How Necessity Became Art

How Necessity Became Art

Cowboy gear has evolved over the centuries, then and now, proving to be works of art. The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition and Sale at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum celebrates the craft.

a hackamore from the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition and Sale (credit: courtesy of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum)

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By Michael J. Nicola for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

As the population of North American began to grow, especially in the early 1800s, there became a bigger need to feed the people arriving in North America. Eventually the main food source was beef. The western part of the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico, because of their grasslands, became the breeding ground for the thousands and thousands of cattle needed to feed the ever-growing population.

How do you manage these vast herds of cattle? In 1519 Spanish explorer Cortez introduced working horses to North America, and even though horses were the primary source of transportation they soon became the primary tool in managing cattle. The next important tool to the men and women managing cattle, was the gear used to control the horse. After all, it would be tough to manage the horse, who is helping the cowboy manage the cattle without a saddle, bridle, spurs, etc.

This gear wasn’t created for the cowboy in North America. There is evidence that rawhide braiding dates back to 6500 BC. However, Cortez had men who braided headstalls and ropes and they introduced rawhide braiding to the Americas. It wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 1900s that rawhide braiding became more popular with working cowboys in the west. Saddles have also been around for hundreds of years, before leather craftsmen started to redesign saddles to be more conducive to working cattle. Spurs did not originate in North America either but again they were brought here by explorers and later modified for the working cowboy. Bits have a similar history. The first metal bits were made in approximately 1400 BC. The Conquistadores brought silver from the old world and eventually Vaqueros adorned their pantalons with silver coins and decorated their saddles and bridles with silver. It wasn’t until cowboys started gathering to show off their skills at early versions of rodeo that silver appeared. Initially cowboys who competed wore a leather kidney belt as a trophy. When they won and event, a piece of carved metal was attached to the belt. Eventually the kidney belt was tossed aside and the metal plates became buckles made of silver. The point is that most cowboy gear has a very long history and over time it has been reworked to serve the cowboy and his horse.  

After the Civil War, the cattle industry flourished and the demand for working cowboy gear increased. Dedicated craftsmen became more and more popular. Leather craftsmen building saddles and headstalls and chaps. The blacksmith making bits and spurs, rawhide braiders making headstalls, reins, ropes and hobbles and silversmiths creating symbols of success for the cowboy. As the North American West grew, this gear became a vital necessity as early as 175 years ago and is still a necessity today. As a matter of fact, the state of Texas has a population of 26 million people and a population of approximately 10 million head of cattle.

Unfortunately, as we moved toward the end of the 20th century, the individual craftsmen in these trades started to fade away. It was no longer a generation-to-generation craft that was passed down. Bits, spurs and saddles were now being mass produced offshore. Needless to say, with mass production comes a lack of quality and imagination. The modern working cowboy had to settle for something less. 

“Deep in the heart of almost everyone, is the desire to surround themselves with things that somehow feed our souls. The progression of making our tools and things of beauty is a part of the human story from day one.” Cary Schwarz - Saddle maker

In 1998 a group of lingering craftsmen; saddle makers, rawhide braiders, bit and spur makers and silversmiths, gathered together to try to figure out how to preserve these trades. Later that year, the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association was formed by that group of 14 craftsmen. Their mission statement was straightforward: 

“The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association is dedicated to preserving and promoting the skills of saddle making, bit & spur making silversmithing, rawhide braiding and the role of these tradition crafts in representing the Cowboy Culture of the North American West.”

So, the question remained, how do they achieve their mission? They realized they needed to get young craftsmen interested in these specific trades, then educate and assist them in perfecting their skill levels. Also, in order to accomplish this goal, they had to educate not only working cowboys but the public on the quality of individual work versus mass produced products. They needed help. 

The work of Wilson Capron was featured on the March-April 2023 cover of The American Quarter Horse Journal, the AQHA membership magazine.

“I could be the greatest bit and spur maker in the world, but if no one knew about me or my work, it would be hard to share the pieces and skills with those interested. Sharing my passion is hard to do without a stage to do so.” Wilson Capron – Bit and Spur maker

Don Reeves, Curator/McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture, at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, knew a couple members of the newly formed TCAA and was invited to their first organized meeting in Elko, Nevada. Don in turn invited Ken Townsend who at the time was president of the Museum to join them. After two days in a back room of the Denny’s in Elko they came up with a solution. The Museum would host an annual exhibit and sale. However, there was one challenge that faced this group of craftsmen; could they produce “museum-worthy pieces” for the show? In other words, were they capable of taking their craft to art? 

“ The first day I started to engrave my dad said we better start talking about art and design. I said oh no Pop I don’t want to be an artist; I just like making bits and spurs and engraving. He said what do you think that is? It is art and you have to embrace it whether you want to or not.” Wilson Capron

In the fall of 1999, the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association had its first sale and exhibition at the Museum. These cowboy/craftsmen succeeded in bringing art to the show. Yes, these craftsmen became artists!  Even though their art is meant to be displayed in homes and offices, each and every piece that is created is still functional for the cowboy. In other words, a saddle made by Colorado saddle maker and TCAA member John Willemsma can be displayed in a Boardroom at a major corporation one day and put on a back of a horse the next day. It all starts with an idea, a pencil and a piece of paper. They have taken the necessary tools of the North American cowboy to the level of art. 

“Each Traditional Cowboy Arts Association member is a master of their discipline. Not only understanding function but the beauty and benefit of design and ornamentation. How, when brought together they surpass function and in doing so they not only give the owner pleasure but also break the barrier between function and art.” Scott Hardy - Silversmith 

The 25-year partnership with the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has grown strong each year because of the quality of the art. Here are a few results of the past 25 years:

  • There have been 23 shows/sales (one was missed due to Covid)
  • 900 one-of-a-kind pieces have been displayed
  • The accumulated value of the shows was approximately $10 million
  • Average sell through of 70% with two shows selling out
  • 113 Saddles have sold with an average value of $30,000

In addition to the annual sales and exhibits, the TCAA has conduct 40 workshops for craftsmen at the Museum. The TCAA has also awarded over $300,000 in scholarships and fellowships. In 2018, a coffee table book authored by A. J. Mangum about the history and members of the TCAA was published called “Cowboy Renaissance”.

TCAA’s 24th sale will be October 6-7 this year at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. If you are a cowboy, show horses, ride for pleasure or simply love the West, its history and culture, I would encourage to make a trip to Oklahoma City the first weekend of October, to see the show and meet with each of the artist.

Visit the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association Exhibition & Sale, presented by Mr. and Mrs. Kraig Kirschner, on display at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum from October 6, 2023, to January 2, 2024. 

Here's to necessity becoming art!

If you would like more information about the TCAA or the Museum you can go to their websites at: tcowboyarts.org and nationalcowboymuseum.org.