Several members of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association recently took time to reflect on the history of this organization and offered their observations on the dreams, impact and future of the TCAA.
Cary Schwarz recalled a conversation with Mike Beaver at a trade show in Elko, Nevada, in January of 1998. Mike said, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could make a nice rawhide braided rein and romal, and display it as art knowing that there was enough appreciation for it that it would find a new home?” Their conversations turned to how this might happen and where a show like this could be held. “Little did we know then that a group would form and find a home at the National Cowboy Museum,” added Schwarz.
After several private “what if” discussions and long-distance phone calls to other peers, a small group of craftsmen drove to Hayden Lake, Idaho, in May, 1998. Those eight gathered to determine if there was enough interest in this dream, enough commitment and enough organizational skill to hold such a group together. Though several gear shows had received popular acclaim, community leadership and the allegiance of the participants proved unreliable. Those present realized that the leadership of such a group of craftsmen must come from within—the makers needed to lead and be responsible for their own organization. These few had the fortitude to accept this challenge—to cowboy up.
As the initial business advisor and then volunteer Secretary/Treasurer, Don Bellamy recalled, “The founding members shared a common dream and challenge to establish an organization that would serve the best interests of the trades they chose to represent.” Through his guidance and leadership, the TCAA soon had a firm footing as a legally recognized non-profit organization. Bellamy passionately believed in this small group of dreamers and their priorities of, “setting the standard, focusing on the next generation, building an internationally recognized brand and establishing a relationship with a national venue.”
It is intriguing to note that it was a common cause that brought these men together. They all had successful careers and more orders than they could fill, yet, each felt an obligation to change the prevailing course of their trades. The future at that time did not appear promising for those who built custom, handcrafted treasures for horsemen of the West.
Chuck Stormes noted that, “In 1998, the founding members recognized an urgent need to preserve an appreciation for fine craftsmanship and respond with an aggressive education program that continues to spur a renaissance in functional Western art.”
Supporters have commented that the innovative educational programs of the TCAA have not only increased the appreciation for these arts but also 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 weighty responsibility that mentorship carries soon became obvious. Once the public mantle of master craftsman is donned there is little opportunity for resting or producing work of casual effort. When standards have been visibly elevated in a career, the public does not is tolerant of utilitarian work casually produced – lacking clean, precise stitching in leather or exacting, well-engraved metal work.
“In a few short years the members of the association,” asserts Scott Hardy, “transitioned from their dream of artistic freedom—a release from the shackles of the customer’s specific likes and dislikes—to creating an artistic exhibition that revealed new directions for the entire concept of Western craft and equestrian fineries.” First and foremost, the intent of the annual TCAA exhibition is to place on public view works of national importance. Each item is presented in a gallery setting as art distinct from the typical sales booth or fair venue. Each member is presented in the gallery as an artist who has prepared special, never-seen-before, works to be seen by thousands of visitors each fall.
It is important for the public to understand that only items that have been exhibited to this international audience and documented in the catalogs of this annual exhibition can bear the TCAA trademark. These are works that demonstrate the abilities and creativity of the artists as they stretch their talents to produce, not one but several, works of functional art representing a personal test of their skills and effort. This sacrificial effort is difficult to understand while viewing the exhibition. Members often devote several months to their annual exhibition pieces.
Scott Hardy recently commented on the scheduling obligations his TCAA commitment requires of him, and his family, each year. “By February I am working on my projects and collaborations two or three days a week and by May flip it around so I work on TCAA four days a week, orders two or three days a week. June, July and the first week in August are TCAA only. As soon as I’m done TCAA projects I must get right back to orders to pay the bills! What people don’t understand is we in the TCAA spend an incredible amount of time and material (which has to be paid up front) designing and creating these one of a kind pieces with no guarantee of sale. If we are blessed to have the piece sell we get paid in November. We do this because we believe in the TCAA and the importance of its mission—we believe in the West!”
This organization, 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. At major gatherings or auctions you no longer hear talk of “these dying arts” and “work that just isn’t done anymore.” You are more likely to hear knowledgeable collectors referring to work they have found across the country that reflects new levels of quality and ability. “The TCAA has opened up levels of craftsmanship never before seen,” asserts Wilson Capron. Though one or the TCAA’s youngest members, Capron has become one of it’s most active and passionate instructors.
Ernie Marsh observed that, “We have set a forward thinking course for longevity, but simply put, the long-term future of the TCAA will rely on the influx of up-and-coming makers who are willing to commit themselves to achieving excellence in quality within our respective trades. Given TCAA’s focus on the education of our trades from it’s inception in 1998, Western enthusiasts should expect to see a lot of new talent out there—some of whom may wish to represent the future of the TCAA.”
McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture