A new volume by veteran writer Chase Reynolds Ewald celebrates Western design and the cowboy crafts.
Regional craft items can be described as everyday things used in everyday settings. What makes them stand out is the care of their making — the amount of heart as well as hand — that moves them from the ordinary to beauty in their use. The Japanese philosopher and art historian Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) describes those qualities of everyday items in his book, “The Beauty of Everyday Things” as “The constant companions in our daily lives, and they should be made with care and built to last, treated with respect and even affection. They should be natural and simple, sturdy and safe — an aesthetic fulfillment of our practical needs. They should, in short, be things of beauty.”
Such are the strivings of today’s craftsmen and women, the saddle makers and bit and spur makers, working in the world of the cowboy crafts. The boot makers and hatters and beyond, including the designers of many utilitarian items such as furniture and Western décor, all designed for daily use and celebrated the region and activities of their origin, the American West.
It is this celebration, newly released by longtime writer and scholarly aficionado of the West, Chase Reynolds Ewald, in her new resource volume, “By Western Hands: Functional Art from the Heart of the West” (Goff Books, 2023), created in conjunction with the By Western Hands gallery and museum in Cody, Wyoming. The new facility’s archives contain materials that allows the history of Western design — in its many regional and useful forms — to be conserved and available to scholars and future artisans. The collection contains materials that document the breadth of the craft of American West, past and present artisans, designed to inspire and educate future works that will perpetuate this root-based cowboy-cultural wonder.
The world of the West’s horse and cow culture, including its gear and unique trappings, experienced a resurgence of interest beyond the genre-base of its intended individual users during the late 1970s and ’80s with the “discovery” of the continued life of the contemporary working cowboy. It came to be called the “cowboy renaissance,” made apparent in large part by the popularity of the pictorial books by photographers Kurt Markus, Jay Dusard, William Albert Allard, Adam Jahiel, among others in the early 1980s. The imagery coincided with the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in Elko, Nevada, in 1985.
Included with the Gathering’s recitations of new and classic Western, spoken-word performances were musical performances that continued to elevate the image of the working cowboy. Along with performances were the first exhibitions of cowboy gear that not only explained their use but also shared the quiet joy of their superb craftsmanship and elegantly crafted design. These shows’ popularity continued, and in 1986 came the first of many Trappings of The American West shows, inspired and supported by the late CAA founding artist Joe Beeler. Held in Flagstaff, Arizona, and included along with using gear, was the addition of sculpture, knife making and fine art.
In 1989, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (now Buffalo Bill Center of the West) held an exhibition on the furniture work of the Cody maker and artisan, Thomas Molesworth (1890-1977) and his Shoshone Furniture Company. The exhibit titled, “Interior West: The Craft Style of Thomas Molesworth” brought a continued awakening of Western style beyond boots, bits and saddles. The exhibit traveled, and suddenly the civilian world had discovered Western style again, boosted by coverage from national publications that also covered Western fashion and accessories.
In 1993, the first Western Design Conference was held in Cody, Wyoming, supported by a master artisan guild and spurred on by local furniture craftsman and maker J. Michael Patrick, who had founded New West Furniture in Cody in 1986 and built it into a popular Western furniture business. Over the years, the Western Design Conference was sold and reborn in several evolving incarnations, and today, after 30 years, its mission is as strong and popular as ever.
Building on the traditions established by the Master Artisans Guild, Western Design Conference, and Cody High Style, the By Western Hands non-profit museum and gallery in Cody, Wyoming, is promoting the genre with a three-part mission to educate, conserve and perpetuate the legacy of Western design and traditional arts via a museum and archive, educational training programs and legacy artisan gallery. And while the museum presents an overview of the history of Western decorative arts, the gallery offers a variety of rustic and Western craft from traditional to contemporary. The facility is truly a one-stop for not only a deep dive into the essence of the cowboy crafts but into the true nature of regional Western design.
So, with all that background, there could be no one better than Ewald to bring the story to life. She knows and loves the West deeply and has written extensively about the creative West. Back in 1992, the year before the first Western Design Conference, she wrote “Old Masters of the West” (1992, Country Roads Press), one of the first volumes of its kind at the time. It was billed as “a celebration of [W]estern craft — from the fine art of saddle making to the practicality of horse training — and of the men and women who carry on the traditions forged by their ancestors.”
The book focused on 15 diverse Western creatives, including the late Mike Patrick. The author would go on to write for many of the Design Conference’s Source Books over the years. It was only natural that the folks at By Western Hands would turn to her to write this new and glorious source piece about many of the West’s best contemporary craftspeople.
Amongst the artists featured are wood craftsman, John Felton, master potter, Rebecca Livingston, bit and spur maker, Ernie Marsh, and multi-talented maker, Anne Beard, among many others. The diversity in the work shown in “By Western Hands” is a testament to the passion, commitment and skill levels of these fine craftspeople. There are 41 artisans featured in “By Western Hands,” and after having the armchair adventure exploring their work in this finely crafted volume, one comes away feeling that the creative West is in capable hands.