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Canoe Goods

Leather for a Lifetime

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It’s just that when you find your medium, you find your medium

__Natalie Davis

A placid lake. A worn-soft, wooden handled oar dips silently in and out, sprinkling a small cascade of droplets across your toes as it arcs over, cutting through to balance the other side. The balance is calculated and rhythmic, denoting skill, patience, and discerning direction. Alone in this narrow, stretched vessel, you can feel it’s powerful, elegant shape glide beneath, unhurried, straight and true; the arrow of the water.

This image, if you’ve allowed your senses to paint it for you, is one in which the experience of a man-made product has yielded to it’s user a moment of serenity. Part beauty, part ordinary transportation in the wild, canoes are are carefully crafted for efficiency and beauty in motion. But they aren’t the only craft propelling art and utility into one.

Canoe Goods, created by Natalie Davis, began over seven years ago as a product line of leather goods, intended to evoke the peace and beauty she’s experienced living in the Southwest. She’s what we’ve decidedly dubbed a “beautilitarian,” bringing both functionality and artistry in equal parts to her leatherwork. While her catalogue boasts of leather bags, wallets, home goods, even her own perfume scent, each piece embodies this craftswoman’s love for details, precision, and the power of her design to bring it’s user a “calm, quiet, peace; like when you’re out in a canoe.”

Long before Canoe began, Natalie and her husband were Californians, living in Oakland during the swell of handmade creatives that resulted in the makers’ movement of today. While working as an art editor for a scientific journal, she decided to launch her first product line called Miss Natalie, a collection of children’s accessories with a “folk, Swedish, modern feel.” “I was just exploring ideas and letting myself wander,” she tells us, implementing techniques like screen printing, hand painting, even wood burning. Formally trained as a graphic designer, Natalie then sought out her dream job as a children’s book designer for Chronicle Books. But it wasn’t long before she missed her hand-making. “I was working in publishing, but looking to get back to making things with my hands and the things that I was passionate about, which are pattern design and surface design.” Wandering once again, she dabbled with tools and materials in search of what would stick. “I was exploring a lot of different materials to figure out what I liked, but what I did like was making with my hands.”

After cutting her teeth in the maker world, Natalie and her husband decided it was time to make a move. Being closer to family was a primary goal, but there was also a looming shift in each of their careers for which a switch in geography felt like just the thing. The intersection of these hopes met in Texas, and so it was decided. She left Chronicle and Miss Natalie affectionately behind, exchanging for them the chance to take up some new, not yet known dream on Texan terrain.

Moving to Texas was itself an inspiration to Natalie. The two road-tripped from Oakland, snaking across the Southwest slow enough to stop and smell the cacti. At the end, they landed in Canyon Lake, a quiet, rural town just outside of Austin’s city limits. “We were out in the country for nine months, and that time period was when Canoe really came forward.” This time also illuminates two of Natalie’s most indelible qualities.

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First, she’s insatiably curious. She seeks out not only the tips and tricks of her trade and interests, she investigates them. Even her persona has an anticipatory sharpness to it, ever ready to notice, inquire, and study. She’s detailed in thought and speech, which translates into the intricacies of her growing body of work. Second, she’s patient, and I don’t mean she doesn’t mind waiting in the check-out line ‘cause she’s got an iPhone. But what does Canyon Lake have to say about either of those?

“I was spending a lot of time going to all of these old shops, coming across all of these beautiful leather goods and just falling in love with what you could do with leather. So I got myself a little starter kit and just basically taught myself leatherwork.” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to work with leather, but regardless of what you want to make, it is an undertaking. There is a tool and a technique for ever tiny alteration you may want to make to the material, and that’s just the know-how. Getting it right may take years. But back to the story.

While Natalie was off teaching herself leatherwork, her husband was out searching high and low for a production space to build out a place to create his dream business butchering and curing high quality meats. Inadvertently, he was also amassing an enormous collection of vintage clothing along the way. “So I was working on all of this leather, and suddenly he has this crazy collection. One of our friends from the Bay Area was in town, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you guys combine these things?’ It seems like that could work.” Thus born under the Lone Star, Canoe became a full-on side project giving purpose to her nascent leatherwork.

To get their goods into the public eye, the two began doing pop-up shops in Austin. For awhile, the complement was going great, and customers responded to the pair with promising interest. But soon, business plans for what was to become their co-owned salumeria and restaurant, Salt & Time, became happily urgent. They decided to dissolve the vintage half of Canoe, leaving Natalie to press on with leatherwork alone.

Natalie soon began teaching graphic design at local universities as a more steady source of income, concentrating on book design and typography. But leatherwork didn’t exactly take a back-seat. “We were always juggling lots of different things,” she tells us. “Both my husband and I have always worked crazy, crazy hours to try and make those dreams come true.” Somehow in the mix of it all, she continued to seek out masters of the trade. “I started experimenting with hand-dyeing, and then I joined the Leather Guild so I could learn more.”

