CODY, WYO. — “The story is really important.”
That’s how furniture craftsman Jimmy Covert describes the value his customers attach to his decades of woodworking experience, as well as Cody’s authentic claim as the birthplace of a unique and influential Western design movement.
People aren’t just buying a club chair or desk, Covert explains. They’re investing in a piece of functional art that has a clear connection to a long history of creative, hard-working artisans in an authentic Western community.
That’s why artists, buyers and enthusiasts have gathered every September in Cody for the past 24 years. And it’s why an annual showcase of furniture, fashion and decorative items that has never been very profitable simply won’t fade away.
Covert is among the two dozen artisans invited to display work in By Western Hands, a new design exhibition that is the successor to Cody High Style, which itself was preceded by the Western Design Conference.
From its origins as an artists’ collective, then private ownership, followed by a sale and most recently a pair of reinventions, the name of the show has changed through the years. But the names of many of the craftsmen have stayed the same.
That consistency among key exhibitors is an asset, Covert said, because it lends credibility to a core group of artisans who have been supporting each other and exhibiting together in Cody for decades.
“But I’m also worried we’re going to lose the techniques we’ve developed,” he said. “We have to bring in more younger guys—by which I mean anyone under 55.”
Covert, 65, and some of his fellow artists gathered Wednesday at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West to hear an overview of Cody Style by Chase Reynolds Ewald, an author of several books on Western design.
The annual design showcase in Cody has always been “a time to honor the spirit of Cody,” Ewald said.
“At its core, it’s a celebration of fine craftsmanship,” she said. “There have been four iterations of this show, but its spirit has remained the same.”
As the birthplace of a distinct style of Western design, Cody “has an artistic pedigree unlike any other town in the interior West,” she said, and “it is indisputably the center” of a unique and acclaimed movement.
The deep and enduring connection between Cody and the Western craftsmen who live and work here is something Bryant Hall didn’t always fully appreciate.
Hall is the president of By Western Hands, a new nonprofit group formed to support and sustain the Western artisans in and around Cody.
“I grew up here, and when I was in high school, the Western Design Conference was at its peak,” Hall said. “But I was oblivious to it.”
“I have since seen how many talented artisans there are here, and how much of a centerpiece Cody has been to that movement. So now I see the value of it,” said Hall, who works at Caleco Foundry, which partners with a number of Western sculptors to cast fine art pieces.
Fortunately, Hall isn’t alone in his appreciation. Working with a group of benefactors and volunteers who want to preserve and build on Cody’s annual design exhibition, By Western Hands is starting this year with a simple show meant to maintain momentum and consistency with years past.
But plans call for an expanded show next year, along with the possibility of a permanent gallery in Cody. Such a space could serve as a shared showcase for local makers of furniture, fashion and other unique, handcrafted offerings that reflect the spirit of the town.
“Location is important,” said Keith Seidel, a saddle maker and leatherworker who has had a presence downtown since 1995. He said a central display area for local artisans could be beneficial to the community of craftsmen scattered across the sprawling, rural landscape around Cody.
A Cody native who began working in a local boot shop at 12, Seidel specializes in intricate and heavily tooled leather goods.
Having a shop downtown has allowed Seidel and his wife, Lisa, to capitalize during the summer on retail sales, while working through the winter on a backlog of commissioned saddles, belts, briefcases and other leather goods.
“Location is everything it’s cracked up to be. But you also have to be able to back it up,” Seidel said. “You need to be able to produce, even when it’s not always profitable, and pay attention to detail, so you’re better than the next guy.”
That level of mastery isn’t something that happens overnight, or even in a few years, said Covert, who with wife Lynda has been making self-described “ranch furniture” in Cody since the mid-1980s.
In a world where most people think “building furniture” means assembling a bookcase from Ikea, there aren’t many young people willing to apprentice for years in a Cody workshop, Covert said.
“But appreciation for handmade things is growing more and more each year, partly because of that,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons why Covert is optimistic there will always be an annual design show in Cody. The community always finds a way to put a show together.
For Covert, the story is important, and for Seidel, location is important too. But when it comes to Western design, Cody is both the location and the story.
If you go…
The By Western Hands Invitational Design Exhibition is free, and runs through 3 p.m. Saturday at the south lawn of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, 720 Sheridan Ave. Cody, Wyo. Call (307) 587-3243 for details.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].