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.