One of the more popular areas of any fan convention has to be Artist’s Alley. Artists from around the world come to share their unique, fandom-inspired art. While most of the art is pretty good, some artists stand out. We talked to Kfir Mendel, also known as the Cave Geek, who we met at WonderCon in Anaheim, CA. He discussed his unique take on a “primitive” artform.
You can smell Mendel’s art before you see it. The warm and welcoming smell of leather that conjures images of fireside tales and weary travelers. It is appropriate that the most prominent art on display are maps of fantasy realms like Middle Earth and Westeros carved and burned into sheets of leather, some painted with intricate detail. It is his attention to detail that makes his work more than worthy of the fandoms that inspire him.
We talked to Mendel about his art and his geeky inspiration.
GEEK: When did you first take up your craft?
Kfir Mendel: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly since it was an evolving process. I started learning a lot of the different techniques and materials involved in doing what I do today in 2000 when I took my first course in primitive survival. Over the next decade, I learned more and more primitive skills (such as making bone tools, pigments, etc), tanned traditional buckskin for a living, and dabbled in wood-burning. But it wasn’t until 2012, when I had the idea to make myself a “primitive” map of Middle-earth, that I put all those skills and tools together to create something new, that has since evolved into a unique craft. The 3D aspect of my work wasn’t intentional then. I really wasn’t expecting it to happen, and it was one of those “happy accidents.” When I saw what was happening to the buckskin when I used the wood-burner on it, I knew I was onto something special.
How old were you when you started to turn your craft into an outlet for your love of fandom?
I was 32 when I made that map of Middle-earth, but even before that, I was making various crafts based on my favorite fandoms, such as bone replicas of swords and knives from Lord of the Rings, or simply inspired by fantasy concepts in general.
If you couldn’t work doing what you currently do, what would you do instead?
This is a tough one. My passion is in teaching. I taught primitive skills for over a decade until a back injury forced me to give that up. I think as long as I’m either teaching or using my hands to create things that make others (as well as myself) happy, I would be content.
Walk us through a project, start to finish.
The first step is designing the piece. This means gathering a lot of information, especially for maps. If the piece is a custom commission, I want the future owner to describe to me in as much detail as possible their vision for what the end result should be like. Hand-made crafts take a lot of time and effort, so it’s important to me to make sure that I come as close as possible to make a customer’s dream a reality. For example, when I made the map of Azeroth (World of Warcraft), I had a friend who plays the game fly his mount to all the locations that were going to be included in the map and take screenshots for me, so that I knew what they looked like. I later used these to paint miniature versions of them onto the map.
Of course, every project starts with the skin itself. Traditional buckskin, also known as brain-tanned buckskin, is possibly the oldest type of leather on Earth. It’s one of the highest quality leathers and still made by hand today with much the same techniques that were used tens of thousands of years ago. Every hide is slightly different in texture, color, feel, size, and shape. And I always try to select the right skin for the project I have in mind.
The next step would be to trace the image onto the leather. The soft texture of buckskin makes it impossible to trace using the usual methods (graphite paper, for example), so I have to print out the image I would like to create, lay it on the skin, and use a very fine-tipped pyrography pen to burn holes right through the paper and leave little dots on the skin itself. When this step is done, what’s left on the skin is a sort of “connect the dots” ghost image of the original.
Next, I use the pyrography tool to outline various elements of the image as well as sculpt it at the same time. The heat shrinks and warps the skin wherever the tool touches it. This was the effect I wasn’t expecting when I made that first map several years ago. I’ve since learned to enhance it and use it to my benefit, creating three-dimensional images that really pop out of the leather. Still, every skin responds a bit differently, and this step requires some forethought and planning, as well as care and attention to detail. Buckskin is pricey, and mistakes are almost impossible to correct. There’s no “undo” button, and once the burner touches the skin, there’s no going back. That’s the reason I don’t free-hand the work, and trace it first instead.
For some pieces, this is “all there is” to it. Sometimes I cut, burn, and shape other pieces of buckskin or even wood and add them to the main one to create extra three-dimensional features. If the piece is to be painted, I use all-natural pigments such as ocher and oxides (mixed with water and glue) and primitive tools made of bone or feather to add color to it. On special project, if I want to go even more primitive, I use the fluid from deer eyes as the base for the pigments. I get those from a local friend who hunts several deer every year for food.
