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Big Sky Art Auction: Master craftsmen preserve spirit of West

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The By Western Hands showroom in Cody, Wyoming features over 125 pieces of work by 40 different artists from nine different states. PHOTO COURTESY OF BY WESTERN HANDS

By Western Hands to feature 30 works at July 18-19 event

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

CODY, WYOMING – In the 19th century, early American settlers vied for a coveted piece of the West, which promised fortune, freedom and new beginnings. Pilgrimaging west was believed to be a process of development and a paradigm of the American character.

By Western Hands is a nonprofit with a legacy of preserving this wild, frontier spirit in the works of the master craftsman they support. It’s a spirit encapsulated and carried down through minds and works of those who have devoted their lives to creating functional, lasting art.

The functional artworks that By Western Hands creates from wood, carved leather and bone, beaded textiles, antler, silver and iron, to name a few, are unlike anything you’ll ever see in a typical furniture store. They are reflections of a style born in the late 1800s, now deeply rooted in American culture and embraced by acclaimed furniture craftsman Thomas Molesworth. Artisans are highly trained and their works are juried—only those individuals demonstrating the highest quality workmanship with an eye toward the Western tradition are invited to join the master craftsman guild.

Unfortunately, these artists are becoming a rarity.

“We are stressed and saddened because some of these master craftsman are moving toward the end of their careers and it’s not gong to be around if someone doesn’t learn their techniques that go into their pieces,” said Harris Haston, one of the founders of By Western Hands and current chairman of the board. “I think the whole spirit of the American West and all the things we’ve learned to romanticize are in this work.”

By Western Hands is in its third iteration of what began as a loosely organized group of master craftsmen who would gather at the Western Design Conference in the 80s. They were originally headquartered in Jackson, Wyoming, but—possibly fueled by Wild Bill Hickok’s lingering spirit—they felt more at home once they settled in Cody, where the showroom and museum stands today. They established themselves as a 501(c)(3) and run a thriving education program with Northwest College, a community college in Wyoming. Their showroom features over 125 pieces by 40 different artists from nine different states.

The program at Northwest College is designed to develop the students’ skills, teach them how to run a successful business and hook them onto the craft in hopes that they will continue carrying on the spirit of the Northern Rockies heritage. They will then work as an intern for 900 hours with a master in their shop.

“Our real mission is to raise awareness, but [the craftsmen’s] mission is to make sure their genre is going to exist for future generations,” said Haston. “It’s all about passing the craft down. For them, it means everything to have an intern.”

The Big Sky Art Auction, hosted by Outlaw Partners, the publisher of this newspaper, takes place Saturday, July 18 and will feature 30 unique functional Western pieces hand-chosen by the By Western Hands committee. Nineteen artists will be featured, including Dan Rieple, Doug Norburg and Christina Chapman.

“We are very pleased and honored to be included in the show,” Haston said. “It is s thrill for [the artists] to be able to come and show their work. This is a pretty serious opportunity for this kind of work to be recognized for being highly creative and collectable.”

Any setting in which the master craftsmen can meet their patrons viewing and purchasing their work is special, and another way to pass down the appreciation for their work.

“Most of our craftsman find it really joyful to meet patrons and customers, learn their personalities and learn what those patrons enjoy to have in their home,” said Russell Johnson, marketing director at By Western Hands.

To this day people migrate to what was once the Wild West to find a slower pace of life amongst the rugged mountains of the Northern Rockies. It is the same force that drives By Western Hands to preserve and pay homage to that legacy so we don’t lose the spirit, strength and perseverance of the American West.

“It would be a tragedy if we didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy new innovative work for the next generation. The hope is always to leave the world a little better off then we found it,” Haston said. “To be able [to] advance this creativity for the next generation—we can’t think of anything better.”

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