Spur makers shared their best work and gained more than recognition at the TCAA Emerging Artists Competition.
The Traditional Cowboy Arts Association held its annual Emerging Artists Competition January 24 – 26 during the Mesa Old West Show & Auction at the Mesa Convention Center in Mesa, Arizona. Each year, the organization focuses on one discipline — bit- and spurmaking, rawhide braiding, saddlemaking and engraving — and this year the competition was open to bit- and spurmakers.
Three makers — Curtis Hill, David Harshberger and Matthew Turner — each submitted one pair of spurs to showcase their skills and receive feedback from judges Ernie Marsh and Wilson Capron, both bit- and spurmakers and TCAA members. Through the contest, the TCAA aspires to not only showcase and develop up-and-coming makers, but also cultivate an open community of craftsmen willing to learn and share ideas and foster friendships. The TCAA aims to combat the thought of gearmakers being secretive of their methods.
“I came [to the contest] four years ago, and the people I met are still friends and we stay in touch and watch what each other is making,” says Harshberger. “This is not only about the competition, but also about building the community we have among makers and inspiring each other to do better and seeing everyone challenge themselves.”
Maker: Matthew Turner, Borger, Texas
Award: Turner received a $5,000 prize package that included a $2,500 check and travel allowance to attend the 21st Annual Traditional Cowboy Arts Exhibition & Sale held at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in October.
Years as a Maker: 10
Entry: “I call these Texas-style spurs with California influences,” says Turner. “I forged them out of Damascus–197 layers. Then I filed out all of the individual pieces, inlaid the border around the shanks, overlaid sterling and rose gold on the bands and buttons, and made the chains. It took between 140 and 150 hours to make them.”
His Start: “In college, I wanted a belt buckle but couldn’t afford one so I made one after a 30-minute soldering lesson from my cousin,” he recalls. “Since then, friends have challenged me to make different things. I’m always trying to make something new and doing the best I can.”
TCAA Influence: “When I started making spurs I’d look at pictures of what I aspired to build, and some of the TCAA guys’ work is [the level] I seek to get to,” he says. “I called some of the guys and they were more than willing to answer my questions. When I found out about the Emerging Artists Competition I thought it was a great way to get a piece of my work in front of these guys, so they can show me how to keep improving the quality of my work.”
Second Place & People’s Choice
Maker: Curtis Hill, Wichita Falls, Texas
Hill received a $1,000 cash prize, plus $500 for the People’s Choice Award from Brian and Melissa Lebel of the Mesa Old West Show & Auction.
Years as a Maker: 6
Entry: “I knew the competition was going to be tough, so I sat down and thought about what I could do different and came up with this design,” says Hill. “The heel bands each have 22 pieces of steel welded together. They look extremely heavy, but you can pick them up and they weigh nothing because the heel bands are hollow. The spurs have 24-karat gold inlays and a hole in the center of the rowels.”
His start: “I’m a welder by trade so it goes hand in hand with making spurs,” he says. “I grew up roping and wanted to build my own set of spurs. I built my first pair and that led to another, and from there I got a clientele going.
“I learned about this contest on social media, and I’ve always looked up to the TCAA guys so I applied and got in. It’s an awesome deal and a lot to take in. I’m excited to get back in the shop and let it all soak in.”
TCAA Influence: “The TCAA goes to a lot of trouble to put this together and help us get our names out there,” he says. “They teach us not just about the creative side, but also the business side — how to grow our businesses and that’s really important.”
Maker: David Harshberger, Nappanee, Indiana
Years as a Maker: 18
Entry: “These spurs have a very unique story,” explains Harshberger. “I envisoned wanting to do an old Californio-style spur and forging them and making them all by hand with no welding or soldering. I thought about what a maker would use to hand-forge a pair of spurs in the 1700s; steel was a valuable commodity back then and they repurposed a lot of steel. A friend gave me an old smooth-bore percussion rifle, and I repurposed the barrel and discovered something unexpected. The steel was bloomer iron, made back in the day before steel mills. Somebody would take iron ore and charcoal and melt it in a clay oven.
“My dad was a blacksmith and taught me to work with steel as a kid. He passed in October and it made it difficult for me to complete my spurs for the competition. I called Wilson [Capron] a few days before the show and told him I wasn’t going to be able to finish them and he said, ‘Don’t tell me you’re not coming.’ That wasn’t the case at all. I was asking if I could come anyway for the chance to hang out with the other guys. I still plan to finish the spurs this year in honor of family and friends who have got me to where I am today.”
His Start: “I made my first pair of spurs when I was 15,” he says. “I couldn’t afford what I wanted to buy so I built it. I got into riding roughstock for about seven years and wondered why everyone wore the same style of spurs for bull riding and bronc riding. I started messing around and changing the geometries for bull riding spurs and began making custom spurs for roughtstock riders. Through the years, I’ve evolved into building spurs for working cowboys.”
TCAA Influence: “The TCAA has created a whole different market for high-end gear,” he says. “When I started making bits and spurs it was tough to sell a $600 or $700 pair, but thanks to the TCAA there’s not the sticker shock now that there used to be for custom gear.”
The 2021 Emerging Artist Competition will focus on saddlemaking followed by Western silversmithing in 2022, rawhide braiding in 2023, and bit- and spurmaking in 2024.
Applications open this fall and the top 10 entries will be accepted into the competition.
Look for a story on the Emerging Artists Competition in the July 2019 issue of Western Horseman, and visit https://tcowboyarts.org/tcaa-emerging-artists-competition/ for more information.