One of the most famous cities in the north-eastern part of the USA that belongs to the so-called “Rust Belt”, a once potent center for heavy industries. Today, this city is mostly associated with a distinct, post-industrial ambience as well as a certain melancholy for the begone times of a burgeoning industry. And yet, it is here, despite the murky aura, that one can find a place where extraordinary art is being created. Beyond the city itself, at the end of the road hidden between vibrant, high trees, there is the house of Nicole and Greg Horgan. Just like so many of us, they’re usually busy with their own company and everyday duties… but after work they create something utterly new. It’s worth finding a spare moment to delve into the world of their work, a world of surprising amalgamations of many cultures. Their leather sculptures are deeply enshrined in multilayered family traditions, histories, stories and a pure fascination with culture. And this is just the beginning.
Greg’s workshop is highly organized. This is where it all happens. In a grand room there’s a plethora of tools and memorabilia, there’s a leather armchair, shiny, leather belts are hung on the wall, there are framed photographs there, and there is still room for a grand bison skull on the wall. Nicole, Greg’s wife and the co-founder of their company, says that he approaches his tasks in a very meticulous way, at the same time having a lot of new ideas along the way. To him, the process of producing leather products mingles art, patience and imagination. His workshop abounds in different smelling chemicals that he uses to treat the leather with, and they in turn combine with a characteristic leather smell. Greg takes on his overalls and gets to work. Here all of their high-quality products are created, but not only them. It took them over six months to create there a project that completely devoured them - a leather sculpture they called San Pedro Cactus.
When Nicole and Greg met each other for the first time sixteen years ago, they instantly recognized that they were soul mates. Nicole was teaching art, but she quickly came to realize that this wasn’t a vocation that would satisfy her enough. Greg studied Cultural Anthropology and he’s still fascinated with culture, symbolism in culture and art per se. He is more pragmatic, while she’s an artist. A perfect duo, one might say. Nicole made some leather dog collars just for sport, which gave them the idea for delving into leather business. After some attempts and prototypes, they set up a company called “Four Robbins” that today enjoys enormous popularity among clients. Many companies order leather trays from them that can then be adorned with company logos or other ornaments. This is how they make a living, but they decided to do something more...
Together, with a unified vision they decided to create something new, a novel project that would pay tribute to numerous generations of immigrants who helped build and then bolster the copious heavy industries of the USA - which also means their own ancestors. As it turns out, Nicole is the great granddaughter of Rose Balis, a Pole who settled in the state of Pennsylvania at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their fascinations have morphed American, European, South American traditions and cultural symbolism, a current that coalesced with modern motives. What was the result? Something that can be described as a leather sculpture - a work of art abounding in symbolism and riddles.
They discussed many options until first succinct ideas finally appeared. Finally, they chose one direction. Leather sculptures turned out to be a perfect combination of Greg’s pragmatism and Nicole’s passion for oil painting. Together they recorded a short documentary that showed how they made the cactus, stage after stage. Suffice it to say that watching Greg on the video sit down with a leather sheet he then cuts, adjusts, covers with different chemicals and finally moulds together to achieve the semblance of a cactus shape is at least surprising, especially when one sees the final effect of his work. Nicole then proceeded to paint the newly created cactus-leather forms and embellish them with religious adornments inspired by religious paintings in Churches. Then, leather forms turned almost into a painting with swirling patterns that stem from South American ornaments, boasting vibrant colors, fragments resembling starry night sky and a dove symbolizing The Holy Spirit on the background of heavenly sun rays. Lastly, they put the cactuses in a wooden case filled with soil and old keys. Looking at this leather sculpture in its final arrangement, one might almost succumb to the illusion that it truly is a new, original species of a cactus covered in mysterious markings - a view both startling and engrossing. When San Pedro Cactus was made after six months of intense work, Nicole and Greg decided to share their art with the world and also show other leather paintings they also made. What is the story they’re trying to tell us with the help of their art?
The first element that instigates a moment of rumination is definitely the main character of the whole sculpture, which means the leather rendition of a cactus. This is the first point that weaves a cultural net of connections and Greg and Nicole’s fascinations. San Pedro Cactus is known for one of its ingredients, mescaline, which has highly psychedelic properties. This plant is closely connected with the culture of Peru and Ecuador, it was used by shamans during religious rituals. This symbolic act of experiencing a transition from one world to a different, unknown dimension, constitutes a symbol of the road we undertake to towards Heaven as well as a symbol of mystical experiences. Heaven’s guardian is naturally Saint Peter, another very significant figure for Greg and Nicole. Catholic themes are something they wished to highlight, hence old keys placed in the wooden case with the cactuses - after all, Saint Peter holds keys to Heaven and he lets approaching souls inside the Kingdom. This, along with the painted dove symbolizing The Holy Spirit and stars bringing to mind many Church ceiling paintings, bolsters the message of their Catholic faith. Finally, this explosive concoction is concluded with fascination of a cactus with psychedelic qualities that allows to experience an otherworldly perception… And yet, despite all this, one has to admit that the Horgans’ leather sculpture is a surprisingly concise and coherent fusion of many worlds - a bridge they built with their own hands.
Horgans’ art boasts ample intertextuality, which means a certain dialogue between cultures, motives, stories, narrations… The term was originally coined by Julia Kristeva, a linguist and philosopher who desired to find a new term for modern, multilayered relationships between texts and their themes. San Pedro Cactus is a glorious amalgamation of inspirations from around the world, but also a tribute to the history of immigrants who built the bedrock for modern United States of America. It cannot be denied that the Horgans’ art is awash with intertextuality. In the age of globalism, but also retrograde attitudes towards the “alien” ones, San Pedro Cactus is a symbol of combinations that at first seem odd, even impossible. Of course, there can be as many interpretations of it as there are the spectators and even more, because of the sculpture’s vibrant colors, its intriguing element in the form of old keys and other elements that allow to convey different meanings to different people. Thanks to Cultural Anthropology studies, Greg has always been fascinated with cultures around the world and symbolism. The Horgans’ joined interests as well as their desire to pay tribute to past generations and their legacy, has led to the creation of a staggering leather sculpture that tells so many stories from places around the world, still managing to retain its unity as a whole.
After completing such a pertinent work of art, Nicole and Greg need to answer the question which direction they’re going to take now. They’re definitely already planning next sculptures. They had already made other leather sculptures, such as “Fish” or “Bison”, but judging by the recognition they received after San Pedro Cactus, new sculptures will emerge more quickly. They’re thinking about trying something new, maybe wooden sculptures, they’re also considering themes connected with seasons and their symbolism of transience. The creativity that allows Nicole and Greg Horgan to approach their work is definitely a sign of future sculpture-surprises that are to be expected. All that remains is to await the fruit of these ideas.