I can honestly say that the love/hate relationship with rawhide is the main reason I’m still passionate about braiding rawhide after roughly 37 years.

During workshops I spend a lot of time with students talking about rawhide, not the finished product but the material itself in the raw. The learning curve for rawhide never seems to straighten out, no pun intended ! That is the exciting thing about working with it. The sense of accomplishment you get when you finish a piece and it agrees with what it was made into is what drives me to go on. We have all had pieces that were done mechanically right but just did not turn out right. It seems as though just about the time you think you have it all figured out, something changes. For no reason at all a certain breed of cow may produce a different color of hide. For no reason at all hair may come off more easily or harder than past hides, and I could go on and on. The point being no matter how consistent you are in preparing the hide there is always the chance it will not do what your expecting. Don’t get me wrong, being consistent is important in everything having to do with braiding including hide preparation, but there in lies the love/hate thing. 

While cutting strings and braiding, the curve does not get any easier. Some hides just cut better than others, why ?  I don’t know !  The animal was the same, the hide was prepped the same, it just cuts different. Some hides take a day to temper before they cut nice, some hides take three days, Why ?  I don’t know !  Some hides except dye better than others, Why ?  I don’t know !  Sure there are some reasons that can be explained that may be obvious after 37 years of braiding the stuff, but just as many times there is no logical explanation.

This all can be very discouraging to someone trying to learn to braid or to someone who has braided awhile and just doesn’t seem to be making the progress they had hoped. My answer to this is to embrace the uniqueness of the material and use that as inspiration, knowing that not everyone has the patience to continue on with this undoubtably strong but fickle material. 

In the end, all I can say is let the hide tell you what it should be, don’t try to make it into something it is not meant to be. It will only disappoint when finished. This is easier said than done but nothing replaces time and a whole lot of mistakes. When it’s all said and done there is nothing like the feel of a finished piece where everything worked out right. Then you can start loving it again !

Great Grandfather Samuel’s fowling piece

Recently I was intrigued by a article on the internet regarding a fine set of pistols, they were indeed artworks of the finest sort, a matched set of handmade flintlocks. They were gifted to George Washinton by the Marquis de Laffayett, who had fought by his side on ocassion during the Revolutionary War. It’s a very interesting story as they were handed down thru history, from Washington’s grandaughter’s widower then to Andrew Jackson and back to the son of the Marquis who was appropriately named George Washington Laffayett.

That got me to thinking about my own family and maybe how my great great grandfather’s name Summers Napoleon Bonapart Marsh was chosen and it also made me grateful that my great grandfather, Samuel Marsh’s finely made double barreled 1906 Remington shotgun wound up in my possession as a family treasure. That’s a long story but it really made me consider how nice it is to realize that quality and craftsmanship mattered not only to the original purchaser but to their families and descendants.

I really doubt the story of those pistols would have had much interest if they had been poorly made and discarded on the battlefield. No, instead they are a testament to the character of the Marquis, he didn’t buy them for gifting purposes in France. They were purchased for his own use and for very serious matters. The fact that Washington admired them coupled with their mutual valued friendship resulted in the pistols being gifted to him and then passed down thru history with their own unique and intriguing story to tell. The fact they were made by a master gunsmith of his time Jacob Walster is merely a side note. Though they were created there in his shop that was only their beginning. Had the Marquis not had an appreciation for the craftsmanship and fine detail I would have never known the rest of the story nor of the maker himself.

I think about things like this every time I see an old finely made saddle or antique works of art. Who put the spurtracks across the seat and how bad was the wreck? Or who originally recognized enough value in this work to patronize the artist, invest in it and add it among their treasured personal items? All of the older works have stories to tell, long after the original owner and makers are long passed. It’s always much more interesting when it is known and can be told when exhibiting the items. Most often the interesting aspects of a piece are of those who owned or used it, a testament to their character, an insight into their lives and what they valued or considered to be important.

After considering all this I think now is a good time to express my gratitude towards those that have purchased or admired my work for the last 28 years. Because without your appreciation and value placed upon my work, I’d sure be doing something else and Lord knows I love what I do. I also realize that in acquiring and using my peices you have in some small way represented yourself with my personal brand of quality. I truly consider that to be an honor. And after our time, in the distant future when one of your desendents pulls out that old item that once belonged to you to display I’ll be just fine as the sidenote. The story they tell will be yours.

Best Regards Ernie Marsh

Cary Schwarz Saddle with Scott Hardy Silver

It’s a Beautiful Sunday afternoon in the heart of Alberta’s Cowboy Country, I’m in my shop working on my main 2018 TCAA project. If that sounds like a Complaint it’s Not!

As a Western Silversmith commissions are the backbone of my work. I look forward to the challenge each client brings to creating a piece that holds meaning and pleasure for them.

But I have to admit TCAA pieces hold a special and different meaning for me. These pieces represent the opportunity for unbridled creativity, finally allowing those thoughts and ideas out of my head and into precious metal.