That’s basically it. Sometimes a piece is left in the hide’s natural shape, and sometimes it’s cut, matted, and framed. In some cases, I’ve carved props to hang full-skin pieces from such as a bow or a spear. It all depends on the piece and the vision.
What is your dream project?
Wow! There are so many! I have a long list of projects I’d like to create out of pure inspiration, but there’s no one project I dream of more than others. I want to make a giant map of Azeroth one day, on an Elk skin, which would allow me to add a lot more detail. Another dream project is a map of Middle-earth, but from Sauron’s perspective: a map made by Orcs, for Orcs. And then there are so many historic pieces I’d like to recreate, like the 17th-century-star maps I’m currently recreating. I always enjoy a challenge and try to push the envelope with every new piece, doing things I’ve never done before.
As for a dream job? I’d love to work with game companies, studios, etc. to create some really cool pieces that take their concepts to a new level. It’s actually something I’ve been working towards and a few things are already in the pipes, as they say. I’d also enjoy being a creative element in such places, just coming up with ideas and concepts. I love figuring out how to make new things and make them cooler than ever.
What is the hardest part about turning what you love into what you do?
I’d say the hardest thing about making a living from my craft is getting the word out. Word of mouth, even a website, just don’t cut it anymore. And with so many social media outlets out there, marketing is a full-time job on its own which, if artists enjoyed doing, we probably wouldn’t create art for a living, would we? There’s a lot of risk and many hours of work put in advance, with no guarantee any of that will pay off.
What would you consider your first love?
Dungeons & Dragons. No doubt about it. In 4th grade a friend of mine won a game I didn’t know anything about on a game show for kids. A few days later he called me and insisted I come over immediately to play this new amazing game! I was hooked from the moment I saw that red box with Larry Elmore’s fantastic art on the cover. It was the first image of a dragon I think I ever saw. I knew almost nothing of fantasy until that day, and it was like a whole new world – many worlds, in fact – opened up to me. It’s been 28 years since then, and I still play.
What is the coolest experience you’ve had since you turned your craft into a career?
Hands down, meeting fantasy artist Larry Elmore. His art filled my childhood and is probably the single greatest influence on my imagination growing up. It was on, and in, all the D&D box sets, and many of my favorite fantasy novels, such as the Dragonlance Chronicles. Any concept I had of what fantasy was; a dragon, a warrior, a cleric – they mostly came from his art. I met him at a convention a couple of years ago and we became friends. To have him come to my booth and compliment my work was an honor. I even got to visit his studio and spend a day with him, talking about life, art, and everything else. It was probably the most inspiring day of my life. I’ll never forget it.
But Larry is a legend and a childhood hero of mine, so that was a given. I have to say that just as cool has been meeting all the regular people I’ve become friends with over the years since I turned my craft into my “job.” Especially the community of friends I made by streaming my work live on Twitch. Some of them have become really good friends and that community has been a huge force in motivating and inspiring me to keep going. I never imagined that would happen when I decided to turn on the camera and burn some leather live on the internet.
What advice do you have for young artists?
If someone already considers themselves an artist, I’d say keep up the work and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Do something a little different every time. That’s how “happy accidents” happen and it’s how you get better and discover new ways to express your imagination and make it a reality. But more often these days I encounter people who say “You are so talented! I wish I had talent, I can’t draw a stick figure.” and it’s a very frustrating thing to hear. People look at the quality of work someone else creates and they think they can’t produce that RIGHT NOW, so they despair and never try to be creative and express their imaginations. They think talent is some magical force you either have or you don’t.
To those people, I say: “Talent doesn’t exist!”
And it really doesn’t, at least not in the way they think of it. No artist or craftsperson who is good at what they do just “happened” to do it and was good on their first try. We all worked very hard to get where we are and continue to learn and improve all the time. Talent has very little to do with it. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing. Maybe it’s drawing, or painting, or writing, or sculpting, or carving – it doesn’t matter. Just find something that makes you happy in the doing. Because if it makes you happy, you’ll want to do it again. And by doing it again, and again, you’ll get good at it. Guaranteed!
Kfir Mendel’s art is inspired and inspiring. He brings to life the worlds he loves using tools and material that you might find in the rucksack of an artisan of Middle-Earth, and when you see his work it feels like it belongs in those worlds we’d love to visit. You can check him out on Twitch and watch his work come to life, or visit him on Tumblr. Do you know a geeky artist worth noting? Visit us at GEEKFB and tell us about them.
Images: Kfir Mendel