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My TCAA Journey…..So Far

In the fall of 2012, with encouragement by some TCAA members and friends, my wife and I headed to Oklahoma City to attend Cowboy Crossings.  We weren’t really sure what we would see, what to expect, or even have a great understanding about the organization and its members.  We were very impressed with everything we saw, attended, and witnessed that year.  The quality of work was outstanding, and we met many of the members there for the first time.  They were very friendly and welcoming.  On the long drive home, we discussed what we had seen, set my sights on improving my work, and thus began my 5 year journey towards becoming the newest member of the TCAA.

Just a few months later, I entered and attended the Emerging Artist Competition held at the High Noon show in Mesa, AZ.  I didn’t win.  I took the best work that I was capable of at the time, but it wasn’t good enough.  I took the opportunity to talk with the judges, and took their criticism and suggestions to heart, and went home working to implement them.  The time there with the other makers was also valuable, but I knew that I had to make changes to take the next step in my growth as a silversmith.

In 2015, I was awarded the TCAA Fellowship.  I was so fortunate to receive this scholarship which alotted $12000 towards travel and tuition and gave me the opportunity to work with both Scott Hardy and Mark Drain several times.  This was a life and business-changing opportunity which I took seriously.  Each visit, I had specific things I wanted to work on and improve.  We focused on design, fabrication, engraving fundamentals, business practices, and attitude.  Each visit was like a stair-step where I built upon the last and propelled me forward in the discipline.  I am very grateful to the TCAA and to Scott and Mark for all they’ve done to help further my journey.

That same year, there was another emerging artist competition.  I entered and took the very best work I was capable of at the time.  I didn’t win.  Again, it was a great opportunity to get to talk to the other makers and TCAA members.  I’m a competitive person and not winning for a second time made me go home and work even harder.  Even though I didn’t win, some great opportunities came from that experience.

That same year, I decided to apply for TCAA membership.  For the first step in the process, I submitted my application and attended the Spring Meeting in San Diego, CA.  I spent time there getting to know the members better, and made it through the first step of the process.  Then, I was required to make three pieces and attend the Cowboy Crossings show.  I took the best work I was capable of at the time, was interviewed, my work was critiqued, and finally voted on.  I didn’t get in.  However, it was the nicest disappointment I’d ever received.  The members gave me a lot of encouragement to come back and apply again and gave critiques on the work I submitted.  Upon reflection, those critiques were valid.  Of course, rejection is never fun, especially considering the time and effort I put into my application pieces, but I knew immediately that I would be back.  Even though I had a few disappointments, it made me want it even more.  There was no time to sulk, I went home and got to work.

After attending Cowboy Crossings for 5 years, the Spring Meeting once, Fellowship, and the Emerging Artist Competition twice, I found myself applying for the TCAA in 2016 for the second time.  I took the three best pieces of work I was capable of at the time.  I got in.  It was a very fun, exciting, and humbling weekend.  That may sound like an ending, but to me it is just a start of the next chapter.  The learning and education of your craft never stops.  Now, I am excited to help pass on the knowledge I have acquired the last five years.  If you are a young aspiring craftsman, I encourage you to take advantage of every opportunity.

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The Journey of a Craftsman

The craftsman’s journey is one that can be exhausting with no reward in sight if one is not careful.  I think it is important a person approaches the journey very carefully and has their mind in the right place.  That is the hardest part of what I do. Maybe I shouldn’t say the hardest, but it is what I continually work to achieve.  With this mental game in place, I want to walk you through some thoughts of searching for excellence as a craftsman and crossing the threshold into art.

There are five areas a craftsman must think about that I believe are very important.  These aren’t the only things of course, but I think they should be high on the list. Education, exposure, customer relations, pricing, and long term thinking or goal setting are my topics for today.  Each one of these could have an entire article to themselves, but I want to hit some high spots and maybe give you a window into my world.

I will start with education.  Often, as I meet other craftsman, they offer up how long they have been making bits and spurs or whatever.  Sometimes much longer than me.  The thing I notice is they really haven’t tried to educate themselves to grow much in that time.  Yes, education is expensive and time consuming, two things most craftsman don’t have, money and time.  It’s very scary to ask for a critique, but you must.  Not from just anyone, but from those people you respect and admire.  Pick out a few people that you want to model yourself from and see what they think about your work.  Be careful in your choosing because 10 minutes of bad advice can cost you 10 years of your career.

In your journey of education don’t be afraid to explore.  It makes it fun to try something new to me.  Failure is always a possibility and that can really sting sometimes.  No one wants to look bad.  It’s during these times of failure that you will learn the most and remember it!  Don’t worry you will get a lot of free advice when you mess up.  It’s ok though.  I will testify that you will survive, and if you learn from it you come out better on the other side.

