News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The California Rose

A sign tacked to the rafters in Cary Schwarz’s saddle shop in Salmon, Idaho reads: “No Dancing,” but when four of the world’s finest saddlemakers squeezed into Cary’s small shop to build a saddle for the Traditional Cowboy Arts Association’s 25th Anniversary—accompanied by curious students, occasional visitors, and the shop dog — nimble footwork was at a premium.

From tree to finished saddle the project was nothing if not an elaborate physical and philosophical flamenco — a narrative art form with deep roots in Spanish counterculture—and the result was an exquisite, museum-quality, collector’s piece of functional art called The California Rose.

The saddle was a collaborative effort by master craftsmen from complimentary disciplines—from renowned Canadian silversmith Scott Hardy to Argentine braiding legend Pablo Lozano — but it was in Cary’s shop on the Salmon River that Pedro Pedrini, John Willemsma, Troy West, and Cary Schwarz pulled the pieces together into a masterpiece expression of the traditional, and once ubiquitous, Visalia-style California saddle.

On hand to document the build as part of a film project commissioned by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum — where the saddle will be on exhibit during the TCAA’s annual exhibition and sale — I was struck by the counter-cultural statement being produced in real time, in the form of a one-of-a-kind saddle.

“Popular culture is an inch deep and a mile wide,” Cary Schwarz told me later, up in Alberta, where he and the other members of the TCAA sat for lengthy interviews in the historic OH Ranch barn during their annual spring meeting. The OH, homesteaded in 1851, and once home to First Nations People, Canadian Mounties, and then the cowboys, is now owned by the Calgary Stampede, and on the walls of the old horse barn the names of cowboys who have worked there for over a hundred years are carved into the walls. The names stare out at you like ghosts.

Cary’s right about pop culture, of course, and the effects are acute. Because America doesn’t like to pause. She isn’t good at stillness. She wants to move on, rapidly, to the next cheap thing, the next disposable, machine-produced, battery-operated and artless gizmo utterly devoid of enduring value. Which says something about the way our minds are working too. Stories won’t attach to most of these things we produce and discard, at least not in the way a saddle, or a Santa Barbara bit, or a silver cantle concho, or a rawhide reata collect stories — from builder to user to inheritor — and so become a tangible and legacy expression of the embodied life.

Worse, the big pile of disposable culture we have created, and in many ways are both insisting on and drowning in, has now manifest in the embarrassment of our national politics, where the candidates are garbage and therefore utterly disposable.

In music and dance, flamenco was born as a representation of a different way of living, an assertion of the high value of authenticity and lineage. Its deepest roots are among the Spanish Roma, a nomadic life well-practiced by American cowboys—both modern and historical. Which makes a saddle like the California Rose — with its heritage among the Californios — an almost perfect endowment in a very rich lineage reaching all the way back to North Africa.

Honoring the lineage of western craftsmanship is an integral part of the TCAA’s efforts to preserve and promote western heritage through their own work, but they are also committed to knowledge-transfer. Proceeds from their annual sale, to include The California Rose, are poured back into fellowships for young craftsmen and women so that the traditions of functional and artistic excellence can reach forward into the future.

This wasn’t always the case for apprentices, who for decades labored under veils of secrecy surrounding master craftsmanship. Mike Nicola, Board Member and Chairman of the TCAA Committee at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, noted that it was “a very real possibility that these extraordinary skills might disappear within a generation.”

Preserving this legacy of skills, of elevating craftsmanship to the level of functional art, is oddly not without its headwinds and detractors, usually fomented by those steeped in the vagaries of popular culture that would like nothing more than to deconstruct western heritage—and inevitably its art forms —through narrow and angst-filled prisms.

But counter-culture, at its best and highest, is also a fight for survival.

“We represent, I think, a counter-cultural movement,” Cary Schwarz said of the TCAA. “This saddle represents over 200 years of cumulative experience, of deep narratives and time on task, of developing skills that are not easy to master. And those are things that cause the human spirit to rise.”

Indeed they do. And The California Rose, a product of deep narratives and time on task, a piece of functioning poetry, can hardly do otherwise. For as Keats reminded us after admiring the beautiful stories told on a Grecian Urn: “When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”


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