The TCAA celebrates 20 years of top-quality cowboy gear at this year’s Cowboy Crossings in Oklahoma City.
Before the creation of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association, founding member Scott Hardy found himself concerned with the potential pitfalls of a group like the TCAA. As he and saddlemaker Chuck Stormes drove down to what would become the first meeting of the group, the two artists discussed with each other what they wanted in a group. And what they didn’t.
“We both agreed that if it was about self-promotion we weren’t interested. That was not something we had any interest in,” Hardy says. “When we got down there we found a dozen or so guys and they were all on the same page. We all had the same reasoning: we wanted to improve these disciplines, to improve and preserve the culture, and to move what we were doing from fine craftsmanship into the fine art world. And that’s what we’ve been about ever since.”
Twenty years later and that mission continues as the TCAA celebrates two decades of bringing top-quality, high-end cowboy gear—intricate silver works, braided rawhide and carefully detailed leather objects—to Western collectors around the world. The group will mark the important milestone at this year’s Cowboy Crossings beginning October 4 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The annual show, an exhibition it shares with the Cowboy Artists of America, will bring out all of the current TCAA members as well as many emeritus members. Saddlemaker Cary Schwarz says the TCAA has come a long way since its founding in 1998, and that progress has been measured year after year. “We got where we are today by placing one foot in front of the other. By looking for ways to refine what we’re doing and to achieve the objectives we are aiming for,” he says. “Just look at our mission statement. We want to preserve and promote these trades. What we’re really trying to do is help people see this work as the new collectible, and trying to get them to see the West differently. It’s functional art coming from a more utilitarian viewpoint, but we’re also taking it to a whole new level. What was once only utilitarian can now be called fine art.”
One of the hallmarks of the TCAA is the way its members push their work to the absolute extreme end of creativity. These are objects that take hundreds of hours of work and, in some cases, a decade or more of experience to acquire the skills necessary to finish them. And while the bulk of the creations are staples of Western gear—saddles, bits and spurs, quirts and belt buckles—the works also veer into other items such as decanters, bolos, briefcases, photo albums, canteens and picture frames. Each object is hand-crafted at such a high level of skill that it often pushes artists beyond their abilities.
“We have to push ourselves past our comfort zones, to set new benchmarks for the industry and to use techniques that haven’t been used before,” Hardy
says, adding that the work that TCAA creates contributes to contemporary variation of the Old West. “This is the New West. We’re taking the historic and contemporary and blending them together to move them ahead…i keep coming back to the cultural aspect. Some people say, ‘Well, that’s grandpa’s culture,’ but that’s not the case at all. The West is thriving. Whether it’s in a saddle or a bit or buckle, it all rounds out the West and gives it meaning. And it’s wearable art. Wilson Capron always says, ‘You don’t have to own a horse to own a piece of the West,’ and our work gives people the freedom to investigate and embrace the West.”
In addition to the annual Cowboy Crossings show, the TCAA also participates heavily in the
Trappings of the West exhibition at the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine, Texas, as well as
Brian Lebel’s Cody Old West Show in Mesa, Arizona, where the group honors young TCAA hopefuls with felloships and awards. Education among the public, as well as young craftsmen and women, is a key component to the group, which prides itself on the way it mentors young
artists. Their ultimate hope is that the young artists push themselves to become eventual members. It’s a difficult process, but one that brings out the best artists.
“We have a two-step process: we look at a portfolio of their work, which is just a simple measure for us to look at their work, and then once they pass that they have to build us three pieces and bring it to the fall show for us to review. They have to get 75 percent of the vote to get in and we vote by secret ballot,” Capron says. “Some members have applied many times, but with each application they get better and better. They stretch their abilities. And let me tell you, to tell your friends they’re not good enough to get into the TCAA is extremely difficult for us, but it’s important we maintain the integrity of the group. The group represents the best of the best. Character is also important. If someone is looking for self-promotion or the spotlight they are probably not a great fit for us.”
The TCAA is also open to women artists, though none have passed the admission process yet. “In 20 years we’ve had two women apply. Their work wasn’t quite there yet, but that and our emerging artist competition, which recently had four ladies, it gives me a lot of hope,” Hardy says. “We would love to have women members. It all boils down to this, though: there are very few males who could be in the group. We ask for a lot, for the highest level of work to be achieved, and there just aren’t that many people making these things. I truly, truly hope to see a woman or multiple women in the group someday.”
This year’s Cowboy Crossings will once again feature around three pieces from all its current members, as well as some emeritus members, in addition to a discussion about the TCAA on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. This year’s show will also serve as a debut for the TCAA’S first coffee table book, Cowboy Renaissance, which will feature work from every member of the group throughout its two-
decade history. The anniversary is also allowing members a chance to reflect back on the history of the group and forward into the future.
“For the most part we’re all incredibly independent people who have become quite comfortable working 360 days out of the year alone in the shop, until we have to come out and go mingle at the museums and act normal. But we are all dedicated to this cause and purpose. We sacrifice our time to pass this on and make this organization move ahead,” Hardy says. “We’ve become ambassadors of the West, and we’re very proud of that role.”
Capron adds: “Something Cary [Schwarz] often says is that we don’t tell the story of West. We are the West.”
Wilson Capron works on an intricate detail on one of his spurs.
Wilson Capron, Spurs With a Heart of Gold, Cutter spurs with 24k gold inlay
Cary Schwarz, saddle with silver horn by Scott Hardy and pyrographic embellishments (detail)
Beau Compton, squash blossom pendant with overlaid scroll with rose gold flower necklace with braided rawhide by Pablo Lozano
Scott Hardy, decanter and funnel set 14k yellow gold flower centers
John Willemsma, saddle