By Don Reeves
Skilled craftsmen are familiar with that feeling, the need to create, but few verbalize their desire. The urging. A vision not so much seen as felt through the hands. There is an expectation of shape and line as fingers explore the supple texture of fine leather. The clay-soft yielding of fine silver as the graver cuts a graceful curve and then exits with an upward flourish of the master's hand.
At what point does a functional object transcend its function, yield to aesthetic desire, and become an objet d'art? Does a saddle, bit, quirt or silver concha begin as a tool destined to serve a particular task and then take a turn, throw off the shackles of utility and head toward the trophy room or mantle? Such objects are conceived, designed and executed by master craftsmen - artisans - in the process of creating works that attempt to reach an envisioned aesthetic.
This fall the artisans of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association have partnered with the painters and sculptors of the Cowboy Artists of America for a Western tour de force being touted as Cowboy Crossings. This is a historic milestone in the West - two great exhibitions, one exceptional event. The TCAA and the CAA are joining forces for future fall events, but they are not merging. Each will continue as distinct groups, with their own history but similar interests and goals. Together they have taken Western art to a new arena within the public forum.
Artwork from both groups reflects themes of the working cowboy and Western lifestyle. Of course, art galleries have, on occasion, shown saddles on stands near framed works depicting the working cowboy as if to provide context for the fine art. It was assumed, no matter how beautiful the saddle, that it was not art. Inexplicably, elegant, black Rio Grande pottery has long since been accorded such higher status in the art field. With this exhibition, not only saddles, but also works of silver, steel and rawhide share the fine art gallery as equals with oil, watercolor and bronze.
There have been master craftsmen in the past who have attempted one masterwork in their lifetime, an effort to showcase their abilities, to breakthrough that glass ceiling. G.S. Garcia of Elko, Nevada, created a magnificent saddle for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, where it won two gold medals. He deemed it his "beauty saddle," decorated with $20 gold pieces and diamonds. It was proudly exhibited in the industrial arts building of the World's Fair and declared the finest saddle ever made.
Wyeth Hardware of St. Joseph, Missouri, was asked by Joseph C. Miller to create the world's most expensive saddle to impress crowds attending the Miller Brother's 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Fifty years before, the Wyeth shop had built many of the saddles for the Pony Express riders. But in 1913, Wyeth collaborated with Gordon Jewelry of New York City to create and ornament a saddle, with the patron's name and "101 Ranch" spelled out with 204 diamonds, 61 rubies and 29 sapphires. The total cost: $10,000. This saddle is now on display in the Western Performers Gallery of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
The king of silver parade saddles, Edward H. Bohlin of Hollywood, California, spent more than a decade creating his personal saddle, "the big saddle." Dominated by Indian headdresses on the pommel and swells, the silver mounted saddle also incorporated numerous wildlife figures executed in four colors of gold. Bohlin valued his masterpiece at $50,000 when it was completed in 1947.
Such saddles represented an extraordinary effort and sometimes defined a saddlemaker's career. The artisans of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association have made it a corporate goal to bring their greatest work to each annual exhibition. Such a commitment to the public and their patrons demands the most from these master craftsmen. They pour themselves into not one career defining achievement, but the annual effort to seek a level of work just beyond their last, challenging accomplishment.
The well-documented efforts of G.S. Garcia and Ed Bohlin to go beyond the expected limits of their trade and create time-honored masterpieces reflected a mutual desire to be accepted as artists in their own right. Founding TCAA member Cary Schwarz has remarked, "Many of the objectives that define Western visual art are the same for Western craftsmanship. Terms like balance, flow and symmetry are words that often describe visual as well as functional art." He feels that the main task for the TCAA is "one of education...it is helping folks see these traditional forms in a new way, as a successful blend of function and artistry."
Of course, the blending of function and artistry is a concept that has long been embraced by the industrial design community and championed by the Arts and Crafts movement of Europe and America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Established rules or even a particular artistic style did not define the refreshing aesthetic of this group, but an eclectic mix of design influences. Art historians recognize a common thread of simplified forms in this art movement, while Frank Lloyd Wright observed a common effort by these artisans to reflect a national folk identity.
Scott Hardy, the current president of the TCAA, has long respected the view point of Alexander Fisher, a leading artist of the Arts and Crafts movement. Hardy noted that, "for Alexander Fisher, there was no separation between artists and craftsmen. He believed that each artist/craftsman became so consumed by their aesthetic pursuit [that] they could do nothing else." Fisher also emphasized that such an individual is driven by a passion and becomes so attuned to their material or media that they "must get inside it, and live at ease there." In his mind this was necessary to create "art" instead of just pedestrian factory work.
This school of art is but one of many eclectic influences on the artists within TCAA. Founding member Mark Drain commented on how the flowing lines of classic Japanese art influenced his engraving. Wilson Capron has become fascinated with centuries-old European engraving styles as inspiration for some of his finest Western bits. For Ernie Marsh, Celtic traditions have held a fascination. Merely half a century ago, typical Western leather carving - as well as bit and spur engraving - consisted of repeated patterns adopted years before by shop tradesmen. Today TCAA members spend hours upon hours producing preliminary drawings of leather carving layouts, engraving designs and braiding patterns before any fabrication begins.
Will this new relationship between the artists of the CAA and the artists of the TCAA bring about yet another renaissance of artistic achievement in the American West? As notable as this year has become, the days and years ahead hold even greater promise for this remarkable generation of Western artists.
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Oklahoma City, OK