By Nick Pernokas
Recently I sat down with some of the officers, and long time members, of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. We discussed the state of the high-end, high-quality western industry, and some of the problems that many of us face. I think you’ll be interested in what they had to say about how they can help you. Pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee and I’ll introduce you. Their stories may sound familiar.
Current secretary-treasurer, and founding member of the Traditional
Cowboy Arts Association, Cary Schwarz grew up drawing. He loved to make signs
and draw cartoons. He became known as the class artist, and the positive
feedback he received from his peers encouraged him further. When he was 19, he
became interested in horses and by 21 he was using horses to hunt in the back
country of Idaho.
In 1979, Cary Schwarz started working leather professionally
at a holster shop in Twin Falls, Idaho. At the time he didn’t realize that this
would become his profession. He became interested in saddlemaking, and in 1982
Cary attended a saddlemaking school in Spokane, Washington, taught by Jesse
Smith. The pieces began to come together.
“Once I was introduced to the artistic aspects of decorating
saddles, I was hooked,” says Cary. “I took to that like a duck to water.”
In 1984, Cary purchased a western store and saddle shop in Salmon,
Idaho. He set out making basic cowboy gear, but with an eye towards emulating
the workmanship of older makers like Dale Harwood.
In 1987, Cary’s work was accepted in the Trappings of the
American West show in Flagstaff, Arizona. His work was on display alongside makers
like Don King and Chuck Stormes.
In 1988, Cary moved his business off of Main Street Salmon in
order to focus more on custom saddle work.
Today, he works out of a beautiful shop in his home. Just
the view of the mountains out his back window can get your artistic juices flowing.
As a top leather artist, his works are sought out, as is his teaching. He puts
on various schools on facets of saddlemaking, and has an excellent set of DVDs
available for the students that can’t come to him.
“It’s been a long journey to get to where I am today. I’m still learning a lot of exciting things these days.”
Incoming TCAA president, and 11-year member, John Willemsma
dreamed of being a commercial artist and cartoonist in high school. He also
discovered the world of cowboys though, and the art classes were pushed aside
for a new passion. John purchased a well-worn saddle at an auction and decided
to fix it up. He soon realized that there was more to that than he had thought.
He began saving his money for a trade school that taught saddlemaking. In 1976,
John attended TSTI in Amarillo for a year. His journey as a saddlemaker had
begun. He apprenticed with various shops for 10 years, before opening his own
shop in Oklahoma. After having an encounter with serious heart problems,
followed by open heart surgery, John recuperated in Colorado. He loved the
mountains, so he moved near Westcliffe, Colorado, where his shop is located
today. John builds custom saddles and tack for working cowboys. Three months
every year is dedicated to making projects for the TCAA show. Another month is
dedicated to TCAA meetings and business. John enjoys going to ranch ropings in
his spare time.
John does a lot of research for his TCAA projects. This
ranges from books to museums.
“I think the collector base likes a historical type item in their home. Something that has to tell a story,” says John.
Current president, bit and spur maker Wilson Capron was
rodeoing and team roping with Shawn Darnell when he was introduced to bit
making. When he was staying at Shawn’s house, he began doing some work for
Shawn’s dad, well known bit maker Greg Darnell. Greg taught Wilson the
mechanics of making bits.
“I worked for Greg for a year and a half, and it was just a
job to pay entry fees,” says Wilson. “Then Greg started me engraving and it was
so fun! It was tough and challenging, just like my roping.”
Wilson’s dad was a West Texas cowboy and artist and he pushed Wilson to recognize the artistic side of the work that he was doing. Wilson thought that he would have to develop his engraving skill to use on guns. He didn’t think that the western culture would enable him to make a living engraving bits and spurs.
In 2003, TCAA member Leland Hensley told Wilson about a bit
making workshop the TCAA was hosting. Wilson expected them to be a cliquish
group that really wouldn’t show an outsider much.
“I went up there with prejudiced ideas. I couldn’t have been
more wrong. It was the most welcoming group of individuals. They wanted to help
me and encouraged me to get better.”
