The Traditional Cowboy Artists Association membership gathered at their 2012 spring meeting with the resolve to strengthen their educational efforts and redefine the TCAA scholarship program that had granted almost $100,000 to those seeking mentorship opportunities in the trades they represent. The members committed to a new competition for aspiring Western craftsmen as well as a fellowship award designed to provide a more substantial investment in each recipient.
The resulting TCAA Emerging Artists Competition “not only showcases the high level workmanship being produced by contemporary makers to collectors and enthusiasts but also is educational for the participating gearmakers so they can continue to advance the quality of their work,” observed Brian Hochstrat, 2014 winner of the bit and spur maker category. He also asserted it “will help move the industry forward.”
It is exciting to witness the positive outcome of this relatively new program. For the past two years the public has witnessed a unique gathering of Western men and women at the High Noon Western American show in Arizona. On both occasions 15 to 20 artists milled around the TCAA sponsored booth at the show. They bunched into small groups of four or five, hands in pockets but engrossed in animated discussions about complicated braiding techniques or the advantages of a new portable engraving ball. Though the artists welcomed questions from interested buyers, they were so excited to be immersed in this rare opportunity to share experiences and ask peers about vexing obstacles, each maker seemed oblivious to the interested public trying to elbow past them and view their work on display.
When the Traditional Cowboy Artists Association formed in 1998, the founding members recognized a need to increase the appreciation for fine craftsmanship and develop an aggressive education program. Unlike most business associations, the intent of this group is not to promote the careers of members but to set new standards for the industry and aide emerging artists in their common goal to establish full-time careers within the traditional Western trades.
The invitational Emerging Artists Competition is held annually at, and supported by, the High Noon Western Americana Show in Mesa, Arizona. Participants are selected each year from a list of applicants. They can enter only one category: silversmithing, saddlemaking, rawhide braiding or bit and spur making. Ten participants in each category are selected. Two categories are featured each year with a winner selected for each discipline.
TCAA members judge the submissions of each contestant using a standardized scoring system they developed. A printed explanation of that system is available to all entrants so there is a common understanding of desired elements. The winner in each discipline receives $1,000 cash award and travel expenses to attend the TCAA exhibition opening as a guest of the TCAA organization.
“When I entered the TCAA Emerging Artist I had no expectations other than the chance to meet and in some cases exchange ideas about braiding and cowboy gear making,” reflected Bret Haskett, winner of the 2014 rawhide braiding category. “I believe the competition helps encourage these arts to remain an important part of the cowboy culture well into the future.”
Supporters have commented that the innovative educational programs of the TCAA have not only increased the appreciation for these arts but also have revived the careers of many makers. One-on-one mentorships and specialized workshops have brought hope to young men and women who now believe they can make a full-time living pursuing these time-honored Western trades.
The TCAA Fellowship for Cowboy Craftsmen is also in its second year. The plan is to offer educational opportunities to a small number of highly motivated craftspeople that will benefit from intensive mentoring in areas tailored to their specific needs. It is awarded annually in one of the disciplines represented by the Association to a craftsperson who has demonstrated commitment and passion in the pursuit of excellence.
Applications must include a biographical essay outlining the applicant’s career path and goals, a photographic portfolio showing the progression of the applicant’s work to date and letters of support from mentors or others with stature in the discipline. Each fellowship carries a value of up to $12,000, covering travel and tuition for an individual mentoring over the course of one year. The recipients of the fellowships are announced each year at the TCAA exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
“As their first recipient of the fellowship I was thoroughly impressed with the program,” said Braidie Butters. “I cannot put into words the value of this opportunity. I would encourage any aspiring artist/craftsman to take every opportunity to work with the members of the TCAA.”
The 2013 TCAA Fellowship recipient Steve Mason, High River, Alberta, spent four days with Cary Schwarz. He received private instruction on specific details of saddle construction as well as floral design and leather carving. “One of the most inspiring things from the weekend,” noted Mason, “was Cary’s true passion to improve his own craft…to make every saddle better than the last, was very inspirational and will help me to continue my never ending quest to improve my craft.”
The TCAA, born at the turn of the 21st Century, has reversed the trend that indicated a decline in traditions and skills important to the Western community. There is renewed growth in the time-honored trades of saddlemaking, rawhide braiding, bit and spurs making as well as Western silversmithing.
“The TCAA has opened up levels of craftsmanship never before seen,” asserts member Wilson Capron. “More importantly, it has taught these skills and created a strong fellowship among craftsmen from all levels that will ensure our traditions will survive.”
It is heartwarming to witness the selfless generosity of the concept “pay it forward,” random acts of kindness such as paying for the next person’s meal.
Also, it is quite inspiring to witness the deliberate actions of artisans motivated to invest their time and talents in the careers of the next generation of men and women who will redefine the Western arts.
Donald W. Reeves
McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture