Efforts to sustain existing Western artisans and apprentice new ones are picking up in Park County — including through a new program being developed at Northwest College.
Western functional art has a long history in the Cody area, beginning most notably with saddle maker, leather and silver worker Edward Bohlin and furniture maker Thomas Molesworth, both of whom helped develop and define the Western style in the early 1900s.
Along the way, they and other talented artisans employed some of the people who would follow in their footsteps — who then trained additional up-and-coming craftsmen.
But many of today’s Western artisans are nearing retirement, and there aren’t enough people trained to take their place.
To help address that need, the organization By Western Hands is partnering with Northwest College to develop apprenticeship programs that will provide a path for people to become skilled Western artisans and craftsmen. Artisan mentors would work with students to provide hands-on instruction on design and techniques, while NWC would provide educational elements.
By Western Hands is a Cody-based nonprofit with a sole focus of promoting Western functional art — works that can range from furniture to saddles, beadwork to metalwork and beyond.
The organization plans to open the By Western Hands Design Center on Cody’s 12th Street that will host an annual exhibition each September. In addition, the facility will provide year-round gallery space for high-quality works of functional art, museum space for historic displays and exhibits and workspace for artisans and apprentices.
Passing on the knowledge
“I think the education aspect of By Western Hands is probably the most important part of this project for the future of Western design, whether it is traditional, spiritual, nostalgic or contemporary,” said Scott Armstrong, a contemporary Western furniture maker in Powell.
“The gallery will give us established artisans a way to continue to make a living, but most of us are in our 50s and 60s, so it is really important to find a way to pass on the knowledge and techniques we have developed in our careers,” Armstrong said. “The teaching shop and museum are what is going to make what we do today relevant in the future (I hope).”
Armstrong said it is important to have options for students who want to work with their hands and don’t want to go, or can’t afford to go, to college for four years.
Dean Bruce, NWC dean of extended campus and workforce, said the college is working to develop the curriculum and the apprenticeships.
“We could set up different apprenticeships based on what the need was” and the students’ interests, Bruce said.
Bruce said he hopes to have the apprenticeship program available in the fall, but it could take longer to organize it and get it approved.
Harris Haston of Cody (and Tennessee) and his wife Carlene Lebous have led the effort to establish the By Western Hands Design Center, and are leading negotiations with the college as well.
Haston said there will be two options for apprenticeships: A two-semester certificate program, and a four-semester associate degree program.
“A lot of issues we have to address for accreditation,” he said.
Both will have business education requirements, he said.
“The craftsmen strongly recommended that, in the program, we include some business classes,” Haston said. “They’re the guys who said, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s require them to do some business classes, because I wish I’d had some.’”
“Once you become a craftsman, you really need to know how to keep your books, track your time and general business ethics,” he said.
Haston said the apprenticeship program will start out small, with just a few students, to make sure it’s running correctly.
While execution will be a challenge, “It’s just astonishing how well it’s come together so far,” he said. “It is remarkable the responsiveness the college has given to By Western Hands. They already have a group of scholarship-supporting sources.”
Shelby Wetzel, executive director of the Northwest College Foundation, said the educational goal is to “teach through the college those kinds of skills that someone might need to go alongside the apprentice skills.”
Wetzel said she is working with donors to provide individual scholarships to students, probably in addition to the regular Trapper Scholarship Program.
If the apprenticeship program works out, she will work with By Western Hands to establish endowments for the apprenticeship program, she said.
“This is groundbreaking stuff,” Wetzel said. “It’s exciting, trying to develop a niche market that fits the Cody niche markets in Park County, Wyoming. It’s too soon to know how it will work out.”
Haston said education is important for sustainability of Western functional art, “because some of our greatest skilled craftsmen, they’re aging out on us.”
The new center will feature seminars and demonstrations by accomplished artisans and craftsmen, he said.
Other facets of the By Western Hands’ vision include increasing financial stability for Western craftsmen through branding and marketing; increasing the number of group members; and providing space to exhibit their work.
“It’s difficult to focus on branding if you’re busy with shop work,” Haston said.
Armstrong said he joined By Western Hands years ago when the group formed.
“Once [I was pulled] out of my shop and into a group environment, I kind of had to keep doing it,” he said. “It’s really nice to talk to people about shop problems.”
Growing the group will increase the types of functional art offered at the By Western Hands Design Center, while maintaining its high-quality, handcrafted design and integrity.
Dennie Hammer, the interim executive director of By Western Hands, said efforts to increase membership are underway.
“In order to become a member, you have to be juried in,” he said. “They look at the quality, they look at the construction of whatever the piece is, and whether this represents what we’re trying to promote. Once artisans are juried into the organization, then they are free to participate in our exhibition as well as provide stuff for the retail space.”
The retail space will provide a year-round venue for craftsmen to display and sell their Western functional art.
The museum section, meanwhile, will highlight the history of the art.
“We’re working with the Buffalo Bill Center of the West,” Hammer said. “They have several Molesworth pieces that they no longer display that they’re willing to let us use.”
Wally Reber of Cody, a former associate director for the Center of the West, is putting together historical information for the museum, Armstrong said.
The building was purchased by Helping Hands LLC, an organization formed by a group of investors specifically for the purpose of providing By Western Hands a “basic building,” Haston said.
“They’ve done their part,” Armstrong said. “Now it’s up to us artisans to raise the rest for the renovation.”
Haston said it’s uncertain whether the retail space will be renovated in time for this September’s exhibition.
“It’s kind of ‘stay tuned,’ he said. “The committees are executing well. We don’t quite have all the capital raised, but we feel it’s enough that we should move forward.”
“If everything goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised if we make it” in time for a grand opening in September, Haston said.
Of the overall design center, Armstrong said “the historical part is educational, the shop part is educational, and the rest of it is to keep the artisans alive — to give us a place to sell and to show contemporary stuff.”
“They’re really doing work in every one of those dimensions to pull this together,” said Wetzel, of the NWC Foundation. “It’s a pretty bold undertaking. That’s the exciting part of it all, I think.”