Wilson found himself wanting to be part of that group and
the excellence that they represented. In 2004 he applied, and to his surprise
“I wouldn’t be the maker I am today if it hadn’t been for
Wilson feels that the TCAA has been instrumental in increasing the possibility of bit and spur makers to make a living without having to have a supplemental income. This has been done through the education of the collector base, as well as other makers.
Alberta cowboy Scott Hardy got into silver work to “buy land
“God laughs at you when you make plans though,” says Scott.
Scott took a night course on jewelry making. It really
didn’t touch on the western-style work that he was interested in, but it was a
start. Scott studied pictures of engraving in magazines and tried to copy it.
“The more I got into it, the more I liked it.”
Within three years, Scott was silversmithing full time. It
was hard to learn the techniques he needed though. In the Eighties, all of the
trades were more secretive and it took him four years to find someone to help
him with his engraving. Cliff Ketchum became the first craftsmen to physically teach
Scott how to engrave. A few years later, he was able to get some help from Mark
Drain. Most of Scott’s business was making trophy buckles for roping events and
rodeos. He could make a buckle a day and was getting about $100 a piece for
them. One day, he ran into a friend who owned a large production company. He
told Scott that he was filling a large order and making 20 a day for $80 per
“I saw the writing on the wall,” says Scott.
Scott realized that he couldn’t compete with a production
company that had invested in the technology to duplicate the work he was doing
by hand. He set his sights on doing
better work for better markets and more money. Scott eventually developed a
reputation as being one of the best “western oriented” silversmiths in North America.
In 1998, Cary went to the National Cowboy Poetry Show in Elko,
Nevada. A Cowboy Gear Show was held in conjunction at the Red Lion hotel.
Many top craftsmen were there, including braider Mike
Beaver. As usual, downtime conversation turned to the difficulties of making a
living with high-end cowboy gear.
Mike Beaver told Cary that he hoped he would sell enough
“keychains and trinkets” to pay for the trip. He also said that it was rare to
sell a good pair of braided reins at a show.
“Frankly, it was Mike Beaver’s idea to found a group that
would exhibit top quality work in a nice venue,” remembers Cary. The spark was
lit in the form of a “what if?”
Conversations among makers were followed by a meeting at Don
Bellamy’s home in Idaho. Don would become the secretary-treasurer of the group
for nearly 20 years.
Cary Schwarz approached Scott Hardy with Mike Beaver’s idea.
At first, Scott had reservations.
“I was doing ok and I was a little concerned that it was
just a promotional deal.”
About the same time, several magazine articles came out
about silver production companies touting their “handmade” techniques, which
supposedly produced the best quality products.
“I knew that wasn’t right. My influences were craftsmen like
Al Pecetti, Mark Drain and Dan Murray. They were the best of the best, and it
was an insult to me to see these other people claiming that they were the
Scott realized that the general public didn’t know about
these craftsmen or their work. The larger companies had higher visibility
through the media. Thinking about what Cary was trying to do, Scott thought
that perhaps the higher end craftsmen did need a group to get their stories out
to the public. Scott and his friend, Chuck Stormes, decided to drive to Hayden
Lake, Idaho, to attend a meeting of other cowboy gear makers.
Hayden Lake was where Mike Beaver lived. Scott Hardy, Chuck
Stormes, Ernie Marsh and Don King were some of those in attendance. Twelve
active craftsmen became the framework of the new group. At this meeting, the
focus turned from a purely retail one, to one of education. This has continued
to be the driving principle of the group.
“I told Chuck on the ride down, that if this was solely for
promotion, I wasn’t interested. If it was for education, and moving the trades
ahead, then I was all in,” remembers Scott Hardy. “Within 10 minutes in that
room, it became evident that everyone felt the same way.”
It was decided that the best way to educate people about the
cowboy arts was to have a show that would showcase the best of the best. Each
maker was to pick one of four disciplines and create the best work he could in
only that discipline for the show. The goal was for each discipline to become
the best that it could be within the group. The categories were for bit and
spur making, saddlemaking, silver work and braiding. As it developed, there was
collaboration between craftsmen of different disciplines, which created even
more unique pieces.