This year is the 20th Anniversary of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association’s Annual Exhibition & Sale. The shows objective is simple yet complicated- Create Works that Push Technical, Design, Artistic and Creative Boundaries in the four Cowboy Art disciplines (Silversmithing, Bit and Spurmaking, Saddlemaking and Rawhide Braiding). I feel blessed that as a founding member I have participated in each of the shows. As a matter of record over the last 19 years between my own pieces and pieces I have collaborated on I have averaged 9 projects per year which translates to 171 projects to date.

These projects whether my own or a collaboration require long hours of Thought, Planning and Work. But truly for me they represent Knowledge, Experience and Growth as a Craftsman, Artist and Person.

Hardy Shot Glasses

Beginning my journey as a Western Silversmith 39 years ago my Number One Goal was to become the best I could be. Thank You to the TCAA, NC&WHM, Collectors, Clients and Family for this Opportunity making it possible for me to work towards that goal.
See You in the Fall.

As I write this looking back on 2017, it was a year filled with a lot of excitement and new obstacles to navigate. This was my first full year as the newest member of the TCAA. While exciting, this was a goal I had worked diligently towards for several years, this ushered in not only new opportunities, but new responsibilities and demands to work into my schedule. I certainly didn’t want to drop the ball right out of the chute, so to speak.

For many years, I have run my business by going to a few, select shows each year for which I prepare inventory to sell and take custom orders. Over the years, this list of shows has changed and been refined as I have found what works, and my customer base has changed and expanded. This year, the task of creating 4 pieces of my best work for the Cowboy Crossings show was added to my list. My years of preparing for shows and the TCAA’s application process itself was a bit of preparation. For two years, I had already created 3 pieces of work, once when I got in, and once when I didn’t—so to some level, I already had experience balancing these “big” projects with income-producing activities and still prioritizing family time on the home front. Without the requirements and constraints of the application process the previous 2 years, I think this would have been overwhelming. Although stressful at times, it was exciting, rewarding, and well worth the effort.

For five years, my family and I had made the investment and effort to attend Cowboy Crossings at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. It was always inspiring and breathtaking to walk into that show the first night and see all the pieces displayed. Magnify that about a thousand times, when you walk in and see your own pieces behind the glass. Stuff gets real!! I tried not to act giddy like a tourist at Disneyland and reminded myself to “act like you’ve been there before, Compton” and to take it all in and enjoy it. One of the most rewarding parts, was taking my children to the family preview night so they could see a goal accomplished, as we had all worked as a family and sacrificed at times. Sale night was full of different emotions and one I won’t soon forget!

As my responsibilities increase, I am continually trying to improve my work and my product. Looking forward, I realize that you must always reevaluate the costs and benefits of where you spend your time and effort. There’s only so much time in a day, and you can’t do everything.

The TCAA’s mission is to preserve and promote the skills of craftsman within our disciplines. I got my first chance to participate in an educational venture at the Emerging Artist Competition at the High Noon Show in Mesa, AZ. Twice before, I had been a contestant. This year, it was quite an honor, yet humbling, to spend time with a great group of silversmiths judging and critiquing their work to help them reach their goals. I look forward to more of these opportunities.

Overall, my “Rookie” year in the TCAA was extremely rewarding. It was well worth the effort to set a goal and spend years toward it. I am excited about the projects I am working on this year, and to see what’s in store as the chapters unfold.

The last several years I have had the opportunity to continue my education, or portions of it, by studying under some great craftsmen/artists. I want to take the opportunity to explain the importance of this. Not only the aspect of improving my skill set, but how it affects the day to day approach of working in the shop.

One of the hardest things we face as self-employed, creative types is the difficulty of being able to be productive and creative from one day to the next. How do we keep from becoming burned out? The answer is easy, you had better love it! But even love takes cultivation; it either grows or it dies. This is only my viewpoint and I don’t expect it to work for everyone, but maybe it will work for some.

I am one that likes to create something new and challenging from one project to the next. The mass production world that I was involved in during my apprentice years was not the answer for me. We built the same old thing day in and day out. No thank you! That was not for me! As I established my own business I needed, or wanted, to have some fun. I wanted to create things I wasn’t even sure how or even if I could. Today, I am a custom piece artist who brings the customer into the design process from the beginning and helps them tell their story through my work. I want my customers to have ownership in the piece before I ever get started. The piece needs to be theirs. Is this challenging? I would argue that it doesn’t get any harder. Getting the story from some of you is not an easy task and then to be able to create it is a whole other level of difficulty. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Now, how do I stay interested doing work that is someone else’s idea? Well, I still get to command the pencil and swing the hammer. I get to put my mark on it so it must have my story involved in it as well. That is where the continuing education comes in. I am always wanting to try something new and get my customers’ story told in a way that is totally different. In order for my skills to stay fresh, I have to expose myself to other forms and mediums of metal craft. I have to educate myself from other professionals’ experiences. The TCAA has a requirement for me do something different and improved each and every year. This just so happens to fit my personality perfectly.

