Tucumcari college upgrades cowboy arts program

When Eddy Mardis arrived in Tucumcari 13 years ago to teach a farrier science program at Mesalands Community College, he had no idea he would one day be instructing Mesalands students in the art of creating exquisitely engraved spurs, horse bits, belt buckles, pendants and bracelets.

Mardis, 60, grew up on a farm and ranch in Muleshoe, Texas, earned degrees in animal science and secondary education at West Texas State University (now West Texas State A&M), competed in calf and team roping in rodeos and became a journeyman horseshoer.

With that résumé, he was perfectly suited to teach farrier (horseshoeing) science at Mesalands.

But about eight years ago, he saw a man doing some engraving, got interested and gave it a go himself. Turns out he was good at it.

“After I had been engraving for about a year, I had people who had been doing it 20 years asking me questions,” Mardis said during a phone interview from Mesalands. “It was just a gift I had inside of me that I didn’t even know about.”

Now people are selling spurs, bits and buckles created by Mardis on the East Coast and the West Coast, and he is an instructor in cowboy arts/Western silversmithing and fabrication at Mesalands, which just this semester started offering an associate of applied science degree in the program.

“There is a market for the spurs, for the bits, for all kinds of Western paraphernalia,” Mardis said. “There is a big market for knife engraving, a huge demand for gun engravers.”

Math and spur-making

Founded in 1979 as Tucumcari Area Vocational School, Mesalands has an enrollment today of about 1,200, including on-site and off-campus students. The school started offering a spur-making class about eight years ago.

“It evolved into more classes and eventually became a full-fledged program,” Mardis said. “I’ve got 18 students in the fabricating class and 10 taking the engraving glass.”

Until this semester, which started last week, Mesalands offered only certificate-level classes in cowboy arts, silversmithing and fabrication. But most of the students in the certificate programs wanted a degree, so the school created a two-year associate of applied science curriculum for cowboy arts. That means students seeking the degree take classes in their first year that include English composition and basic algebra as well as beginning spur making and engraving I. Second-year classes include public speaking and a science course as well as bit design and fabrication.

“Education is always of value,” Mardis said. “You never know what’s going to come on in later life. Students can get higher pay with an associate degree. They can go and get a four-year degree.”

A good fit

Shyla Curry, 26, is on target to be the first student to complete the associate degree in cowboy arts at Mesalands.

She grew up between Amarillo and Canyon in Texas. Her family was in the cattle business but she herself displayed a creative side and did not live the day-to-day ranching life.

“I was a writing major, an art major, a film major,” she said. “I went to the University of New Mexico for four years and walked out of there without a degree.”

While trying to get her life on track, Curry realized that she admired the Western lifestyle and cowboy culture and figured she’d be happy doing something that combined that with her creative abilities. Her mother discovered the cowboy arts program at Mesalands.

“The hands-on aspect of the program is a really good fit for me,” she said. “And Eddy encourages us and helps us a lot.”

Curry concedes she found engraving a challenge at the start.

“I got a little discouraged because I thought since I had always been able to draw and paint that would translate into the engraving,” she said. “But I kept with it and picked it up fairly quickly.”

Now, Curry is selling belt buckles she creates in five or six hours for $275 to $350, depending upon the intricacy required. She recently designed and built a buckle in recognition of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She also does pendants for necklaces and slides for scarves.

Paying your way

Cowboy arts student Wyatt Bishop, 21, grew up in Tucumcari, the son of a father who has a handmade-boot business in the town. He especially likes making spurs, which seems appropriate for someone who was raised around boots.

“I really like the fabrication end of (cowboy arts), and I think spurs have the most in-depth fabrication,” Bishop said. “I took to fabrication quickly because I knew how to do welding from shop classes in high school.”

Bishop sells spur sets he makes in three or four days for $400. His buckles, made in two or three days, start at $125.

“This is probably one of the few programs in the world in which you can pay your way through college by selling what you make,” Mardis said.

When she finishes at Mesalands, Curry intends to settle near Amarillo and use her cowboy arts talents to make a living.

“I have direction in life now and a potential career,” she said.

But Bishop, who is studying animal science as well as cowboy arts at Mesalands, said his spur and buckle-making will be a sideline occupation.

“I really like having a steady paycheck,” he said. “I’d like to get into ag marketing, working for a feedlot or being a cattle buyer.”

Mardis said skills acquired in cowboy arts can be employed in other kinds of works.

“There is a huge need for blue-collar skills – welding, soldering, milling, working a lathe – acquired in making spurs,” he said. “What we are really all about is teaching those skills. Students can go to work at an airplane factory, any kind of fabricating company.”

But they can make some pretty fancy buckles, bits and spurs, too.

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