Honest evolution of yourself and your work is maybe the most important here.  You listen to others, explore and then look and see what you have accomplished.  Some will say you are great, some will say you’re terrible and you’re doing it all wrong.  You must look at it and determine where you are for yourself.  Compare yourself to the greats.  They pulled their britches on just like you, one leg at a time.

The most important ingredient to surviving this journey of education is toughness.  This isn’t for the weak.  You won’t get there easily and as matter of fact, you will never get there when it comes to education.  It is a journey, not a destination.  It never ends, but that is the fun part.  Enjoy the ride and see how good you can get.  You will surprise yourself.

The next leg of this journey since you have become the best, according to your loved ones anyhow, is exposure.  You can be the best, but if no one knows you, it’s not going to work very good.  Exposure is also going to tie back into education too.  Inspiration comes with exposure.

You have to get out of the shop and go to shows.  Yes we spend 360 of the 365 days in our shop hiding from the world, but you must overcome the fear of people.  You have to put yourself out there. They don’t bite, and in truth, they really want to put a face to the name that everyone is talking about.  They want to see your story, your message, that you have displayed for them to see.

I have been told truthfully you can die of over exposure also.  No, you can’t go to everything.  Pick your shows that best suit you and help you portray your work.  They don’t have to sell your work, always a plus, but they do need to introduce us to people.  Contacts are the foundation of our success.  That can be in our education and in our business survival.

So now you are out in the world showing what you do and the challenge of getting along with the world has surfaced!  These people are telling me how I am doing it wrong and how I should do it for them, but all you want is for them to buy your work.  They should just ask you to build what you want and they should like it!  Wrong!  It doesn’t work that way.  They have a story and it’s your job to help them tell it.  Now do you have some perimeters that you have to stand for? Absolutely.  It’s your name that goes on the piece.  You can’t just sell yourself out because of a sale.  Stand up for yourself and do what you believe is right for you.  Now be very careful, you don’t want to insult the customer and start something that will spread in the market place like arrogance.  That is hard to overturn.

You must articulate your thoughts and allow the customer to have a say in the telling of their story.  You must work together to share in the story of the West.  If you can allow your customer to be a part of the story, they will take ownership in the piece and have an affection for what your created that is priceless.  That is what you are looking for.

Have I had to compromise on some things?  Sure.  I have created some things that I didn’t like.  My customers were happy though.  This journey isn’t all about me and my craft.  Incorporate your customer into the journey so that they can tell their story as well.  Together the story of the West will be told.  You can make suggestions and hopefully direct them into something that everyone can be proud of.  As I said earlier, there are limitations you must stand for.  Determine those and then gracefully keep customers away from them and help them create something beautiful.

Now, uh oh, we have come to the hard part.  You have become good enough to sell something and you are making friends in the market place.  Awesome, but now they want to know how much this masterpiece is going to cost!  “Ummm, I don’t know.  Can I tell you when I am done?”  Boy I sure wish it worked that way.  It doesn’t though.  No matter how much the budget is, everyone has a budget.  You have to stay within that budget and do your job in those perimeters.

One thing I notice a lot of is that craftsman have no idea what it takes to keep the doors open to their shop.  You have a budget too.  You need to make a certain amount of money for your time in order to continue doing what you love.  You have to determine that.  I can’t say what you are worth or even how much it takes for you to survive.  That is up to you to figure out, but you must.  If you don’t you will be inconsistent which is terrible in the marketplace.  Customers want to think they got the same shake as the next guy.

Since we don’t get to set our price at the end of the day, we must determine how long it is going to take before we start.  I used to whine about this but then I realized the world plays by this rule so why shouldn’t I?  If you are going to build a new shop you kind of want to know how much it is going to cost right?  That contractor has to bid the job.  You have to do the same.

In order to do this consistently you must keep records.  I have a record of my pieces and how long it took to create them.  A customer shows up and says “You remember that bit you made for so and so?  I want one like it.”  I have a record that I can go back to and properly bid the next one.  I will pad a bid usually and explain to my customer if it doesn’t come to that much I will only charge what it takes.  It gives me a little room to explore and make it just a little better, which most appreciate.  If I go over then it’s on me.  Not their fault I was slow.  Finish the job with integrity if you go over the bid!  Very important.  I will share with my customer the actual price because if they call next week and want another they will pay the actual price.

