Cowboy gear artists who often lead solitary lives because of the nature of their art or lifestyles, living on remote farms and ranches, met up last week to network and learn more about the business side of their art, during the inaugural Idaho Cowgirl Congress Showcase and Demonstration.
Held at The Art Museum of Eastern Idaho and presented jointly with the Idaho Commission on the Arts, 16 artists capped off the week welcoming the public — surrounded by their handcrafted boots, saddles, saddle blankets, chaps, chinks, tack, engraved silver, jewelry and oil and watercolor paintings ― all made with a women’s touch and representing the grace and grit of the cowgirl spirit.
“The event surpassed my expectations, the dialogue between the women was exciting to see,” said Alexa Stanger, Education Director at The Art Museum. “It’s exciting to see a group of really talented women from all around the state here.”
The event is the fourth in an ongoing series said Steven Hatcher, Folk and Traditional Arts director with the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
“There are a lot of gear makers on this side of the state but this is the first time this has been organized exclusively for women,” Hatcher said.
Tack and saddle maker Nancy Martiny, of May, boot maker Lisa Sorrell, of Guthrie, Okla., Western painter Kaye Yorke, of Cambridge, and professional photographer Tagen Baker offered advice in networking, writing a business plan, and taking better pictures of their art for marketing purposes.
Martiny began making saddles in 1987 for the working cowboy. Because of where she lives and because of the art she creates, she experiences isolation firsthand. She builds about two saddles a month for cowboys who live and work around the West. She credits award-winning Shelley saddle maker Dale Harwood with helping her to get started and mentoring her along the way.
“This event has been great, I didn’t know I could talk so much,” she said. “We’re all here to learn and to share.”
Sorrell, whose custom-made cowboy boots start at $5,000 a pair said her home state has no such event for woman gear makers. She began making boots 29 years ago when she answered an ad to stitch boot tops. Back then she had never worn a pair of boots but now that’s all she wears.
“We have no funding for anything like this in Oklahoma, I’ve been incredibly jealous all week, this has been a wonderful event, I was invited here as a speaker but I learned a lot too,” she said.
Longtime Dubois bootmaker Bev Gilger of Dubois displayed a table-full of her silver and steel engravings. She and husband Steve Gilger sold their custom boot-making business several years ago.
“I started engraving about 11 years ago when we still had the boot business but now I have more time,” she said. “It’s something you have to keep after, to keep learning.”
She engraves on pocket watches, bolo ties and belt buckles but she engraves more rifles, shotguns and six-shooters. So far, she’s engraved about 50 guns. Many of her guns have gone to pilots who want images of their crop duster or small plane engraved on their guns.
The event was a great experience for her and up-and-coming artists.
“This has been good, especially for the younger artists so they can get together and share ideas,” Gilger said. “The biggest thing is to improve your work and get over your shyness. Because it’s a solitary life the hardest part is getting artists out and about and talking to people. I’d much rather do the work; Steve is usually my mouthpiece.”
Hailey boot maker Morgan Buckert agreed.
“I’m so pleased to get together with other artists and talk about our craft. This has given me a lot of hope for the future of women in our craft,” Buckert said. “What we do traditionally is a male-dominated art but the future is female. I see a lot of women entering the traditional arts and they’re young. It’ll be exciting to see where we’ll be in 30 years.”
Terri Stillwaugh of Challis got her start in the repair business in 2015. Today she builds tack and strives to build classic saddles for the working cowboy, patterned after her grandpa’s saddle that he gave to her.
“Working with leather is as hard as it looks and then some,” Stillwaugh said. “This event is a huge resource. It was intimate enough that we all got to talk to one another and it turns out we all have the same worries and insecurities.”
Lakyn Walker, a bead and leather work artist from Menan and Bailey Lusk, from Rockland, who makes chinks, chaps and spur straps are both young mothers. Walker started working with leather after her first child was born. Walker’s mentor is Nancy Martiny and she hopes to learn how to build saddles eventually. Both are stay at home moms.
“This enables me to stay at home with the kids and be a contributing part of the ranch too,” Lusk said. “We had kids to be with them, not have someone else raise them.”
Pete and Karen McGarry, semi-retired ranchers from Hamer, stopped by to see the art and the artists. The McGarrys lived near Martiny in Hamer before she moved to May and they watched Gilger grow up in the Dubois area.
“I still ride one of Nancy’s saddles,” Pete McGarry said. “We came to the (cowboy arts) show they had here at the museum a few years ago. Things like this puts ‘the cowboy way’ out in front of people and helps advertise their wares.”