Hours were spent on the phone, hammering out the structure
of the nonprofit status of the group. The Cowboy Artists of America was loosely
used as a model since there were many similarities between the two groups. The
name of the group was decided on a coin flip after a tie vote. The Traditional
Cowboy Arts Association was born.
A year after Mike’s first comments about forming a group ,
the TCAA met with Ken Townsend,
executive director of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and Don Reeves,
curator of the museum, at the Denny’s restaurant in Elko, Nevada. An agreement
was reached to hold the first TCAA show at the National Cowboy and Western
Heritage Museum in the fall of 1999. In 2001, Scott Hardy taught the first
workshop there for 14 engravers.
Not everyone could or wanted to be a member. The application
process was strenuous, in regards to the quality of the makers’ work. The time
required to make projects for the show and attending meetings was significant.
“It’s not for everybody, if for no other reason than it is a
volunteer service organization. Nobody is compensated for their time,” says
Longtime volunteer Kent McCorkle has been hired as the CEO
of the TCAA. The membership felt that it was time to hire a full-time
professional in order to take the organization to its next level. Kent
interfaces with the groups that the TCAA participates in events with.
Perception of the TCAA varied across the industry. There
were many naysayers in the beginning who didn’t understand the ultimate goals
of the organization.
The TCAA‘s main goal is to create educational opportunities.
They do this in several ways. First, they make education opportunities
available for other craftsmen and artists. The primary vehicle for this is
their annual TCAA show, which is held at the National Cowboy Museum and
Heritage Center every fall. Not only is there some unique work showcased, but workshops
are offered to show how to get to that level. This year, noted engraver Sam Alfano
will be teaching a class in scrollwork.
“People can come and see what we’ve done. We’re trying to
take these trades as far as we can take them,” says Cary.
The second educational prong is the two fellowships, worth
$12,000 each, which are given each year to promising, up-and-coming craftsmen.
The students are able to get individual mentoring from TCAA members. The TCAA
members’ time used for mentoring other craftsmen is the only activity that they
are compensated for.
The third prong is an Emerging Artists competition, which
gives an incentive for young artists to produce a high-quality product and be
recognized for it. A different discipline is featured every year in the contest.
This year’s competition involves bits and spurs and will be held in Mesa,
Arizona, in January. The hefty cash prizes can really help a young artist’s
Additional workshops are offered during the year in various
The TCAA members also include themselves under continuing
education and have made several trips to other countries to study with leading
craftsmen in similar genres. This gives the TCAA additional knowledge to use in
its own workshops.
“We’re still trying to find ways to gain more relevance for
our trades. And we still are encountering significant headwinds. The culture at
large is becoming more and more price sensitive. Everything, including the
cowboy culture, is changing rapidly due to the internet. It is becoming a
shallow culture, and we are asking what value do you place on fine craftsmanship?
We consider ourselves a counterculture movement,” says Cary.
Cary feels that the debate has always been “how fast can I
make it” versus “how nice can I make it,” in order to make more money. The TCAA
has made some headway in advancing the argument for quality in the western
industry, but the culture of instant gratification is a tough opponent.
Frequently, mass production calls itself custom high-end work, but the TCAA is
trying to define it for all of the craftsmen fighting the same battle daily in
“The distinction that we would like to make is that this
type of work is making one of one, and developing genuine personal relationships
with our customers,” says Cary.
The crux of the problem is that a craftsman has to be paid
more for providing high-level products and services. The TCAA wants to be able
to give individual craftsmen the confidence to be able to raise their prices
and make a good living on, say, making a saddle.
“The hard part is to be able to stand up straight in our own
shop and present our prices unapologetically. That’s where we suck. And I’m
raising my hand here too,” says Cary. “Craftsmen and artists are notoriously
“The trouble is that a lot of guys in the profession don’t
look at it as a profession,” says Scott. “I look at it like a doctor, lawyer or
In other words, most craftsmen agree that they’d like to
make as much as the plumbers, electricians and mechanics that they deal with.