Pricing isn’t easy and I don’t have a formula that will work for everyone.  I go by time and materials.  I can look anyone in the eye and say you owe me….  Everyone is treated exactly the same.  I build trust that way and at times I am actually allowed to price at the end of the day.  My customers know I won’t take advantage of them.  If they let me go, within a budget of course, I will create something special for them.  That is my dream scenario.

Well, here you are clicking along creating beautiful work and getting paid for it.  Awesome!  The family is happy and you don’t have a “real job”, only working 14 hour days to prevent getting one.  One last pitfall to bring up is we often get to thinking just about today.  How can I fill my budget today?  If a craftsman’s hands aren’t moving we are losing money.  Your banker will come to realize this and be very comfortable sharing this knowledge with you!  Good for them because you need that. However, sometimes you need to think about tomorrow too. Just like the exposure thing, working on the future sometimes means doing something other than creating another masterpiece.  What about tomorrow?  What are you going to do?  Yes you have plenty of work probably, but better work that pays better is a common goal for any company.  We aren’t exempt from this.

I don’t have all answers here as I too am exploring tomorrow.  There is no way for me to know what tomorrow holds and if I think about it too much, I’ll crawl back into my hole/shop.  It takes courage and you have to believe tomorrow will work out.  Take care of today but be thinking about building tomorrow.  How can more people learn about my art?  How can I help tell the story of the West better?  Are there ways to market and advertise this journey?

I often have half my year’s work in one show. The results of these shows can be very important!  If things don’t sell, it is a little difficult to run a successful business.  I have experienced both angles, a sell out and a shutout basically.  Don’t forget tomorrow will come and you will have an opportunity to do it again.  I survived near shutouts and hopefully learned some things, but why they didn’t sell is not one of them.  Who knows, but if you are running a business set up for success and have a little faith, great things will happen.  It is fun actually.  I am on an adventure that I hope will never end.

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Cowboy Objet D’Art

From the Western Horse Review

With precious metal is a tradition as old as man on horseback, and deserves the respect of being done one piece at a time by hand, says silver/goldsmith, Scott Hardy. The marrow of that quote cradles the worship-like passion Hardy has for the art of cowboy culture, but it also hints at the deliberation and discipline he has practiced for the past 17 years as a founding member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA). When he and fellow southern Albertan and saddle maker, Chuck Stormes, rode their predominately self-taught, and some would say, God-given talents past the rising wave of parodied western items on the market from cheap mass-produced bits and spurs, to tacky dishes with brands imprinted on them, and blue velvet boxes holding silver knock-offs they were grave in their focus, choosing to honor their work by residing it on a higher plain. One where tradition is built upon, not mocked with China-made reproductions. So it was that along with a handful of like-minded American craftsmen, the TCAA was founded, with a mission statement expressing something to the effect of a dedication to preserving and promoting the skills of saddle, bit and spur making, silversmithing and rawhide braiding.

More than a decade and a half later of accolades, advances and successes have built the TCAA into an association with serious creed, and Hardy himself has been honored with such quintessential Canadian honors as a Canadian postage stamp bearing a buckle he designed for the Calgary Stampedes centennial, and a long list of seriously prestigious accomplishments and commissions from celebrities and collectors. Yet the fifth generation stockman, who hangs his hat at a place in the hills just east of the cowboy town of Longview, Alberta, remains modest with a deep worry for the future of the cowboy arts in the modern West.

I dont know if the people truly understand the trouble that the industry (cowboy arts) is in right now, and if they dont realize it soon, it could be too late, he says.

The problem is one of technology advancement cut with a general decline of interest in the cowboy arts. Production pieces have simply become better and cleaner, and that leaves the true artisans, between the proverbial hammer and anvil: cheap, but affordable production work and a softening cowboy arts market.

If we dont create a market out there where there are collectibles, where a young maker can come in and get knowledge and see a place to end up, like the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma [home of the annual TCAA Exhibition and Sale], where the work is recognized not only as functional working cowboy gear, but also art. When its taken to that level, its easier for a young artist to see a viable future in it.

Exactly why the TCAA has fostered its arms of support to new artisans. Personal mentorship, workshops, scholarships, fellowships and an annual Emerging Artist Competition, the winner of which receives both cash and national recognition, are a few of the benefits of membership in the TCAA. For the up-and-comer artisan, these reins of support, coupled with seeing your mentors work sincerely recognized with high-dollar values, can lend an early artist just the sort of boost he or she needs to focus on building their own reputation in the cowboy arts world.

~ Ingrid Schulz

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The Bean Jar

I think that in some one’s quest to become the best that they can be in what ever their passion is, a couple of things need to line out. Probably the most important is to have a really good work ethic ! A nice organized work station is important, good tools, sharp ones if they have an edge,and always use good materials.

