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Where Craft Becomes Art

Time-honored craft and unmatched functionality are the hallmarks of the Traditional Cowboys Arts Association.

BY MICHAEL J. NICOLA, NATIONAL COWBOY & WESTERN HERITAGE MUSEUM BOARD OF DIRECTORS MEMBER

PHOTOGRAPHY BY NADINE LEVIN

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A close-up view of John Willemsma’s saddle below Lorna Dillon’s painting After the Rainnext to Terri Kelly Moyers’ large painting As the Sun Sets in the West.

The author, playwright and critic Anthony Burgess once said, ” Art begins with craft and there is no art until the craft has been mastered. ”

Since men like Russell and Remington started coming West, over 150 years ago, they have used paint and clay to capture the life of the North American cowboy and his surroundings. However, at the same time in the shadows was another breed of artists: the saddle maker, rawhide braider, silversmith and bit and spur maker. This work was rarely recognized by anyone other than the working cowboy as a work of art.

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Inside the Levin Collection in Maryland: The first two saddles, from left, are by Cary Schwarz, followed by pieces from Pedro Pedrini and Dale Harwood on the other side of the table. Above the table is a pair of Bohlin chaps embellished with wood-burned pictures by Joe De Young, flanked by De Young watercolors, an untitled mounted vaquero on the left and Lone Cowboy on the right. The pencil drawing on the far right is Cowboy Bling and Piggin Strings by Roger Archibald. The rifle is a Sharps 1874 Carbine.

The pieces that are in the annual Traditional Cowboys Arts Association show are examples of both craft and art. Each work is a brilliantly made, one of a kind tool of the cowboy’s trade, expertly engineered for unmatched functionality. But each piece also represents, for its maker, an artistic journey, one that begins, as all such journeys do, with inspiration; that spontaneous recognition of a story that needs telling.

For the artists of the TCAA, that story is drawn from a wide range of influences and sources of inspiration: their own experiences as working cowboys, making a living on horseback; the work of the saddle makers, rawhide braiders, silversmiths and bit and spur makers who have come before them. But they are also guided by classical architecture, sculpture, graphic design and Old World craftsmanship that were imported to the North American frontier.

The story then unfolds over hundreds of hours at a drawing board and in the workshop. As the creative puzzles of design, architecture and narrative are solved, ideas are brought to life through the meticulous carvings, engravings and sculpting of leather and metal. At the journey’s end, raw materials are given life and are transformed into an original product, to be interpreted, to be pondered, to be appreciated not just for its functionality, but also for its beauty and A close-up view of John Willemsma’s saddle below Lorna Dillon’s painting After the Rainnext to Terri Kelly Moyers’ large painting As the Sun Sets in the West. its meaning. Those raw materials have been transformed into an exceptional class of work — that of functional art.

Members of this group also draw from a shared values system, one that emphasizes honoring the traditions of the West while reflecting our contemporary world. A world that dictates that standards in these disciplines be continually raised and that knowledge, once carefully guarded, be brought into the open and shared freely with peers and protégés alike. Finally, the most important value of all: preserving these precious arts that were once no more than a single generation away from being lost, pushed aside forever by mass production of inferior but widely available work.

This ethos demands of a devotee an unmatched understanding of his or her discipline, its tools, its techniques and its correct function, as well as a never-ending commitment to education and self improvement. That’s the foundation — that’s the craft.

But the creative expression through the media of leather and metal, the making of statements and sharing of narratives through the finest examples of working saddles, bits, spurs, rawhide and silver — that’s art!

Eighteen years ago, a small group of the West’s leading saddle makers, silversmiths, rawhide braiders and bit and spur makers recognized a fourfold crisis: First, there was an aging class of master artists in these disciplines; second, a shortage of newcomers entering these fields; third, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for apprentices to find willing, qualified mentors; and finally, the ongoing threat to these traditional arts posed by mass production.

In response, these artists joined together in 1998 to form the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, with the idea of preserving the time-honored art of the West; continually elevating the standards for craftsmanship within these disciplines and creating accessible educational programs for students. Two men shared that vision, the late Ken Townsend, who at the time was the executive director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Don Reeves, the Curator for Cowboy Culture at the museum. In sharing that vision they provided the venue to showcase this art not only to the West but to the rest of the world. Thankfully the board of directors at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum continue to support the TCAA by providing the stage for their annual sale and exhibit.

The Native American sculpture is a William Demuth zinc cigar store Indian named Captain Jack, and he is listed in Zinc Sculptures in America. On the wall are gold Herman Heiser wooly chaps. Next to them are Mehl Lawson rawhide reins. To the right are two Steve Devenyns paintings, Headin For the Outer Circle on top and Ridin for the Brand beneath it. The large painting is As the Sun Sets in the West by Terri Kelly Moyers, and to the right of it is After the Rain by Lorna Dillon. That saddle on the far right is by John Willemsma.

The Native American sculpture is a William Demuth zinc cigar store Indian named Captain Jack, and he is listed in Zinc Sculptures in America. On the wall are gold Herman Heiser wooly chaps. Next to them are Mehl Lawson rawhide reins. To the right are two Steve Devenyns paintings, Headin For the Outer Circle on top and Ridin for the Brand beneath
it. The large painting is As the Sun Sets in the West by Terri Kelly Moyers, and to the right of it is After the Rain by Lorna Dillon. That saddle on the far right is by John Willemsma.

Since those first informal discussions, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has hosted 17 TCAA shows, which have featured works valued in excess of $8 million. Each year, the artists of the TCAA raise the standards of quality and creativity in their disciplines. They don’t just ” push the envelope;& ” they reinvent these traditional Western arts. Through innovation and unmatched creativity they breathe new life into the age-old media of leather and metal.

More importantly, each year’s show has served to inspire other craftsmen, men and The quirts on the facing wall are by Leland Hensley, on the left, and Pablo Lozano. The saddle is an antique silver-mounted Charro saddle, circa 1900, that belonged to John Hampton. The paintings above the saddle are Xiang Zhang’s Our Hill Country on the left next to Mikel Donahue’s Minor Adjustments with Jim Rey’s His Prized Possessions below. Above the door is a Winchester ’73. women who see what is possible in their disciplines and find in these works of art the motivation to elevate their own work and in turn become artists themselves.

The TCAA’s mission though, is centered on the preservation of these arts through education. Each member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association offers one-on-one instruction in his respective field. To date, members have mentored over 300 students, ranging from novices to professionals with decades of experience. In addition the group holds two annual workshops at the Oklahoma museum. The TCAA has also created scholarship programs to help students cover costs. So far these programs have paid out nearly $100,000.

Like great painters and sculptors of the North American West, the members of the TCAA have a common thread: a desire to capture and preserve the culture of the cowboy and the West. These artists all start with an idea, an inspiration that leads them to pick up a pencil and start to sketch that idea out. Eventually that inspiration is brought to life through paint, leather, clay or metal, and becomes a beautiful work of art.

In the past 17 years it has become more and more common to find a set of Wilson Capron’s spurs displayed on a collector’s mantel next to a Martin Grelle painting or a Chuck Stormes saddle prominently displayed in a corporate board room. Simple functional craft has indeed become collectable art!