Although everyone needs these other professions, it is also easier to learn
them and to find a good tradesman. The cowboy craftsman realizes that he is
making a luxury product that not everyone needs, and it can make him timid to
ask what he needs to get for it. Indeed, some craftsmen price their work a
little over the cost of materials and can barely make a living. Some are lucky
enough to have a spouse with a good job. But, what they do doesn’t happen in a
vacuum. It directly lowers the average price for these goods, and makes it
harder for someone else who is trying to make a profit.
“You’d think a good journeyman would be able to make as much
as a plumber,” says Scott. “Here a plumber makes $80 per hour. That’s pretty
standard for an average jeweler. How many saddlemakers do you think are getting
The TCAA is trying to restore economic stability to these
trades. If the craftsman cannot make a decent wage for what he does, the small
shops will fall by the way and mass production will be the only choice the
“We’re trying to use the collective power of the group to
speak for the little guys out there that are trying to carve out a living,”
“If we don’t build levels in this market, and we don’t show
people the benefits of handmade versus production items, we’re going to be in
trouble. Technology is snapping at our heels,” says Scott.
In the vein of “a rising tide raises all boats,” when
western goods are pushed to their artistic limits and then priced and sold at
high prices, this raises the ceiling on the market over all. The general
western consumer may not purchase a silver-and-gold-encrusted, finely-tooled
saddle to rope steers with, but if he’s informed as to what they’re worth, a
$6000 rough out saddle will not seem so expensive. This change of consumer
perspective can only occur if there is a high ceiling on prices to be aware of.
John Willemsma puts it this way, “ ‘Elevating the legacy of
the traditional cowboy arts’ is our catch phrase. There has to be a group of
people out there that tries to bring it to another level.”
John feels that this means bringing the western arts to
places outside of the West and developing new markets. It means going beyond
making a cowboy saddle and selling it to a cowboy.
“The future is unclear right now because we’re moving into
uncharted territory,” says Wilson Capron. “We want the world to know what the
West is about and expose them to that. If I teach an individual how to be the
best bit and spur maker in the world, but I don’t have a place for him to take
the art that he has created, then the disciplines aren’t going to survive. ”
Wilson emphasizes that there is a place for everyone in this
business, no matter what their comfort zone or price point is. He just wants
them to be able to earn a living wage doing good work.
“I would hope that the person who’s just trying to get by
would know that we’re not a threat…that we’re working for him. We’re a team
player within the industry, and we’re doing everything we can to make his
struggles easier. We’re all in this together,” says Wilson.
“I want to see a young guy come up behind me and take it as
far as he can,” says Scott. “It’s frustrating to me to have somebody look at
the cowboy trades as subpar.”
Wilson believes that the world of mass production fills an
important need in western culture. But, he wants people to be aware that a
“one-of-a-kind, made-for-them” piece is pretty special, and that it is
available to them, whether they live in New York City or the heart of Texas.
“You don’t have to own a horse to own a piece of the West,”
After all, the West is a state of mind that anyone can
share. We just have to tell them about it.
The next TCAA show will take place on October 4 and 5, 2019,
at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
To find out more about the TCAA, go to tcowboyarts.org.
For their 20th anniversary, the TCAA produced a
beautiful coffee table book, Cowboy Renaissance,
which gives a lot of insight into their history as well as pictures of
To help raise money for producing the book, all of the TCAA saddlemakers
collaborated on a saddle in the historic Hamley & Co. saddle shop in Pendleton,
Oregon. The three-day project sold at auction for $55,000 and the proceeds went
towards the publication of the book.
“One of the great joys of someone who
plays music is to play in a group. Everybody has their own piece of the puzzle,
sort of like a symphony. We were a group of craftsmen getting together to jam,”
said Cary Schwarz, founding member of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association.
The book is a source of inspiration and ideas for other
craftsmen, but more importantly, it is a source of education for the collectors.
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