Being around experts in your field is another great idea but of coarse that isn’t always an option. But what you can do to give your self an edge up is to throw your pride away. Then ask a QUALIFIED person to give you a honest critique. Does it hurt a little ? ? Ya, it sure can. Usually a good qualified expert will first find something positive to say, before pointing out the things that you do not see.

I personally have a mental issue where I think I get fixated on one thing and then I’m unable to see the things that I should see, like a fuzzy edge or a tool mark that shouldn’t be visible or a hundred other things . When these things have been pointed out to me I’m like incredulous that I didn’t see it myself right off the get go, but some times we just don’t ! So, set your pride a side, ask some one who’s work you admire to give you a critique and tell them to sock it to ya !

Work Hard and have Fun !

RC Bean

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Those Who Inspire

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As we wind up he year 2016 and look towards the Christmas holiday and the coming new year my hope is that each of you take a moment and a deep breath and look back and find someone or something that inspired you this past year.

My year started fairly normal with dreams of a move to Colorado and looking forward to building my TCAA projects in a new shop overlooking the Wet Mountains of Colorado. How quickly our plans of order and detail turn to folly. A routine physical turns into open heart surgery , which leads to over 6 months of recovery.

But along this road I came in contact with a surgeon of incredible talent. I know he could not name any part of a saddle or bridle a horse but yet he knew every part of my heart and how to repair the defects I carried since birth.

Another encounter brought another skilled surgeon into my life who repaired the damage I inflicted on my right hand while I was working on the one project I could complete for our fall show. These two men brought a new awareness to me about the importance of looking outside of my small world of my leather shop and search out those who are truly gifted. No matter what that person does be it a saddlemaker, silversmith, bit maker rawhide braider or someone who holds your heart in their skilled hand we must always do our best and look for the best in all of us .

As I write these words I think of my greatest inspiration …my MOTHER …

She passed away this year in the time between fall and winter and left a life of Grace and Creativity to be honored . She was an avid needle pointer and many times while she worked on a project and I worked on one of my TCAA projects we would visit and compare notes on how each of us was doing , a creative bond was formed. And to honor that bond the TCAA MOM’s SCHOLARSHIP was created.

The new year brings hope and promise… and as it steams towards us like a fast train . Take a moment and remember those who inspired you, touched your life and give us all the desire and the ability to CREATE

Life’s unexpected events can place people in our path whose talents are not as ours, but are equally impressive.This years piece is a reflection on those who “heal” and those who “Create”

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That Telecaster Twang

Each year the TCAA encourages us as members to create unique, one of a kind items for the show. One of my items this year was a leather covered guitar. I have seen guitars over the years done this way, but I was always concerned that covering an acoustic guitar would greatly affect the sound. Elvis had such a guitar and I have seen others over the years. Waylon had the highly recognizable guitar he played that was shown on TV when the Dukes of Hazard came on. I knew to do this would require, in my mind, a solid body electric guitar, more like Waylon played, so that the sound would not be affected by the leather.

Many modern country music artists use the ever popular Fender Telecaster, which is the guitar I chose to use. All of the guitars I had seen, either acoustic or electric, had been laced around the edges with various types of lacing. I preferred not to use lace but rather to hand sew the leather to the guitar. I did not recall having seen one done in this fashion. I learned that many guitars go through several different necks over the years, as they can be easily replaced. I was able to remove the neck of the guitar, which made it much easier to fit the leather to the body and hand sew it without the cumbersome neck in the way.

The solid body of the guitar is actually quite heavy and I found that holding it in a traditional saddlers stitch horse was quite awkward. I needed to come up with a better way to hold it while hand sewing. I found that the vice I use for building trees worked perfectly for the job. I just had to build some covers for the vice jaws out of leather and foam so the tooled parts of the guitar would not be damaged by the metal jaws when clamped together. It really worked quite well.

Some of the flowers we saddle makers carve are just drawn up, made up flowers. Some are actual flowers that can translate to leather and make a beautiful flower. I hope the pictures I have show the actual flower that I used to carve on this guitar and how it looks when carved in the leather. Dying the background on carved items is always a bit risky and time consuming, but the end result can be very satisfying.

One of the things that is so satisfying about being a saddle maker, or craftsman of any kind, is when we get to be creative. There is something about having wide open creative license allowing us the freedom to create new, unique, one of a kind pieces that is extremely satisfying. It energizes us and motivates us to dream on. This guitar was one of those items. I really enjoyed the entire process of covering this guitar with leather.

