Bob Walker grew up in a “cat family” in Niagara Falls, but found his love and his life’s work at dog shows.
Walker – “R. Leigh Walker” to the thousands of people all over the world who collect his detailed etchings on soft metal of dogs and other subjects – could never have imagined the path his life would take when he attended his first dog show in Niagara Falls in the mid-1990s.
Walker was working at a cutlery company when friend Cliff Mayes urged him to attend the dog show. There Walker met Christine Schwab of Getzville, who had handled dogs in the show ring since graduating from high school. When he spotted her at a Kennel Club meeting soon afterward, Walker told Mayes, “I’m going to marry her.”
Having found his love, it took a few more years for him to find his life’s work. Cleaning out her late mother’s craft supplies, Christine found a small sheet of copper. “I said, ‘Here, either do something with this or I am throwing it out,’ ” she said.
Perhaps inspired by the color resemblance to Brittany spaniels, his wife’s favorite dog breed, Walker etched a Brittany into the copper using a pair of scissors and a spoon.
A friend who saw the piece, which both Walkers say was crude compared with his later work, “suggested that if I tweaked it a bit, I could sell it,” he said.
Despite having only high school art classes under his belt, Walker took the possibility to heart. He set up a booth at a dog show with five etched pieces, as well as some pencil sketches and photos. “It just took off from there,” he said.
Working with soft, thick metal sheets, including the pewter he has come to favor, Walker has created thousands upon thousands of images of dogs and other subjects, including Civil War images, They range in price from $10 for an embossed bookmark to around $250 for a detailed 11- by 14-inch piece.
“I started doing this because when I die, I want somebody, somewhere to remember me,” said Walker. “Now my pieces are in South Africa, Japan, Australia, New Zealand.” Although he has never been able to confirm it, “People tell me I am the only one doing this; that is why we sell in Japan and Australia,” he said.
The vast majority of his sales are done at shows or through word of mouth.
Bob Walker won’t be selling his art, but his handiwork will be seen in the trophies given out on the third and fourth day of the Nickel City Cluster dog shows. They start Jan. 9 and run through Jan. 12, from 8 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. daily at the Hamburg Fairgrounds Event Center, 5820 South Park Ave.
The first two days are sponsored by the Kennel Club of Niagara Falls; the second two are sponsored by the Kennel Club of Buffalo.
In addition to the dog show, in which A.K.C.-registered purebreds are judged on appearance, all four days will also feature obedience competitions and rally trials. In rally trials, dog and handler teams are judged on how well they go through specific stations.
Around 1,000 dogs are expected, along with thousands of people.
A popular feature at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 12 is the “Meet the Breeds” event. Owners show off their dogs and answer questions about the breed, including activity levels, personality traits and grooming needs.
“People can learn about the dogs, meet the breeders, go pet the different dogs, get an idea of what kind of breed they might like,” said Christine Walker.
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and $5 for children under 12.