College, nonprofit make Western art a business

Kristin Fong, executive director of By Western Hands, welcomes visitors into the facility’s museum, which Items displayed in the By Western Hands museum show true Western craftsmanship. features a handmade miniature log cabin, among other handcrafted Western items made of wood. By Western Hands is a Cody-based nonprofit organization working with Northwest College to run an internship program for artisans. (Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune)

By Kevin Killough

Powell Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL — As many artisans in the business of Western design near retirement, there aren’t a lot of new people getting into the industry. But if all goes as planned, graduates of a new internship program at Northwest College will fill those opportunities as experienced craftsmen retire. 

“It seems like these handcrafted arts are falling by the wayside,” said Kristin Fong, executive director and CEO of By Western Hands. The Cody-based nonprofit is focused on preserving the legacy of Western design, and it’s partnering with NWC on the new, accredited program. 

“We want to keep that tradition alive through the students,” Fong explained. 

The four-semester program, which results in an associate degree, is now recruiting students, with one already signed up to enter the program this fall. 

Dean Bruce, NWC’s dean of extended campus and workforce, said a lot of thought and planning went into the program’s design in recent years. 

“We are really appreciative of By Western Hands for letting us be involved with this program,” Bruce said. 

Those involved with the internship program often use the phrase “industry-driven” to describe it. The educational mission of By Western Hands is part of their overall goal of preserving the legacy of Western design. The hope is that, after completing the internship program, the students will create great art of the American West and keep the tradition alive. 

The program combines on-the-job training with experienced mentors, as well as business classes. 

“This is not just learning how to create the pieces, but also market them,” said Fong. 

Many of the artists who work with the Cody-based nonprofit produce functional art, which includes decorative items such as saddles and furniture that are influenced by the culture and style of the American West. 

Besides educating new artists in the field, the organization helps showcase and promote the work of its members. 

“That’s what By Western Hands does for artists. We take on that responsibility,” Fong said. 

The internships are tailored to pair students with mentors working in areas that fit the individual interest of the intern.

They’re not only looking for students with the right aptitudes for the coursework, but also those who see the opportunity as opening into a lasting career. 

“We’re working with the college to find the students who’d be the best fit for the program,” Fong explained. 

By Western Hands hopes the students will fill the shoes of retiring artisans. 

The concept of industry-driven education is becoming more popular in academia. As tuitions rise, students are giving a lot more consideration to how their educations will translate into profitable careers. 

“It seems to be the current trend,” Bruce said. 

Fong likens the internships to the medieval apprenticeship system in which learned artisans take on an apprentice who works directly with the mentor. The artisans receive some help in their work, and the students gain experience. And the proficiencies developed turn into lifelong careers. 

“I don’t know of anything like this unique program,” Fong said.

Today, there’s a trend in academia to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math education, referred to as STEM fields. In this conversation, art education is being pushed to the background. 

“It seems like these handcrafted arts are falling by the wayside,” Fong said. 

But Fong said the internship program, with its embrace of productive outcomes, has a STEM dimension to it: Putting together a piece of furniture, for example, requires calculations and understanding of how the materials that compose a piece impact its functionality. 

“This is part of the process that gets forgotten. There’s an engineering component to it,” Fong said. 

The well-rounded nature of the program demonstrates the many considerations that went into its planning, with a lot of input from people at By Western Hands and Northwest College. 

Fong explained By Western Hands put a lot of time into working out the details with the college so they could develop an accredited academic program with effective prerequisites. 

“It’s an ambitious team of people with real vision,” she stated. 

The program meets the technology education standards of the International Society for Technology in Education. It will be supervised by Nancy Bailey, who has a doctorate degree and volunteers at the college. When they designed the program, Bailey said they were looking to produce evidence-based outcomes. 

She sees her own involvement as a way to volunteer her time toward a positive impact. 

“The deep-down passion for this is to support the community. … This is a unique time in my life to give something back,” Bailey said. 

Bruce said the student who will enter the internship program in the fall semester had previously completed some classwork, left college for a while, and is now returning to complete his degree.

“We look forward to having our first student this fall, and then we’ll go from there,” Bruce said.