Bill Rey: On Living With Art

This is a short interview with Bill Rey, owner of  Claggett-Rey Gallery in Vail Colorado.  We screened it at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum during the 2016 Cowboy Crossings banquet. It was a nice addition and well received, so we wanted to share it with everyone because the message is clear about why we do what we do. This video was shot by our affiliate member A.J. Mangum

Collector’s Eye

Alan and Nadine Levin’s distinct appreciation for Western craft, art and history shines through their collection, the organizations they champion and the art they create

Written by Laura Zuckerman
October | November 2016

Alan and Nadine Levin were not looking to join the ranks of Western art collectors when they vacationed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, more than a decade ago. But Alan, who owns a retail music business, fell in love with a life-size cowboy crafted in bronze by Buck McCain. Standing outside an upscale gallery, studying the statue, he was hooked.

“I knew within the first 15 minutes I was going to buy him one way or another; I couldn’t get him out of my mind,” he says.

The cowboy now resides outside the couple’s suburban Maryland home, where walls are hung with Western works by such painters as Tom Browning and deceased artists as Edward Borein. Rooms display collectibles by storied craftsmen such as saddlemaker Edward Bohlin and members of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, whose mission is to keep those crafts alive.

It is the rich history of the American West, its sweeping landscapes and cultural norms, that ignited in the Levins an enduring passion for collecting.

“We live in the East, but we have Western values. And we are privileged to be among the caretakers of pieces of history,” says Nadine.

It’s in the spirit of that undertaking that Nadine has served for the past several years on the board of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. And the same instinct, in the nature of a calling, has led to her prodigious talent as an artist using infrared photography to capture the objects, animals and outbuildings of rural landscapes. Often from horseback, she has photographed the West for the last 25 years. Those spare images, made more evocative by the absence of human figures, were showcased in a months-long exhibit earlier this year at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

Western values, including loyalty and honesty, that the Levins hold so dear were in sharp relief when the exhibit opened. Those associated with the National Cowboy Museum and members of its associated Traditional Cowboy Arts Association traveled to the National Cowgirl Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to attend a reception marking the opening of Nadine’s show.

WA&A: What is your most beloved piece and why?

Alan Levin: We can’t choose. I walk through the house every day and always look at these pieces, each of which has a different meaning.
We bought a Xiang Zhang, but didn’t have a wall large enough for the painting. That’s an example. When I look at that painting, I love it — and I remember that we thought so much of it that we built a wall for it.

WA&A: At what point did you realize you were a collector?

AL: When we had to remodel to create a wall for the Zhang!

WA&A: With which living artist would you most like to have dinner?

Nadine Levin: We’ve had the pleasure of dining with such talents as contemporary Western artist Bill Schenck and husband-and-wife painters John Moyers and Terri Kelly Moyers, known for a traditional realist Western style and skilled use of light and color.

I would also relish the prospect of sharing a meal with James Bama, the illustrator-cum-artist who describes himself as an American realist with stirring portraits of subjects from cowboys to native wildlife, such as bison. If it has to be one person, for me, it would be James Bama, who I would like to meet and spend time with. I really love his work.

WA&A: What was the one that got away?

AL: We swear by the habit of buying what we like and what we wish to live with, but there is the occasional piece whose price soared above what we considered reasonable. We don’t want to purchase an overpriced item at auction, for example, and then place it at home where it might become an enduring symbol of buyer’s remorse. The item doesn’t get away; you let it go.

WA&A: What inspires you to collect art?

AL: I’m inspired to collect art that enables me to escape to places that I’d rather be. And there’s craftwork by people, past and present, whose talents are beyond compare. I truly appreciate such master craftsmanship; I never tire of looking at it.

WA&A: What was the first piece you bought and why?

AL: Buck McCain’s cowboy. When I saw the cowboy… It’s tough to put into words. But when you look at him, he just personifies the West.

WA&A: Where do you see your collection in 100 years?

AL: Since our collection does not focus on any one artist or specific art form, but encompasses a wide variety of Western Americana from antique to contemporary, I’m sure that the pieces we have will not be kept together. All you can ask for is that they find a home where they are appreciated and bring as much joy to the new owners as they have to us.

 

This article originally appeared in Western Art & Architecture Oct/Nov 2016 Issue

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Engraving Workshop

Wilson Capron and Scott Hardy will be hosting an engraving workshop and Wilson’s Christoval, TX shop January 11-14, 2017.  This class will cover everything from the fundamentals to more advanced techniques of engraving.  The class should be suited for all levels of engravers and have something beneficial for all.

The price for the workshop is $1,260 which includes lunch each day.  25 participants will be accepted and a $500 Non-refundable deposit will hold your spot.  For more information please give Wilson a call. 432.967.0684