A pair of metal cowboy boots bookends the address sign in front of Deana McGuffin’s South Valley home.
Both talismans and touchstones, they signal the continuity of three generations of boot makers.
McGuffin has been transforming leather into sculptural works of practicality and beauty for more than 30 years.
“My dad taught me,” she said, sitting at the bench in a barn-shaped structure that serves as her studio. “His dad was a real famous boot maker.
“I was around it, but I really didn’t have any interest in it. My ex-sister-in-law said, ‘What is wrong with you? You’ve got this extraordinary person making this dying art and you don’t know anything about it.’ ”
McGuffin’s grandfather, C.C. McGuffin, was 27 when he left Texas to set up his own boot shop in Roswell in 1915. His son, L.W., became one of the Southwest’s finest leather craftsmen.
McGuffin began learning at her father’s feet in 1981.
“I think I was making boots for 10 years before he told me I was a good boot maker without saying ‘but,’ ” she said.
Father and daughter demonstrated their skills at the Smithsonian Institution and at New Mexico folk life festivals. The New Mexico Museum of Art showcased their work in its 2010 “Sole Mates” exhibit. Deana’s boots also were featured in the Albuquerque Museum’s 2015 “Killer Heels” show.
McGuffin’s “Day of the Dead” boots are on permanent display in the Albuquerque Museum’s “Only in Albuquerque” exhibit.
“I just find that Deana is the perfect example of a vibrant, constantly innovative folk artist,” museum director Andrew Connors said. “I use the word ‘folk art’ because she learned from her dad and her grandfather. She has mastered the skills in what is really a man’s world.
“She can make boots from ultra-girly to ultra-masculine, and they never looked like another pair of boots,” he continued. “Her boots are real works of art.”
Her workshop spills over with the tools, molds and templates that help her churn out custom-made cowboy boots from calf, kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, snake and ostrich leather.
She’s working on a pair of Italian kangaroo boots with swirling blue lizards on the legs. A recently drawn mandolin template awaits its own transference to leather. The magic happens with the help of a powder-blue 1970s-vintage Singer sewing machine.
Transferring the trademark whorls, swirls and flames of decorative stitching onto leather begins with a paper template. McGuffin then traces over the pattern with an unthreaded needle to leave its tiny holes trailing the lines. She places the leather on a table with the template on top. She then sifts talcum powder onto the template like snow, rubbing the excess off with an old sock. The technique leaves the remaining powder on the leather in finely wrought constellations. The results provide a roadmap for stitching.
Finished boots dressed in a galaxy of designs top the studio shelves. The styles range from faux leopard prints to the pair she considers her masterpiece – her Day of the Dead boots, complete with skirt-swirling female and guitar-strumming male skeletons. She’s added brands, initials, suns and moons to various boot legs. Snakes, birds, lizards, dogs and horny toads have fluttered, spiralled and padded across their polished surfaces.
The prices can range from $2,800 to $6,000.
“People kind of get incensed, but I have a minimum of 40 hours working time,” she said. “If I made as much as a massage therapist, my boots would cost $5,500-$6,000.”
Competing with the commercial boot market can be daunting, she acknowledged. The materials alone cost her more than machine-made boots.
Of all that her father taught her, his passion for passing on the skills seems to have stuck the most. McGuffin teaches boot making, drawing students from as far away as Australia.
“I never did like working for other people,” she said. “If I want to work at 3 in the morning, I’ll work at 3 in the morning. I don’t have to fight the traffic. I think from the front door out here (to the studio) it’s about 150 steps.”
But you’ll never find her dressed in her best boots to wrap the leather for soaking or to pound the “beading” or edging to finish the top, she said.
“I wear Crocs.”
A single boot hand-beaded in the shape of a Navajo diamond sits next to its undecorated mate.
“I made these probably 20 years ago, and I still haven’t finished them,” she said.
She tries to avoid making boots for celebrities.
“I don’t really care for working for the rich and famous,” McGuffin said. “They’re very demanding, and then they don’t want to pay for it. I just like dealing with everyday folks.”