Out West

Cowboy Crafts Redux

The hands of a craftsman reflect hours and years of hardwork making cowboy crafts.

The cowboy spirit is alive and thriving in the work created by dedicated, passionate craftsmen.

When the May issue Western Horseman — known as the “gear” issue — comes around, it is not only a sure sign of spring, it also presents a welcome gathering of new gear and great stuff for all who are deep in the horse culture. This month’s May issue is no exception.

Over the years, Western Horseman has introduced us to established craftsmen as well as new, up-and-coming makers. Individual craftspeople, such as bitmakers, spurmakers, silversmiths, braiders, saddlemakers and leather workers, bootmakers and saddle blanket weavers, have committed their lives to the cowboy crafts. As Western artisans, they follow a unique human quality, the need to do a job more than well, with each progression of work better (hopefully) than the piece before. The items made are for using so that the end customer will in turn use it to get his or her job done well. In many ways it appears to be a lonely tasking, as the craftsman has chosen to work alone and lay hands on the project completely, from concept to finish, by his or herself. 

The West, by nature, is a place of distances that can force people to learn things they can do to help themselves when a store or certain material availability could be far away. Many craftsmen and -women today have learned on their own or with online assistance from the Internet. That method also lends itself to leveling the playing field when it comes to alerting people their work exists and is available via all the various social media outlets out there.

But even with all that technology, one finds a similar conceptual approach that seems common to most Western craftsmen today — that they are in it for the life skills and the ability to work for themselves at something that defines success in their own terms. Mass production and shortcuts are not their way. Yet to some degree, most of the crafts described are repetitive. A saddlemaker builds a saddle, a bootmaker builds boots, and a hatmaker makes hats. Yet each is unique, as the benefit lies in the craftsman’s time with the individual customer, each item conceptually similar but representing a unique relationship. Each saddle, each pair of boots, each hat carries interaction of the maker with the customer. The bitmaker creates the specific mouthpiece the customer is asking for. The silversmith creates a set of conchos or a buckle to exactly fit the feel the customer is looking for. That interaction, that relationship, is the basis of the joy and justification most craftsmen.

In many ways the contemporary craftspeople working today owe a great deal to the original Arts and Crafts movement of the last century and why today, we are witnessing a period of highly creative and individual artisanal work.

More importantly, many young people are engaging in the cowboy crafts, and the basic knowledge needed to start can be as close as your computer. But the skilled craftsman can emerge only after work and practice, through time and perfecting the needed handwork. The contemporary reasons for pursuing a craft in an era of so much technology are based on more than a possible nostalgia for older ways. It allows the craftsman a meaningful one-on-one experience with the customer creating an equality of purpose between the two. It uses concept, design and execution as a complete experience, exploring the dimensions of skill, commitment, competency and the intimate connections between hand, brain and heart.

More Than Arts & Crafts

The first Arts and Crafts movement was a far-reaching design movement starting in Great Britain around 1880. It spread to America and Europe before emerging finally as the Mingei (meaning – “arts of the people”) in Japan starting in the late 1920s founded by historian and philosopher, Soetsu Yanagi.  It was a movement born of humanistic needs and ideals growing out of a concern for what was being perceived as the negative effects of industrialization: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a social spectrum, including architecture to turn the home into a work of art.

The movement took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, a group formed in London in 1887 to promote a showing of decorative arts along side fine arts, encompassing a very wide range of like-minded groups, workshops and individual makers.

It was a movement unlike any that had gone before. Its pioneering spirit of reform, and the value it placed on the quality of materials and design as well as life shaped the world we live in today. This is especially apparent in crafted architectural forms and furniture. Its effects on the cowboy crafts were equally far-reaching and why I highly recommend learning about writer and movement activist William Morris. Morris was a British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator and socialist activist. His writings examine the relationship between work, the joy of craftsmanship and the natural beauty of materials, something we see in all the using crafts of the West.

Fiona MacCarthy’s book, Anarchy & Beauty, William Morris and his Legacy 1860 – 1960, takes the reader through Morris’ impressive life and career, from the establishment of his decorative arts shop (later Morris & Co.), to the publication in 1890 of his novel News from Nowhere, which envisions a utopian society.  MacCarthy looks at the numerous artists and movements that bear the influence of Morris’ ideas including Arts and Crafts and the Garden City, which took hold in both Europe and the United States; artists’ communities that sprung up during the interwar years; and the 1951 Festival of Britain, in which the mission was to bring the highest standards of design within the reach of everyone. The idea was art and craft was meant to be enjoyed and participated in by the masses.

The cover of the book When Art Worked was written by Roger Kennedy.

The movement lent much of its foundation to the development of the Federal Art Project, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal undertaking in the Works Progress Administration, which started in 1935 to help the American people crawl back from the Great Depression. Its seeds were in the work of Morris and his viewpoint about art, design and beauty as something that all people should enjoy and participate in. To learn more about the WPA and the Federal Art program, read the book When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy by Roger G. Kennedy (Rizzoli, 2009).

The contemporary cowboy craftsman’s strength in ability as well as in the sheer increasing number of craftsmen and women working today is reassuring. Especially when we, as a society, continue to witness fine arts and applied arts programs in our schools lose funding and crumble away.

It is a fitting reminder that art is everyone’s legacy and the creative spirit that lives in the cowboy crafts of the West today are thriving. Cowboy crafts represent our best selves as part of a root-based culture in America.  So, need a hat, or a saddle or nice pair of spurs? Be amazed and thankful that there are more superb individual makers out there than ever.

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