As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, by Sara Jewell.
|John "Chico" Powell outlines a pattern on a hide laying on his living room floor.|
As I approach John Powell’s booth at the Pugwash Farmers’ Market, he hands me a wide band of leather. It’s stamped with a daisy and two hearts, just as I requested.
“This is for you, it’s a gift, because you spent so much time with me the other day,” he says before walking away to have a smoke.
I open my mouth to object – I’d ordered this, after all – but instead said, “Thank you.” I knew he wanted only my gracious acceptance.
I’d spent three hours at John’s home in South Oxford, listening to stories doled out in ever-deepening layers of detail and honesty, from his days as a 13-year-old runaway from Springhill through his first marriage, four children and 35 years in Toronto, to the death of his beloved wife Cheryl, the fourth anniversary of which is next week.
Some of you may not know who John Powell is; you may know him only as Chico, the name he gained, along with his skill with leather, during a stint in prison.
“At the time – and I’m going back a few years, dear,” he says to me while sitting back from the pattern he’s tracing onto a hide laying on his living room floor, “there used to be a show on TV called ‘Chico and the Man’. I had the same moustache and that’s what [they] started calling me.”
He returns to the hide as he continues talking.
“I have no complaints about that part; I never will. I brought it, I’ll take it, and I’ll carry it. I was a smartass when I was younger,” he adds. “Most people who know me now knew me when I was younger. After I moved back home, they wouldn’t talk to me. It took a lot of years before people would even acknowledge me but then they realized I don’t drink anymore, I settled down, I got married.”
John says his 15-year marriage to Cheryl Rushton of Westchester was the best thing to ever happen to him.
“That changed my whole life. She done more for me than you could ever imagine.”
He taught Cheryl about leather and her specialty became baby moccasins. Together, they made the rounds of shows, festivals, Christmas sales, and the mall in Amherst.
John finishes tracing his patterns. “When I’m done, I’ll have two small purses,” he says.
All his leather work, from belts and dog collars to cell phone holders and purses, are handmade. He uses scissors and a mallet to cut and punch and stamp. He dyes and laces by hand. His prices are ridiculously low but he explains, “I live in a province with high unemployment and low income families. If I put my prices up, I’m out of their reach. Although most people know if they buy something from me, it’s going to last forever.”
As he cuts a long strip of hide to show me how a belt, his signature item, begins, he says,
“Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned through trial and error.”
Perhaps he’s just talking about his 50 years working with leather but I suspect he means life as well.
John’s 71st birthday is tomorrow (September 8) and he’ll spend it at his regular Thursday dialysis appointment. Just another detail in a life story becoming as smooth and pliable with age as a well-worn leather belt.
|John's workshop inside his mobile home is a six-by-six foot room.|