The cutting edge
Photographed by Pitter Goughnour
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s Ida Hutcherson. An enigmatic soul, Ida discovered a creative outlet that involves taking scraps of discarded leather and bringing them back to life as remarkable portraits. The faces, usually recognizable celebrities, keep her company in her home studio in Eatonton. Beginning with captivating eyes, Ida builds up layers of leather snippets to add dimension and detail that no paintbrush ever could. She shares her process here with Lake Oconee Living. If only the next few pages weren’t two-dimensional.
First off, how do I even describe what you do?
I don’t know if there’s official terminology for it. You can make it up. I guess I am a leather portrait artist. I’ve looked online to see what other people call it, but I’ve only found one guy out in California that uses a computer to project an image onto large hides, and a few others that do landscapes. But my stuff is more three-dimensional, almost like sculpting.
How did you start out? How did you have the idea for this?
My parents did Porsche interiors in Marietta when I was growing up, so there was always tons of leather left over. I guess I was a teenager when I started playing around with fun little pictures from the scraps. Honestly, this sounds weird, but at the time I’d always known I have a creative “essence” but I thought I was going to be a writer. I was forcing creativity into an outlet that was backing up like a dam. That was never going to come out the way it should. So this was just something I did for fun as a creative outlet. I did some cool things here and there for my friends and nephews, and then fast-forward 20 years and I sold my first non-commission. So, then I thought, “Oh, maybe this isn’t crazy.” Because when your parents tell you they love your work, it was like, “Oh honey, we’re just glad you’re not going crazy.” I always tell people I’m just crazy enough to make it work.
So, you’re completely self-taught?
No formal training at all. There’s really no one else doing this to teach me. I’ve had painters offer to teach me technique, but what I’m doing works so I don’t want to mess with the juju. I know there are probably ways to make it easier if I was trained, but that’s too methodical for me. That would take the fun out of it for me. I like flying by the seat of my pants.
How do you sell your pieces?
Most are commissioned. I’ve never tried to show in a gallery. I really don’t have a web presence. I know if I want to make money, I should be at more places, but it’s not really my personality. It’s really more therapeutic than profitable for me. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, that if I’ve got time to kill I want to be doing something I love. Last night, I couldn’t wait to work on this. I had my wine and my music, and it was exactly where I wanted to be.
So take me through the process: You’ve got your wine in hand, the music on. What next?
I take a leather canvas, usually a light color, which is the base for this sort of 3D layering process. Then, I always begin with the eyes. I start with the iris and usually do one whole eye at once. This gives a reference point to project the scale of the rest of the face. It helps because scaling is a challenge for me. Before, I was almost going backwards. I was starting from the frame and going in, and that determined the size. But, if you start with the eyes, they dictate the perspective of it.
So, once I get the whole eye built, I move onto the other eye and onto the nose, mouth, hair. There’s really no order. I end up using multiple layers of leather – it’s a lot like sculpting. And, the cool thing is, you can use the front or back of leather because it gives you a different texture. You can cut through layers and bring certain pieces through. You can take your scissors to certain leathers and scruff it so that it’s pulling out part of the actual nature of the leather. I’ve found many ways to give leather new textures through trial and error.
What kind of tools do you use?
Everything is done with short scissors that I can control easily. I tried Exacto knives, but I have to cut, not slice. Then I use cheapo paintbrushes and temporary glue to get everything where I want it before I put on the permanent adhesive.
I think because I don’t have anything vested in them. I can be true to them even if they have big ears or a big nose and I don’t feel like I need to enhance what they look like. Plus, I also like to find rare photos of celebrities and pull them out of the stratosphere and do ones that people haven’t seen. I did a really cool one of Elton John with his eyes closed. I haven’t seen a lot of photos of him with his eyes closed. It took me a couple to weeks to do his eyelashes, to create each tiny little lash. Then, he had on this really groovy houndstooth looking hat, so I braided each pattern and built that up for the hat design. It turned out great.
How do you choose which ones to portray?
It’s either stuff I like from pop culture – I’m a huge Fight Club fan, so Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are there on my wall – or it’s got to be something I think will challenge me. It’s easy to do profiles or ones with people’s eyes closed, so I try to find someone who has prominent eyes. if somebody doesn’t have interesting eyes, it’s hard to connect to the picture.
You’ve done a lot of Madonna and Marilyn. Are they your favorite faces to work with?
I think so. Honestly, they’re easy because they look alike, but I’m a huge Madonna fan. It’s not about inherent, classic beauty. Her eyes, in terms of visual impact, are bar none in my opinion. Same thing with Marilyn, she’s gorgeous, but more so she knew how to use her face.
Do you have a favorite finished product?
I’m really digging my Benedict Cumberbatch right now.
What happens if someone wants to buy it?
There are definitely certain portraits I wouldn’t part with. If I did landscapes or still life, I’d feel like I was just making a copy of a copy and it would be easy to let them go. It’s different when you do faces. It sounds crazy, but they have personalities. They keep me company. I don’t know if I could get rid of some of them. You can’t recreate them exactly, so I would miss them.