Published: August 3, 2010
Aahhh, cowboy boots. To many, they seem the quintessential symbol of the American West †of yesterday and today. Developed after the Civil War, these seemingly essential accoutrements of “real” Westerners have inevitably attracted the attention of designers, craftsmen and artists. Their output has reflected changing attributes of the region, from freedom, independence and loneliness to gender, personal style and fashion. Cowboys †and their boots †have become synonymous with the mystique of the West.
The manner in which artists have used cowboy boots to define and promote views of cowboy life, and ways in which the footgear have been designed to be both practical and attractive, is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art.” Organized by Joseph Traugott, curator of Twentieth Century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art, it is on view there through September 5. The show includes more than 130 artworks, objects and pairs of boots.
Traugott says the exhibition “examines cowboy boots as works of art, as the subjects of works of art, as reflections of American cultural values and as markers of Western life.”
Each section of the exhibition is titled with a line from a well-known Western song, while Western tunes play in the background. Among other things the introductory section †”I See by Your Outfit That You Are a Cowboy” †documents is that after World War II, Acme Boot Company designed boots for each of the then 48 states. They were decorated with specific state capitals, sayings, flowers, birds, animals and other themes appropriate for each jurisdiction. In 1953, Acme circulated advertisements proudly proclaiming that “All America Is Getting Into Cowboy Boots.” More recently the boots have been updated with new versions of the originals.
“These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking” traces the history and making of cowboy boots. They were developed after the Civil War from Wellington boots worn by cavalry soldiers. Cowhands, who spent hours on horseback, started asking boot makers to alter their Wellingtons by increasing the height of the heels, adding more pointed toes and creating different boots for right and left feet. The amended versions were more comfortable and functional in the stirrups and offered their wearers a new sense of style.
Also featured is one of the early New Mexico cowboy-boot makers, C.C. McGuffin, who started out in the late 1910s crafting calf-high boots with pointed toes and high heels. In keeping with the apprenticeship tradition, McGuffin taught the trade to his son, L.W., who opened his own shop after World War II. But in the early 1980s when L.W.’s daughter, Deana, asked to learn the trade, her father said no, because he did not think it was an appropriate calling for women. But Deana persisted and eventually L.W. relented, teaching Deana to be the third-generation family boot maker.
Today, at a time when most cowboy boots are manufactured in factories, Deana fashions custom-fitted, individually designed footgear in the garage of her Albuquerque home. It is replete with a heavy-duty sewing machine equipped to stitch thick leather and a long finishing machine. Deana uses multicolored thread to affix inlays of a variety of leathers on the shafts of her boots.
Through colorful photographs, the exhibition walks visitors through the complex and time-consuming process of fitting, cutting, stitching and inlaying of shafts in handmade boots. The results are dazzlingly decorated, colorfully patterned footwear. Determined to pass on her expertise to succeeding generations, McGuffin offers apprenticeships in the art of boot making.
By contrast, boot-making factories work with standard sizes and widths and use lesser quality materials in producing less individualized footgear. Today, El Paso is the boot capital of the world.
The section titled “It Was Once in the Saddle I Used to Go Dashing” examines the origins of cowboy imagery, focusing on reproductions of Frederic Remington’s 1888 illustrations for Theodore Roosevelt’s essays about ranch life in Century magazine. The series, widely read and its images studied, helped define public perceptions of Western life, fixing the cowboy as the universal symbol of the West.
Remington’s depictions romanticized cowpokes as “working-class heroes, reinforcing attitudes presented in Western novels and adventure magazines,” says curator Traugott. Wood engravings made from Remington’s action-filled pen and ink drawings offered views of the yearly cycle of working cowboys’ activities that are “still alive today,” observes Traugott.
Remington’s classic scenes of cowboy life not only conveyed the excitement and dangers of round-ups and clashes with Indians, but associated cowhands with stamina, hardships, independence and courage. Moreover, his imagery reinforced the nation’s concept that through Manifest Destiny God had empowered the United States to eliminate all barriers, including Native Americans, standing in the way of domination to the West Coast. The images reflected the European-American point of view.
An exception to Remington’s idealized views were depictions of cowboys, guns blazing and apparently out of control, in Western saloons. Such scenes reinforced Roosevelt’s observation that “When drunk on that villainous whisky of the frontier towns, they [cowboys] cut mad antics, riding their horses into the saloons, firing their pistols right and left, from boisterous light-heartedness rather than from any viciousness.”
The images grew out of Roosevelt’s experiences in the mid-1880s at two cattle ranches he owned in North Dakota, which he wrote about in Century articles aimed at Eastern audiences. Roosevelt chose Remington (1861‱909) to illustrate his writings based on the virtually unknown artist’s 1886 depictions for Harper’s magazine of the war against Geronimo in Arizona. Remington’s cowboy images, says Traugott, “struck a receptive chord in Eastern parlors and were more interesting and unusual than Roosevelt’s text.”
