market isn’t the only place where you can find their leather products. The business provides goods such as leather-bound journals and classic leather bracelets at A Kind Place, The Black Swan, Simple Vintage and Scout & Tag, as well as a boutique in Australia, Vic and Bert. “I’m also making leather stockings with ornate jingle bells this Christmas for Simple Vintage and Scout & Tag,” Stacy says with a smile full of anticipation.
A studio downtown in the years to come would be a dream come true for the Boondocks. It would be an open studio serving as both store and a place of creative collaboration, a place to offer classes on making leather-bound books and bracelets, and offering progressive classes honing in on all the appropriate skills to eventually make a leather bag.
While the couple seems to thrive through the entire production process at the dining-room table, Dan says, “The sewing process is not my favorite part.”
Stacy says, “You’re hands just become raw.”
“We joke that after we poke or bleed in the production process: ‘The person is going to love this!’” Dan says. Stacy concludes with a laugh, “It’s the blood sacrifice.”
“Bottom line, we are at heart traditionalists,” Dan says.
“And we’ve brought our kids up to be traditionalists, so they see everything in the same light we do. Innovation is fine and great, and it’s what makes the world go round, but you have to have the root, the base, or else it doesn’t mean anything.”
So while many families join around the table for their evening meal, the family of Boondock Studios gather ’round to create and construct together at their well-worn family dining table. No doubt, with all its nix and stains, this “production” table won’t be going anywhere soon.
Special thanks to Curio Design and Consulting