While I was at the Rhode Island Comic Con this past weekend I came across a very unique booth. The pieces displayed were amazing in detail and quality, made from leather with a 3-D look and feel, just like it’s namesake, Cave Geek, it truly looked like carvings you’d find in a cave. Each piece was masterfully detailed and beautiful. Behind the booth was the creator of these amazing pieces, Kfir Mendel, a very humble gentlemen with a boatload of skill. I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions regarding his work, processes and where you can find them for purchase.
CC: How did the idea for Cave Geek art come about?
KF: Primitive technology has been a huge part of my life since I was first introduced to it in 2000. In fact, I taught primitive skills classes in general, and the process of making traditional brain-tanned buckskin specifically, for about a decade. So I was used to working with natural materials such as hide, bone, etc.
When the first Hobbit movie was coming out in 2012, the idea popped into my head to try to make a “primitive” map of Middle Earth. I had already begun working with wood-burning at that point, and had the idea of combining that technique with primitive ones, along with natural materials, to create a unique map. I had a hide and some natural pigments, so I set to work. Two weeks later, I had a map of Middle Earth in front of me. It was so cool I could hardly believe I had made it myself. To cut a long story short, the map was sold that winter at a Tolkien art show in Los Angeles, and that experience encouraged me to continue exploring my art. Since I’m half caveman and half geek, the name itself was easy to come up with.
CC: What’s the creative process for your creations?
KF: Well, the first step is to find inspiration. That usually comes in the form of an image I might see online, at a convention, on t.v… whatever. I see something that speaks to me and makes me think “That will look great in 3D on leather!” If the image is another artist’s work, I approach them to get their permission to recreate it. It’s important to me to develop relationships with other artists based on mutual respect and collaboration. Sometimes, when I get an idea in my head that’s not based on an existing image, I even commission other artists (who are way better than I am at drawing) to create an image for me to work with. Once I have the inspiration, I usually let it simmer in my head for a bit. Buckskin can be an unpredictable material if you’re not familiar with it, and even for me it requires some planning in advance to figure out how to best approach creating a piece.
When it’s time to actually get to work, I first need to select the right piece of skin. The leather I use is called “Brain-tanned buckskin” and is probably the oldest form of leather. The oldest artifact made of it that I’m aware of is a 10,000 year old moccasin found in a cave in Armenia. All of us have ancestors that used to make it and wear it. To this day, the methods of making it haven’t really changed much. It’s still made entirely by hand and is some of the highest quality leather on Earth. Every skin is different, and has slightly different qualities. They also bear different scars and scratches from the deer’s life. So I try to pick a piece that will fit well with the art I have in mind.
I then print out the image I want and lay it onto the skin. It’s impossible to get rid of any tracing on the hide, so instead I use my pyrography tool (wood-burner) to burn little dots right through the paper and onto the skin. It’s isn’t as ideal as a trace, but it gives me a good idea of where things are supposed to be. Sometimes I have to do that to only part of the image, and return to the rest later.
Next, I “connect the dots”. I basically fill in the entire image with the burner. This is where the magic happens. Like any skin, when exposed to high heat the hide I use as a canvas shrivels and warps. With careful planning, this creates a 3D surface that makes the image “pop” to life.
The next step, which is optional and depends on the art piece, is painting. I use 100% natural, non-toxic, powdered pigments that I mix with a base to adhere them to the hide. As a “brush”, I usually use a piece of deer leg bone I had lying around when I first started doing this art three years ago. I could make better “primitive” tools, but the bone works, so for now I’m sticking with it. Sometimes, when there are large areas to paint, I use my fingers. And when really small details are needed, I might work with a feather quill.
Once the image is finished, the last part of the creative process is figuring out presentation. This usually means selecting the right color combination of matting for it. The matting makes it easy for most people to frame and hang on a wall like any normal picture. But sometimes I feel another form of presentation is better, such as nailing the piece to wood, or hanging it from something such as a bow, or large bone.
CC: How much time does a piece like the Killing Joke take to do?
KF: A piece of that size and complexity takes an average of 10-15 hours to create. The painting is by far the most time-consuming part of the process. Mixing the pigments, testing the color, and finally painting, can take quite a while even if all I need is one little dot of a certain color. And through it all, I can’t afford to make any mistakes. It’s almost impossible to correct a mistake once it’s made, and I’ve had to scrap several pieces in my time. And buckskin isn’t cheap.
CC: How much do your pieces cost?
KF: They average around $200 for most of my pieces. Large ones obviously cost more. Special projects such as fully painted maps with an elaborate display can cost as much as $3000, but those are few and far between.
CC: Do you take commission work? If so, does the cost rate change? What’s the normal turn around time for a commission?
KF: Absolutely. In fact, most of my sales are custom commissions. The art I make for display and sale at conventions I do because I’m a huge geek and a fan of whatever the subject matter is. But outside of conventions, most of my work is for people who see what I’ve done in the past and either want me to recreate a piece, or have a completely new idea. I love working on new projects for people because they may be ideas I’ve never thought of, and it helps push my envelope as an artist. The prices are basically the same, it just depends on how large and complex the customer’s vision is for the piece. And I enjoy the process of collaborating with a customer to pin down exactly what it is they see in their imagination.
Turn around time is normally around 4 weeks. It depends on availability of skins (which I get from a traditional tanner who still does everything by hand), and of course on my convention schedule and any other commission workload I already have.
CC: What’s been the hardest piece you’ve ever created and why?
KF: Wow! Good question! And it’s a hard one to answer. Almost every piece had some aspect of it that challenged me and made me sweat at the time. One such piece was a portrait of two good friends, based on a photo from their wedding day. It was nerve-racking. I didn’t just have to capture their features, but the emotion in that photo.
CC: How long have you been a fan of comics?
KF: Since I was very young. My uncle gave me a whole stack of Tarzan comics. I must have read every single one of them dozens of times. It’s no surprise that I got into primitive skills, hunting, etc. huh? Other comics I read later on included KODT (Knights Of the Dinner Table), and Larry Elmore’s Snarfquest. Both are absolutely hilarious, especially if you’re a fan of old-fashioned RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons. As an adult, one of my recent favorites is The Walking Dead comic.
CC: Who is your favorite comic book character and why?
KF: I think it’s a toss-up between Tarzan, and Michonne from The Walking Dead. Why? I guess they’re both bad-asses in their own way, but without any super powers, money, or things like that. They are both very independent characters, who rely on their skills and wits, with not much else to go on.
CC: Where can people go to purchase your creations?
KF: My website is www.cave-geek.com, You can browse it to see some photos and videos, and use the online shop to purchase stuff, or simply contact me by email or phone to discuss what I may have in stock or your idea for a commission. My facebook page is another good way to contact me and see almost everything I’ve done so far: www.facebook.com/cavegeekart
CC: What’s the next convention/show you plan to be at?
KF: My next convention, and the last one for 2015 is Walker Stalker Con NY/NJ on Dec. 4-6.
And there you have it folks, if you’re looing for a unique piece of art to your collection this is it! Please check out his website and facebook page to explore all the fantastic pieces he’s created and where you can find him next. You can also follow him on Twitter: @CaveGeekArt