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An integral detail in the story of Canoe, truly of Natalie herself, is that up until the beginning of this year she was leading a double-life. Teaching classes during the week and setting up shop at pop-ups and trade shows on the weekends was her norm, maintaining that the two halves of her world should persist separately. “You want to be able to say that what you’re doing is not just a passion, that you’re able to live your life doing what you want to do.” Even we can relate. “It’s the American Dream, right? We’re all hustling, we all want to make sure that we’re getting somewhere. We all have these milestones that we’re trying to hit.” The wisdom she imparted, though, was that over those years of reaching for goals she’d set, by the time she got to one, she was already halfway toward reaching another. “It’s been interesting, because it has been baby steps for both my husband and I in what we’re doing. That’s just reality, though.”

It just so happened that we caught Natalie at a pivotal moment in the life of Canoe, having just gone full-time into her role as a leatherworker after resigning a tenure-track position last December. For the past seven years, she has slowly yet steadily grown the spark that began in Canyon Lake, tirelessly breathing life into it’s sheltered flame, obtaining new levels of skill, and endlessly refining. Although she’s let go of opportunities she loved in the past, and teaching being an immeasurable passion, Natalie purports that everything has left a mark on her work. “All of those experiences have added up to what I’m doing with Canoe. It’s just that when you find your medium, you find your medium.”

Her voracious curiosity has not only been a tool in absorbing the intricacies of her craft, but helped to keep her incredibly humble and optimistic. With an explosion of leatherworkers popping up in the U.S. over the past few years, Natalie shows no signs of apprehension. In fact, she’s stoked. “It’s really exciting to see what other people are doing. I don’t feel closed off, because I know that what I’m doing with Canoe is very unique.” And it is. Her pieces represent an art and design background uncommon to the world of leatherwork, most of which is committed “traditional classics,” made with a more ruggedly refined craft approach. Not only is her work distinct in the crowd, but the possibilities excite her to no end, gushing that, “you can do it a zillion different ways.”

Although she’s confident in Canoe’s exceptional design (that even our amateur eyes can attest to), she’s still looking to her mentors, and the leatherwork masters like those she’s found in the Leathercraft Guild. “A lot of them have been doing leatherwork for 40 or 50 years. I mean, when you talk about mastering your craft, … it’s a whole other level.”

Despite her relative youth in the leatherwork community, Natalie is already a veteran of the maker movement. She’s seen waves of creatives come and go, from the early days of Renegade all the way to starting her own craft fair in Austin. Because her ascent has been gradual, she’s been able to see behind the curtain of maker movement fame. “There is no ‘big break.’ That’s something that I have learned over and over with both of my businesses, and watching other friends that have businesses that ‘made it big.’ They didn’t have one big break, they had so many small ones.” Instead of looking to be the next big thing, Natalie has been become her own best editor. “As I’ve gotten older, that’s what I do. I edit and edit until everything’s just getting distilled to be more of what I think I am.” This distillation has naturally transformed Canoe into a line unlike any of it’s competitors. “As you get older, you embrace your eccentricities. Instead of trying to emulate other things, [you accept] that this is what I gravitate towards, that this is what I want for myself.” Accepting and developing who you are in your work becomes the X-factor, its attraction unique to pure individuality.

Of all the advice Natalie gave, the piece that struck me most was about remaining humble in your current level of ability, and your approach to the work. Shaking her head and lamenting the memory of ruining three days worth of work on a piece because she rushed the last step, she reminded herself and us how imperative it is to, “Check your ego or whatever is distracting you, and pay attention to what you’re doing. You have to be present, and to learn that this isn’t going to be something that you can whip up in a day. Understanding that this is gonna be something that takes a while, and using that same patience and trying to apply it to my business is one of the biggest lessons I think I’ve ever learned.”

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Reflecting on a Canoe piece gives away much of what it’s like talking with Natalie herself. There are influences of art, design, and lessons learned she’s eager to share. They’re accessible and handy, rippled in significance, and detailed in depth. There’s a sense of curiosity in her more artistic pieces, and a cloak of beauty enclosing the more practical. To her, the most interesting work will yield something modern, simple, and able to solve a problem, like her tooled leather light switch covers, the likes of which I doubt have ever been seen before in the leatherwork world.

With the new year dawning as the first she’ll be professing Canoe full-time, she’s also beginning to grow her studio from within, taking on a new assistant from Girls Guild, a local organization that connects artists with young makers looking to learn a skill. “Part of being a teacher is recognizing when people come to me seeking advice, and making time for that, to give that back. […] Those relationships are really important to me, so now that I’m not in the classroom, and have that back and forth relationship with my students, I can still have that with other makers, with apprentices,” and she adds with a welcoming nod to the future, “with people in the future who read with interview.”

With an equal measure of maturity and tenacity, Natalie’s love for her craft continues to supply her with challenges and triumphs aplenty. “It’s a craft that you can spend a lifetime learning,” she exclaims, in pronounced awe. “To me as a designer, that’s what keeps me excited, that I’m never going to know everything about this.” But rest assured, next time you check in on Canoe, she’ll still be hard after trying.

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