Written by Eclectic Horseman
Chuck Stormes: Saddlemaker and President of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association
EH: What was the inspiration for starting the TCAA?
CS: The idea has been around for twenty years or more. I remember discussing it occasionally in the eighties with other craftsmen and artists. When Joe Beeler helped with the Trappings of the West shows in Flagstaff, he was hoping that something like this would develop as a result.
I suppose nothing came of it at the time because no one seemed to offer any good reason or legitimate purpose for forming an organization.The group that attended an organizational meeting in May 1998 changed that by identifying some major issues that it felt should be addressed.
EH: Why have an association for traditional cowboy arts? What is its purpose?
CS: Two important concerns were voiced, unanimously, at that early meeting. First, the danger of decline of the traditional cowboy crafts through loss of knowledge and skills, due to an aging group of masters and too few dedicated young craftsmen to inherit their skills.
Second, that fine craftsmanship is not well understood and therefore under-appreciated by the public. The consensus was that an association representing skilled western craftsmen could improve the situation more effectively than
EH: What are the goals of the TCAA?
CS: The TCAA’s immediate goals are to preserve and promote the traditions of fine craftsmanship in the areas of saddlemaking, bit and spur making, silversmithing and rawhide braiding, and to offer the public an opportunity to attend an annual exhibition to see fine
examples of these crafts and talk with the craftsmen.
The four exhibitions held to date, beginning in 1999, have been well attended and very successful. Educational seminars and workshops presented during the opening are also popular and are becoming more ambitious every year.
Our 2003 seminar and workshop will address bit function and design, with both guest speakers and members involved. Another goal that has been partially realized and continues to expand is the institution, through helpful donations, of the Mike Nicola Scholarship Fund. This fund allows the TCAA to provide financial assistance to serious students of our crafts to spend time one-on-one with members in order to improve their skills.
As financial support grows, the TCAA will expand its educational programs and in the long term would like to venture into educational publications, an archive to preserve information and knowledge concerning western crafts, and eventually a permanent facility housing workshops where courses could be conducted throughout the year.Such ambitious goals would require a well-supported endowment fund but with the appropriate funding are
EH: What role do you play in the association? Who are the other members?
CS: The officers and directors rotate on a two-year term. I’m currently in my second year as president. All active members share an equal role in the TCAA, although some degree of leadership is expected of the president. (All members listed in box at left.)
EH: How is membership in the association determined?
CS: The TCAA decided early on to set the standards quite high. The procedure for electing new members has been refined along the way in an attempt to make it fair for the applicant while allowing the members the best opportunity to assess the quality of applicants’ work and their commitment to the goals of the TCAA.
After reviewing the work and meeting the applicant, members must give a minimum 75% approval in a secret ballot vote. I’m sure I speak for every member when I say that it’s the most onerous duty of membership.
EH: Why should the average horseman care whether or not the craftsmanship of the past is preserved?
CS: Anyone who has felt the response of a true hackamore horse or bridle horse; has worked with a pair of supple, beautifully braided rawhide reins; buckled on a pair of inlaid, hand-engraved heirloom spurs; or ridden long hours in a comfortable, well-made saddle should be not just interested but passionate about preserving, promoting and enhancing the skills of those who produce such functional works of art.
EH: Where do you see the state of craftsmanship in ten years? Is the general quality of work improving or declining?
CS: I think that some of the finest work being done today is equal or superior to many of the “antique” pieces that are now considered collectible. In a more general sense, there are examples of a decline in some areas. For example, there are ready-made saddles, even some handmade saddles, that aren’t as well made as the best factory saddles of fifty years ago. In some cases, fit and function have improved while decoration has declined; in others, such as bit making the opposite may be true.
The TCAA and a few dedicated individuals are having an impact on that situation. Hopefully, in ten years the effect of these efforts will be obvious.There has also been some spin-off effect resulting from TCAA activities, and craftsmen throughout the industry are being offered more opportunity to produce their best work for appreciative, educated clients.
EH: There are usually “trends” in various art communities. Do you find that there are trends within the traditional cowboy arts circle, perhaps something that distinguishes modern artists from their historical counterparts?
CS: One important change in saddlemaking, during the forty years since I apprenticed, is the virtual extinction of large shops that could afford to train apprentices. Technical school programs and private tutoring have tried to replace that, but it’s hard to replicate the shop procedures and discipline of long-term apprenticeship.To answer your question about trends, I have noticed at the TCAA exhibitions, and also generally, a revival of interest in very traditional, handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces.
Serious horsemen and collectors seem to be reacting to the mediocrity of mass production by supporting individual craftsmen in a very encouraging way. I think that’s being reflected in the work being done these days, which acknowledges the masters of the past while expressing new design directions and taking advantage of improved tools and technology.
EH: How did your annual exhibition at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum start?
CS: The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (formerly National Cowboy Hall of Fame) in Oklahoma City has been very supportive since the TCAA’s inception. They felt that our goals and their mandate were a natural fit and have encouraged our efforts in every way. While a comfortable relationship has developed over the past four years, the TCAA and the museum continually work to improve the exhibition and seminars each year. The TCAA couldn’t ask for a better venue and we expect to work with the staff of the National Cowboy Museum and enjoy their support into the future. It’s also helpful for the public to know that our show dates are the last weekend in September, every year, at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
EH: What can the general public do to aid the TCAA’s mission?
CS: Support your local craftsmen. Give them the opportunity to produce their best work. Learn to appreciate the dedication, commitment, study and practice that is represented in the craftsmanship of fine horse gear. On the financial side, the TCAA has been granted 501c3 status, so contributions to ongoing programs are tax-deductible. For more information visit our Web site tcowboyarts.com. And thank you to Eclectic Horseman for sharing this
interview with their readers.
David Alderson silversmith
Mike Beaver braider
Mark Dahl bit and spur maker
Mark Drain silversmith
John C. Ennis Bit and spur maker
Scott Hardy silversmith
Dale Harwood saddlemaker
Bill Heisman bit and spur maker
Leland Hensley braider
Don King saddlemaker
Ernie Marsh bit and spur maker
Steve Mecum saddlemaker
Cary Schwarz saddlemaker
Chuck Stormes saddlemaker
Nate Wald braider
Al Pecetti Emeritus silversmith
Al Tietjen Emeritus bit and spur maker
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.10