Southern Arizona Folk Arts

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El Arte Folklórico del Sur de Arizona en espagñol

Rawhide

Rawhide is, as one old cowboy put it, "simply the outside of a cow." Wet, it is remarkably pliable; dry, it is hard and wears like iron. Braided rawhide, once mostly a Mexican specialty, is undergoing a revival, especially in its elaborately decorated forms such as those created by cowboy Rick Taylor, who learned in Nevada and currently lives in the Tucson area. Some of the use of color and added decorative horsehair goes back through Mexico to Spain and the Moorish horsemen and craftsmen who occupied that peninsula for so many centuries.


Rick Taylor with braided rawhide pieces, May, 1989
Rick Taylor with braided rawhide pieces, May, 1989
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Mr. Taylor has been a working cowboy, and learned to braid rawhide from friends in Nevada. Rawhide is simply uncured cow skin. Cut into fine strips and soaked in water, it is extraordinarily pliable; when dry it becomes extremely hard and durable. Although rawhide is used for such utilitarian items of horse equipment as reins and quirts, it can be highly decorated in the hands of a master.

Detail of a quirt by Rick Taylor, Tucson, May, 1989
Detail of a quirt by Rick Taylor, Tucson, May, 1989
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

On this quirt or small hand-held whip, Mr. Taylor demonstrates some of the decorative techniques used in his kind of work. Several colors of rawhide, as well as a variety of elegant and precise knots add to the aesthetic impact of the work, as do horsehair and the basket-stamping on the leather. This is indeed a utilitarian object - a tool, if you will - but Mr. Taylor has taken it beyond its physical requirements to create an object with aesthetic impact - a work of art.

Belt and silver buckle by Paul Showalter, Patagonia, August, 1984
Belt and silver buckle by Paul Showalter, Patagonia, August, 1984
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

The late Mr. Showalter was a saddlemaker for much of his life, turning to silver work and gun engraving in his later years. It is interesting that the floral designs on the silver work match those of the belt. This sort of floral decoration probably entered the cowboy aesthetic in the late 19th Century, at a time when a wide range of English and American manufactured goods were decorated with leaves and flowers.

Belt samples by Roy Salgie, Tucson, August, 1984
Belt samples by Roy Salgie, Tucson, August, 1984
[image courtesy of James S. Griffith]

Mr. Salgie learned his saddle-making skills from Mr. Showalter, and worked for many years in Tucson. Although his main work was saddle-making, he also made belts to order for cowboys and others. These are some of his sample patterns, using the same floral motifs noted in Mr. Showalter's work.

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