Copper in the Arts

August 2018

Buddy Knight, A Metal Artist in the True Western Tradition

By Erica David

Frank “Buddy” Knight is a master metal artist working in the field of Western Art, a world defined by traditional techniques and motifs that artists must study and make their own.

buddy2.jpgFrank "Buddy" Knight in his studio. 

Photograph courtesy of Frank "Buddy" Knight. 

As I visit with Knight in his studio in Marfa, Texas, we are surrounded by some of the work he’s done--spurs, bits and buckles--as well as his current project, a copper cuff bracelet cut into a curvy organic shape and ready for engraving.

There are also some prized pieces by others, including a pair of spurs made by Oscar Crockett back in the ‘50s. Crockett is an artist Knight describes as one of the greats.

An old pair of leather chaps hangs on a hook and there’s a hat setting on top of some machinery. There are clippings and souvenirs from his cowboy life as well as from his long career as a shop teacher at the local high school. Throughout our conversation it becomes clear that the world of Western art is a world where authenticity matters, where part of being an artist is living the life. Buddy Knight’s beautiful artwork is a direct and true expression of his adventurous life, including (so far) growing up on a ranch, riding in rodeos and teaching school, as well as studying his craft in every way available to him.

Talking about his beginnings as an artist, and the challenge that motivated him, he quotes one of his old friends who was a professional rodeo cowboy: “I want to do good and I want to look good doing it.”

So, Knight turned his energies toward learning how to make pieces that were both practical and decorative.

It wasn’t easy. This was a theme Knight returned to again and again as we talked, education and the hard-won nature of artisanal knowledge.

He told me he’s not one of these guys who brags about never having taken an art class. “Far from it!,” he says. “I wish I’d been able to take some classes. In those days boys took Vo-Ag and shop and girls took home ec, that was about it.”

He also had to work against his father’s leeriness of his son’s artistic ambitions.

“My dad was a banker,” says Knight. “In those days people kind of looked down on working with your hands. Some still do!”

Knight was determined to work with his hands, but doing so, especially in those days, was governed by the rules of apprenticeship. Craft was a realm of closely guarded secrets. He offers an example from an early job he had with a stone mason.

“I worked for a man named Johnny Harris, who I loved dearly, was like a father to me, but for a long time, he wouldn’t show me how to lay rock,” he recalls. “I just did all the grunt work . . . it was his wife who eventually convinced him to show me.”

He says that what really set him on his path was being lucky enough to have a great mentor in his high school shop teacher, a man who he says taught him to think.

“I wanted to make spurs,” he says. “Neither of us knew how, but we figured it out together, It was with him I made my first pair of spurs, which I ended up giving him.”

After that encouragement, he had the confidence to continue, and was able to train himself to look at work by experts and figure out how to do it himself, to “take things apart with my eyes,” a skill he’s still practicing forty-plus years later.

His experience with his own shop teacher probably influenced him to become one himself and pass along not only knowledge of technique but confidence, and the ability to think.

The particular pieces he’s made over the years cover what he describes as a “natural progression,” from spurs and bits to buckles and jewelry.

Sterling silver bracelet with copper and yellow brass, West Texas mountain scene made for the wife of a good Texas boy who moved way up north.A Knight bracelet with copper and yellow brass designs depicting a West Texas mountain scene. 

Photo courtesy of Frank "Buddy" Knight. 

He works in a range of different metals but is particularly attached to copper, used on its own or along with silver to play up the contrasting properties.  He begins working on his copper bracelet project as we chat, explaining the technique of bright cutting, which means using a polished engraving tool and making quick cuts into the metal surface which makes the surface reflect light. It’s amazing to see how quickly and expertly the bracelet, with a design of curvy spirals and flowers, takes shape.

“Ain’t no power in a square,” he says, quoting his friend Cotton, a fellow local metal artist.

“I love copper,” Knight continues. “It’s cheaper than silver and just as pretty. Sometimes even prettier. It engraves really well. And, if you do what’s called antiquing, and put a little sulfur on it, it changes . . . . You can buff it back and the lows are dark and the highs are real bright. I have one friend that says  copper is the new silver.”

Knight gets his copper from several different suppliers in the Southwest, including Rio Grande, Santa Fe Jewelry Supply, and Thunderbird, in Gallup New Mexico.

He tells me that the demand has never been higher for the kind of work he does, especially the spurs, bits and buckles. And people are willing to pay steep prices for handmade work. He has some silver buckles he’s working on for a client that are going on a bridle and will cost at least $300 a piece. A beautiful pair of spurs will go for $3,500.

“But, aren’t there fewer and fewer cowboys out there?” I ask.

He smiles, “you’d be surprised.”

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