Carving Out A Life of Art
July 25th, 2016 by Craig Reed
Mel Blackburn of La Pine, Oregon, shows some of the items he has made and carved during a life of craftsmanship, including creations on display behind him.

Mel Blackburn of La Pine, Oregon, shows some of the items he has made and carved during a life of craftsmanship, including creations on display behind him.

The home of Mel and Nancy Blackburn is more like an art and craft shop than a residence.

Inside the front door, engraved leather holsters hang from the wall, engraved steel knives are laid out on the kitchen table and carved wooden airplanes hang from the ceiling.

Turn the corner into the living room, and only the couch and Mel’s chair are void of Mel’s handiwork.
On the floor are miniature cannons Mel built from scratch and engraved.

There are rifles with carved stocks and engraved metal on the walls. There is a wooden horse glider with real horsehair mane and tail, and a saddle and bridle the craftsman made. There are old clocks he has been given that he restores and touches up with his artwork.

Leather, metal, wood, ivory—Mel’s craftsmanship incorporates all those materials. He cuts, carves, engraves, scrimshaws, sands, paints and polishes.

“I call it my museum,” Nancy says of the many pieces of artwork that adorn the house.

She says she is not terribly bothered by her husband’s craftsmanship spreading throughout the house. That is especially the case in the winter, when Mel brings his tools and materials inside to the kitchen table because it is too cold to work in his shop.

“I don’t think there is a word to describe his talent,” Nancy says. “He’s a creative magnet.”

In addition to the artwork in the house, Mel has restored antique cars and enhanced them with his artistry.

“If it is fun for me, I’ll do it,” he says. “I’ve always had some artwork going on. Next to my wife, art is the love of my life.”

Mel, 75, has been an artist and craftsman since he was young. He was born and raised in Portland. At age 12, he painted a Christmas scene on a store’s front window. The artwork drew compliments. During the next five Christmas seasons, he contracted to do numerous windows.

Mel took high school classes in carpentry and cabinet making.

After graduation, he entered the military and was stationed on Kodiak Island in Alaska. There was little to do there in his spare time, so when somebody gave him an old hunting knife, he sharpened it and turned a piece of leather into a sheath for the knife.

“I don’t remember it, but everybody thought it was pretty neat,” he recalls.

Mel was encouraged to make more sheaths. Then he expanded to holsters. He took one of his first holsters to a store. After it quickly sold, he began to supply the store with more.

The success of his custom-made holsters led him to make leather purses.

In 1957, Mel was approached by a fisherman who wanted a pair of holsters. He had a walrus in his boat at the time. After some bartering, Mel agreed to make the holsters for the walrus tusks. He still has the tusks, which are on display in his home.

Mel says he doesn’t work much with ivory anymore because it is a complicated process that requires completing a lot of paperwork.

For his military buddies, Mel painted cartoons, names and scenes on the tops of their wooden footlockers.

“I never had an art class in my life,” Mel says. “It’s just comes natural for me.”

After his military stint, Mel was a contractor and then a cabinet and furniture maker in Portland.

During those years, he visited La Pine numerous times, calling it his weekend getaway. He built a cabin in the area and moved permanently to La Pine 40 years ago. He opened a shop called Custom Art by Mel.

“I would do anything you wanted if it was fun for me,” he says. “I did a lot of leather work, wood carving, engraving on ivory, metal, glass and customizing car windows.

“I try not to make anything twice. That way, everything is one-of-a-kind for whoever has it. Some things might be similar, but they won’t be exactly alike.”

John Henson owns some holsters made by Mel.

“He’s very talented—multimedia talented,” John says. “His artwork is just unbelievable.”
One of Mel’s upcoming projects is to help John build a cannon.

First, Mel needs to regain his strength after a series of treatments for prostate cancer.

As the warm weather continues in Central Oregon, Mel expects to spend a lot of time with his tools working on his art projects. His wife is sure he will.

“He’ll get back to 8- to 10-hour days in the shop, I’m sure,” Nancy says. “He’s not one to sit around and whine about what is going on.”

While Mel has retired from taking his artwork to different shows in the West—something he did through the 1980s and ’90s—he still likes being a craftsman.

“I’m always building something, working on something, because it is fun,” he says.