By Shoni & Ron Maulding
Hitched horsehair is a mystery. The pieces we see today are generally regarded as being made in western America territorial or state prisons, i.e. Deer Lodge (Montana), Walla Walla (Washington), Rawlins (Wyoming), Yuma (Arizona). And that assumption is somewhat correct. Except, what if the inmate was discharged or paroled, and hitched outside of prison walls? Or taught his family to hitch horsehair? Or what if the inmate reoffended and was incarcerated in other prisons? As for the maker, most times the paperwork trail dead ends before it even gets started due to lack of records. As restorationists, conservationists and hitchers, we are involved in both the old and contemporary world of hitching and each piece has its story.
Maybe it smells of cigarette smoke, or has holes where mice have chomped on it. Could be when it was tossed in an old shed, it hit a sharp ax. These observations are nothing compared to the questions of how or where it was made. Many examples were made in our prison system around the turn of the last century. What tools did the inmate have? Generally the only necessary things to hitch are the horse tail hair, string to hitch the knots over, and a stabilizer to create the shape such as a dowel or rope. Add in scissors, a blunt tip needle, and leather pieces. The knowledge of how to hitch could impede many -- who to learn from? How to get paid without using currency? (resulting in a large barter system within prison walls) How to obtain sharp tools when hobby permits, determined by security levels, could impede the inmates' ability to use them? Or perhaps a hobby was not permitted. How to use a torch for metalwork? Montana State Prison is a fine example of all these questions needing answers.
So we conserve those pieces that can be stabilized and restore those pieces that can be saved. It's up to people like Ron and me to literally and figuratively unravel how an old piece was created in order to restore it. Or chose not to restore if we feel it degrades the historical value or jeopardizes the piece. Or we can further this art tradition, outside the prison system, and create new pieces. Expectations for our large contemporary projects are that they be functional, have a theme, have a story, and be one-of-a-kind. The idea for these pieces may come to us two to four years before even beginning the physical work. Research and pencil to paper comes first.
Ron's metal working takes the pieces and the art to realms that hitching has not seen before. An example is our First Ever Quirt, using mixed media: hitched horsehair, hand processed and tempered rawhide, hand engraved sterling silver, and a turquoise stone. The art lives on today! We are thrilled that people of all ages are learning how to hitch. Our workshop students vary and include an avocado farmer, commercial fisherman, opera singer, TV camerawoman, and an oil company welding inspector. 4-H kids to 80 something year olds in 18 countries have learned to hitch from our books. To us, the more people that hitch, the better. The spread of art and knowledge are essential. Jack Pompella, art teacher in the Toutle Lake High School in Washington State, is brave enough to have four years of teaching hitched horsehair under his belt. His students like it and hate it for the same reasons: complicated, detailed, challenging.
Less mysterious is that without thought, a person's hand reaches out to touch hitched horsehair and triggers the mind to grasp the amazing art created from the simplicity of horse tail hair.
Shoni and Ron Maulding