Cowboy Crossings

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BY M. J. VAN DEVENTER

Most people think of cowboy gear as utilitarian time-worn leather saddles, ropes and lariats rubbed thin from years of use and spurs caked with mud from working horses in a corral.

A spectacular exhibit named “Cowboy Crossings” opened Oct. 13 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and it is bound to change anyone’s ordinary view of cowboy gear.

Visitors will see saddles gleaming with silver and leather enhanced with ornate cutwork and stitchery. Bits on view will never see the inside of a horse’s mouth. Ornate spurs will never know the grit and grime of a trail ride or the sawdust of an arena. Instead, these items will become treasured collectors’ items.

The “Cowboy Crossings” exhibition showcases the finest in western art by the Cowboy Artists of America and the best of western gear from members of the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association. The merger of these two national exhibitions in 2011 was a wise decision by the museum and a bonus for museum visitors who love all the trappings of the great American West.

This is the 51st annual show for the 17 members of the Cowboy Artists of America, better known as the CAA. Two members, Gary Niblett and Gary Carter, now enjoy emeritus status. These artists celebrate the American West with paintings, drawings and sculptures that will grace the walls of one of the museum’s exhibition galleries.

It is the 18th annual show for the TCAA members who share their love of the western culture with exquisite bits, spurs, saddles, silver-smithing, and rawhide braiding. This is the fifth year for the two groups to present this joint exhibition in the museum’s exclusive galleries.

Tim Cox, incoming president of the CAA and an artist from Bloomfield, New Mexico, previously served as president in 2007. In a 1975 English class essay, he wrote, “one of my fondest wishes is to become a member of the Cowboy Artists of America.” His wish was granted in 2007.

Cox has won numerous awards in the museum’s Prix de West Exhibition: the 2003 Purchase Award, Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award in 2004 and 2007. In 2011, he was voted Reader’s Choice for best living Western painter by True West magazine.

The CAA was founded in 1964 by western artists Joe Beeler, Charlie Dye and Johnny Hampton. This trio was working cattle at a Mexico ranch and hatched the idea ~ probably while sipping bourbon around an evening campfire ~ as a great way to share their love of the western lifestyle through art.

The genesis of the TCAA was similar. They began their show as a way for those who love western gear and trappings to see the best of a uniquely American form of art. The TCAA is dedicated to preserving and promoting the skills of saddlemaking, bit and spur making and the role of these traditional crafts in the cowboy culture of the North American West. Members of both groups pride themselves on their quest to continually improve and enhance their skills and craft.

New this year from the members of the TCAA is a Western Craftsmanship Symposium, which will precede the opening of the exhibition. Also new is the formation of an annual $1,000 Mom’s Scholarship.

In January, theTCAA hosted its first Emerging Artist Competition at the High Noon Western American Winter Sale in Mesa, Arizona.

The purpose of that competition is to encourage a younger group of western gear craftsmen to carry on these traditions as older ones retire. Quality and excellence have long been hallmarks of the TCAA artists. Cary Schwarz, a Canadian craftsman, and Pedro Pedrine of Loma Linda, California are perfect examples of that quest for perfection.

Several years ago, they both traveled to Saumer, France to study with Jean Luc Parisot, a renowned French western gear craftsman who still uses ancient tools and follows old, timeless traditions to create his cowboy gear.

Schwarz, who has exhibited with the TCAA since its founding, began “making things out of whole cloth” in 1971. A job in a saddle shop whetted his appetite for leathermaking and he made his first saddle in 1982 while attending a trade school. He says, “I love the challenge of problem solving. Saddle making has captivated my attention and I have no plans to ever give up this craft.” That craft is now Schwarz’ trademark and his legacy to the American West.

Pedrine has been making saddles for 40 years. He says, “Saddlemakers usually find their niche with one type of customer ~ reiners, cutters, cowboy outfitters, buckaroos, cowpunchers, ropers. They all have their specific needs for a saddle.”

“The saddler often carves out a career doing work for folks whom he can relate to and understand their respective needs. Each of the disciplines bring different kinds of people and horses, both having their own requirements and technology unique to their years of experience,” he says.

“Dealing with these diverse factors made the challenges less overwhelming and felt more routine ~ just another hard-to-fit horse, a funny, exotic breed of mule, or a fancy bred quarter horse,” he notes. “After 40 years, I thought I’d seen it all. Then came a request to make a saddle for a donkey. The lady and her donkey, Flash, were desperate. Many saddlemakers had refused her requests.” Pedrine rose to the challenge.

Recalling that unusual experience, he notes, “One very important small step is to stamp on the saddle what type of animal it was designed for. After a few years down the road, someone is going to saddle up a horse and really wonder how well Pedro Pedrine’s saddles fit!”

This double-header exhibition has become so important in the world of western art and gear that many indiviudals and corporations with a passion for the west and all its trappings have become sponsors for the show. Among some of the corporate sponsors are names familiar to western aficianados: Brian Lebel’s Old West, Rockmount Western Wear, the Burnett Ranch in Texas, the Dobson Family Foundation and western theme magazines including American Cowboy, Cowboys & Indians, Western Art & Architecture, Western Horseman and Western Art Collector.

The opening weekend runs through Oct. 15. The CAA show is on view through Nov. 27, 2016. The TCAA exhibition can be viewed through Dec. 31. Call for reservations for an eye-popping extravaganza of western art and incredible cowboy gear.

For more information and reservations for the opening weekend, contact the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum at 405-478-2250.

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