The TCAA: A Counterculture Movement

Why You Should Care

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.

Cary Schwarz

The Craftsmen

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.”

John Willemsma

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.   

Wilson Capron

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 was accepted.

“I wouldn’t be the maker I am today if it hadn’t been for that group.”

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.

Scott Hardy

Alberta cowboy Scott Hardy got into silver work to “buy land and cattle.”

“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 buckle.

“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.

The History

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 best.”

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 Cary.

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.

The Conversation

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 journey.

Additional workshops are offered during the year in various disciplines.

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 smaller shops.

“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 bad businessmen.”

“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 welder. “

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 that?”

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 consumer has.

“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,” says Cary.

“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,” says Wilson.

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

The Book

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 exceptional work.

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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