A second generation of painters transformed Remington and Charles M. Russell’s imagery into predictable formulas that became a popular genre with millions of Americans. Skilled artists like William Penhallow Henderson and W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton and photographer Russell Lee, transplanted to the Southwest, “Westernized” themselves in cowboy garb and continued the tradition of bucking bronco scenes and, more recently, of rodeos. In Traugott’s eyes, Dunton’s bucking bronco views, which stressed “both power and grace,” are superior to Remington’s more famous images that are “flat and reserved.”
The resurgence of interest in cowboys and Western life after World War II encouraged artists like Theodore Von Soelen and Robert Lougheed to create realistic images of ranch hands in action, rounding up, branding and shoeing cattle and resting their horses. This popular imagery, reinforcing the mystique of the intrepid ranch hand, carried over into ads for cowboy boots in the postwar period. They suggested that by putting on such footwear, folks could enjoy the highs of a cowboy taming a wild horse. These developments fit the theme of the section “His Hat Was Throwed Back, and His Spurs a-Jingling.”
While popular attitudes associated cowboys with independence, challenge and freedom, the truth is that these Western icons also endure long periods of melancholy due to the punishing work and isolation of life on the range. In “A Cowboy’s Life Is a Dreary, Dreary Life” artists emphasize these realities, as well as depicting gambling and self-entertaining that are part of cowboy lifestyle. Such imagery made its way into postcards, playing cards and even boots featuring playing cards. Lougheed’s painting of cowhands headed for a Saturday night in town and photographs by Lee of lonely cowpokes on the range and playing guitar epitomize this theme.
Dime novels, other writings and artwork from the 1880s on crafted an image of the West as a region dominated by muscular, adventurous white cowboys, with women playing subordinate roles. “I Went My Own Way” reminds viewers that, actually, the first cowboys were Mexican vaqueros, many cowhands after the Civil War were African Americans, and women took on the harsh challenges of frontier life.
A close look at Dunton’s “The Lonely Vigil,” circa 1913, reveals that it shows a lone, wind-swept woman on horseback isolated on a snow-covered range. While such views seem commonplace today, “For pre-World War I audiences, images like this must have seemed outrageous,” observes Traugott.
Toward the end of the Twentieth Century, female artists began to challenge longstanding myths of the West, and Western women in general demolished traditional gender stereotypes by riding horses, managing ranch businesses and assuming various roles that were previously restricted to men.
Over time, serialized pulp fiction and imagery transformed cowboys from rough-and-tumble wranglers into romantic gentlemen. Photographs, lithographs, drawings, postcards and advertisements promoted cowhands as handsome, masculine figures for whom women swooned.
“A Fair Lady from the Plains” also features the varied, colorful and expressive boots worn by Santa Fe shopkeeper Teal McKibben. They suggest how such footgear has become a symbol of not only fashion, but female allure.
From the Depression into the 1960s, movies, comic books and eventually television shows commercialized Western life, carrying images and messages that encouraged young watchers to aspire to be cowboys and to wear Western clothes. In the “Little Joe the Wrangler” section, Traugott posits that interest in cowboy life waned after 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik and the dreams of youngsters turned to space travel rather than cowboy lore.
The concluding section of the exhibition, “What’s Become of the Punchers We Rode with Long Ago?,” examines ways in which contemporary artists have expanded the framework of cowboy imagery, challenging viewers to rethink the modern West. The section begins with the wonderfully colorful, astutely designed and handsomely crafted boots fashioned by sculptor Lisa Sorrell featuring tooled leather flowers or oak leaves or butterflies and bluebirds.
Standouts in this section are action-packed, blurry images of bull riders that put one in mind of Remington’s “A Bucking Bronco.” They were made by master photographer Donald Woodman, who used various parts from old cameras, including a venerable lens and slow shutter, to create soft images that underscore the power and drama of rodeo scenes.
Also eye-catching are large lithographs by the late, multitalented Luis A. Jimenez, which reflect the lively social life and continuing challenge of bronco-bucking among today’s cowhands. A pair of Jimenez’s red sharkskin boots suggest his affinity for the lifestyle of his subjects.
Also of note are photographer Greg Mac Gregor’s faux fashion images that portray attractive young women in Western attire in Western settings.
In her bedazzling “Maurice’s Boots, Galisteo, New Mexico,” dating to the late 1980s, Carol Sarksian encrusted discarded cowboy boots with brightly colored glass beads, suggesting the broad concepts being pursued by contemporary Western artists. “What makes this work so fascinating,” observes Traugott, “is its inability to be pigeon-holed into a conceptual category.”
This rewarding, entertaining and informative exhibition shows how far Western art and its application to cowboy boots have come since the days of Remington and Russell. Classic views of cowboys have evolved into a mystique deeply embedded in the national psyche, even as artists have sought to keep pace with the ever-changing West. As curator Traugott concludes, “Cowboy boots are truly sole mates to changing images of the West and ideas about America.”
The 124-page catalog, lavishly illustrated and filled with interesting observations by Traugott, is published by the Museum of New Mexico Press.
The New Mexico Museum of Art is on Santa Fe Plaza at 107 West Palace Avenue. For information, 505-476-5072 or www.nmartmuseum.org .
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