Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Saddling Up for Creative Arts Festival
Although raised in Wisconsin, Frank Kaiser is bringing a touch of the Old West to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.
Kaiser, who served eight years in the U.S. Air Force before his military career was curtailed due to injury, qualified for the national festival by winning the local competition at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center with a custom-made leather saddle.
The 2018 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, which includes categories for art, creative writing, dance, drama and music, takes place Oct. 29 to Nov. 4 in Des Moines, Iowa.
“With the National Veterans Creative Arts competition and festival, it really is for some Veterans, maybe the first opportunity to experience art making, to show their work,” said Marisa Straub, an art therapist at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “They get a deep sense of pride and self-satisfaction, self-esteem by being able to create something and enter it and have other people appreciate and enjoy it.”
Kaiser’s path to making award-winning saddles began with horseback riding as a child and the do-it-yourself necessity of repairs. After leaving the military, he reconnected with leather working, combining the passion and therapeutic benefits into a mail-order and online business called Rocking K Saddlery.
“I started out riding when I was 4,” Kaiser said. “I started riding way, way back then. A family friend of ours raised bucking stock for the rodeos. They broke horses, so I was raised around them. It just kind of took from there.
“Back then, there wasn’t a lot of money in the family, so you were repairing your own gear,” he said. “Just like they did in the 1800s, it was pretty much repair your own because you couldn’t afford to take it in.”
Kaiser had hoped to transition to a career in law enforcement, either while in the military or afterward, but hurt his back in a serious fall, along with other injuries.
After leaving the military, Kaiser took a saddle-making course in South Dakota, but the economic timing couldn’t have been worse.
“It was right when the economy tanked, so it wasn’t saddles per se because nobody wanted to pay $5,000 for a custom saddle in 2008,” said Kaiser, who works five or six days a week to fulfill customer orders. “So, I started off buying books. Most of it was holsters and belts, knife sheaths and wallets -- the lower-dollar stuff. I just started reading, picking up knowledge, figuring out how to draw all of my own patterns.”
Photo Gallery - View more photos on Frank Kaiser's leather working in our flickr album
From the start, Kaiser said he invested 85 to 90 cents of every sales dollar into new tools, new patterns, and “upgrading everything that I possibly could.”
Much of his work still is holsters and gun belts, although he gets orders for a wide range of other leather products. Kaiser already is creating a pommel bag for next year’s creative arts competition, but he laughs when asked about his art background.
“I was absolutely terrible,” he said. “My art teacher from school is still out there and he would tell you, ‘That kid had no hope.’”
But, Kaiser has become a student of leather work associated with the Old West, especially items used in Western films. Kaiser has several friends who create historical replicas for movies. He also learned from a well-known craftsman who did leather restoration for museums.
As such, one of Kaiser’s most-requested items is a replica of the traditional John Wayne gun belt used in his movies.
“John Wayne’s rig that he wore, which was his signature rig, nobody really knows for sure who made it,” Kaiser said. “But he had dozens of them made over the years, and they were all just a little bit different, because he gave them away to friends and others. I studied his rig at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City … I’ve sold 50 or 60 of that style holster and belt.”
Kaiser orders his leather from one of the few remaining U.S. companies that still produces vegetable-tanned leather. He’s also starting to make his own dyes, including one made from walnuts.
Working in his own shop at his own pace allows him to better manage his back pain. He prefers to work late at night.
“I can make my own time, make my own hours,” he said. “When I need to sit, I can sit. When I need to stand, I can stand. If I need to lay down, I can lay down.”
“Really, my favorite time to work is from about 11 o’clock at night until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s quiet. I don’t have the phone ringing, I don’t have to answer emails.”
Kaiser, whose work has been featured in about two dozen publications, got involved with the Creative Arts Festival through other Veterans. He traded a hand-made belt for a metal sign made by an Iraq Veteran, who had entered his metal engraving in the arts festival. Kaiser also was wearing a belt buckle made by another festival entrant.
Kaiser also offers a discount to Veterans. On his work bench was a holster bearing jump wings, and another recently completed holster for a Vietnam Veteran.
Much of his business stems from repeat customers, in which Kaiser takes a great deal of pride.
“I just sent out an order yesterday that was his fourth order from me in the last year,” he said.
“There’s nothing like it in the world. I’m in awe every time I hear from somebody. I still can’t grasp the concept. But, it’s really cool.”
Kaiser would eventually like to move to the Southwest, where the climate would be better for his back, and open a walk-in shop.
“I’m really actually looking to relocate out of state to Arizona. Having a walk-in shop where people can come in. Believe it or not, repairs generate more money than making custom items.”