A couple years ago, Scott Hardy and myself spent a week with master engraver Sam Alfano in Covington, LA. I should have done it 10 years ago! I was exposed to a whole new level of art that has sparked a fire in me that is really hard to control. As I learn new skills and work to master them, maintaining a marketable product, or one that fits within the defined budget of my customer, is a whole other problem! That is a topic for another day. But the exciting part is, Sam introduced me to skills I didn’t know were possible. That in turn has taken me to other avenues of education.

Last January, GRS in Emporia, KS held a class called the Grand Master’s Program. They accepted 12 people from around the world to come study under a Grand Master that would otherwise be difficult to gain the opportunity to study under. Alain Lovenberg, a Belgium engraver, taught the class. Sam was the first to introduce me to the work of Alain and I have to say he quickly became one of my favorite people to gain inspiration from. GRS sent out an advertisement promoting the class in late 2016. Entries needed to be turned in by March 2017 when they would then be reviewed for acceptance. Applicants would be informed of who was accepted in April. Of course, a nominal fee was required upon your entry (that I didn’t feel I like I had). Then with your acceptance, the other half of the total tuition was required. I felt that if I was accepted I would figure that part out! There was only one small minor detail that was a real inconvenience for me. That was the date for the class. No, I didn’t have anything scheduled, but it just so happened to fall the second week of August. That is one week after the deadline for the TCAA show. No problem, right? Get your work in on time and you’re good. That in itself is always scary, but also one must remember TCAA members build their work for the show without any compensation until and if your works sell in October. The short of it is, I would be flat out broke after spending 4-6 months building for Cowboy Crossings. I thought long and hard about it. I weighed the options carefully and determined that it was going to be much cheaper to go to Emporia, a 9-hour drive, than it would be to go to Belgium. As far as the time, when is a good time? The money? I never have any!! The opportunity to study under one of today’s greats is irreplaceable! I could not pass this up.

I tell you all this to share that I too have the same doubts and fears that everyone else has. I was scared I wouldn’t get in. Didn’t know whether I could pay for it. How would my family do with me leaving for two weeks? The class wasn’t cheap, but leaving for two weeks was definitely going to be expensive. I would be all by myself!! No one to sit by me and be my buddy! The end of the story is I made it. I got accepted. I got everything paid for. My family survived and the bills were paid. The inspiration and the knowledge I gained was priceless. The new friends I made are characters I can add to my story that make it all that much more valuable. If I had listened to logic and gave into my fears, I wouldn’t be the craftsman I am today. I wouldn’t have the burning desire to get to the shop to see if I can accomplish what I believe I now can do. All this is what keeps me going.

The other thing this class did was introduce the outside world to people like me who wear a cowboy hat. Yes, I was the only one wearing a hat in Kansas and was one of the few who didn’t have a tattoo. They got used to me in time. *Giggle*. The world doesn’t know what the West has to offer. I was able to add something to their continuing education program that maybe they weren’t expecting. No, I probably didn’t show a new level of engraving or skill that they didn’t already know. But maybe I offered an insight to the Western world that created some interest as to what we offer. Our western story has a very important role in the history of North America. I hope more people will recognize our value and abilities as craftsmen.

In closing, it is okay to be scared. We all have fears and the challenge of facing them is huge. I write this to encourage you to accept your fears and to face them. I am not trying to make everyone a custom bit and spur maker. We all have a place in this world, whether you are in mass production that focuses on function or the custom maker who tends to focus on the artistic side of the story. We are all in this together and to stay focused and inspired is challenging. Continuing my education is a way I do it. There are many different aspects to bit and spur making so something is always around the corner to try next. You just gotta try it.

As December rolls thru our lives and we look back at the past year we can’t help stumble over a years worth of clutter . Much like my leather scrap box which is overflowing ( or your silver scrap or rawhide bin ) I wonder what do you do with it . As the leather scraps go I invested in some machinery to help thin it and cut it into products that will bring in in income …….When I can find the “Time ” .  

So it all boils down to “Time” ……and how to use it effectively

I honestly at times didn’t utilize my time in the best way this past year …hence the end of the year “Clutter” . Did I do that project.. Did I write that important note or thank you card …the list of my clutter can get pretty long and I stumble over it at times .

So as the new year approaches I’m going to attack my life’s clutter in the same way I approaching my leather scrap pile…. I’m going to make “Time” to clean it up and not let it build up to the point of tripping over it .

So it brings us back to “Time”

My resolution is to use it more wisely mainly because it is to precious to waste !!
And I’m  using this moment in time to wish you all a blessed holiday season and hope that  we all use our precious time wisely

John Willemsma

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.

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.

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