The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association (TCAA) strives to raise the bar of traditional cowboy craftsmanship in North America. Members continually seek to elevate the level of their own work, and also hold the same goal for others who carry on the traditional trades of saddlemaking, bit and spur making, silversmithing, and rawhide braiding.

The TCAA Fellowship for Cowboy Craftsmen was established in 2012. It has since been awarded annually to one or more individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to, and a passion for, excellence in one of the four disciplines represented by the Association.

The Fellowship for Cowboy Craftsmen covers travel and tuition expenses for mentoring opportunities with master craftsmen over the course of one year. Generous patrons who believe in the organization’s mission have made this possible by providing the funding necessary to implement, and even expand, this program.

Over the past four years, the TCAA has awarded six fellowships, investing $72,000 into the lives of those who will carry the torch for traditional cowboy arts into the future. Fellowship recipients receive a plaque signifying their accomplishment and are recognized each year during a banquet at the annual TCAA Exhibition & Sale held at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

“I was thoroughly impressed with the program,” said Braidie Butters, the first Fellowship for Cowboy Craftsmen recipient. “I cannot put into words the value of this opportunity.” Butters had the chance to work one-on-one in the shops of three TCAA silversmiths, experiencing not only skilled work at the bench, but also the discipline required to sustain an artistic career.

TCAA fellowship recipients for 2014 – 2015, Beau Compton and Conley Walker, each completed a year of study in their respective discipline. Compton, a silversmith, was afforded several days of individual time at the shops of TCAA members Scott Hardy and Mark Drain, providing him with valuable hands-on tutelage.

Walker was able to travel and work with TCAA saddlemakers Chuck Stormes, Rick Bean, Pedro Pedrini, and Troy West to hone his skill in various aspects of the trade. This allowed him the opportunity to gain insight from saddlemakers representing the traditions of Calgary, Idaho, California, and Texas, respectively — a remarkable experience unavailable to most craftsmen.

The 2015 – 2016 recipients broadened the fellowship’s concept and scope through international connections. Jean-Luc Parisot, an accomplished saddler from Saumur, France, took advantage of the fellowship opportunity to study elements of Western saddlery. Parisot had already instructed TCAA members Cary Schwarz and Pedro Pedrini in advanced leather hand-stitching techniques at his shop in France in 2009.

Recipient Whit Olson, a rawhide braider, had the opportunity to work with TCAA braider Pablo Lozano of Tandil, Argentina, while Lozano was in the United States for the TCAA spring meeting. The fellowship also allowed Olson to travel to the shops of TCAA members Nate Wald and Leland Hensley. Thus, the next generation of artists like Olson are demonstrating that Western rawhide braiding will not fade away even after the passing of legendary braiders like Luis Ortega.

The TCAA also works to expand educational programming aimed at aspiring artists, giving them not only technical instruction within a trade, but also advice on the financial and legal obstacles within the artistic community. To this end, the TCAA and the National Cowboy Museum felt it beneficial to host a national conference exploring business challenges common to craftsmen of all kinds.

The first Western Craftsmanship Symposium was held at the National Cowboy Museum, October 13 – 14, 2016, in conjunction with the 18th annual TCAA Exhibition & Sale. The symposium’s purpose was to provide a free exchange of information and ideas among peers in a structured environment.

“We believed it would be helpful to host a symposium that opened up a forum of discussion for our shared experiences,” said former TCAA President Cary Schwarz. “The goal is to help place more craftsmen on firm footing in their businesses so that their customers, in turn, may be better served.”

The agenda contained topics of concern and interest to artisans of all levels engaged in the business of Western craftsmanship. Open discussion topics included customer-relations skills, businesslike attitudes toward daily activities, improving quality, establishing priorities, and time management. Practical presentations by individuals within the business community also addressed pricing, product marketing via social media, and tips on customer relationships.

“I really am thankful that makers are starting to share business practices within the industry,” remarked TCAA member Wilson Capron. “If we don’t teach people how to make a living with the craft, we can’t ensure the future will have custom makers.”

The sessions were a mixture of formal presentations, open forums, and panel discussions. Speakers included a select group of industry experts, recognized leaders, and TCAA members. The symposium concluded with a keynote address by Dr. Morgan McArthur, a veterinarian and popular motivational speaker.

“The Western Symposium is very timely for me as I work on improving my craft,” said Compton, “and [has helped me] maximize my time and money management skills.”

TCAA members are dedicated to building upon the past, not just celebrating their heritage. While the Association can look back upon its 18 years of public exhibitions and educational programming as a remarkable success, its membership is focused squarely on the future. The next generation of craftsmen is critical, for these men and women will be charged with defining traditional cowboy arts in the North American West going forward.

Don Reeves

McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture,

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum