Follow Your Bliss

By Kyle Walker / Originally published August 6, 2015 in The Bigheart Times
Bruce Carter works on a belt buckle in his Tallgrass Gallery
Photograph by Kyle Walker

It’s a bright afternoon in Pawhuska. From inside this gallery on the west side of the street, the old Citizens National Bank building and its antique robbery alarm—a red and white glass box designed to light up in case someone want to walk off with the contents of the vault—dominate Kihekah avenue.

The gallery, its signage painted with a sure hand on the windows, is plain and engaging. Paintings line the north wall; the south holds tooled leather and stone jewelry. Five or six feet from the entrance, a pair of narrow, wooden columns support a beam decorated with the painted outlines of bison.

The door is painted blue and plunges, like those of other shops along this street, deep into the glass storefront so that visitors are immediately flanked by good on offer.

Here a visitor will find that formula somewhat altered: On the left, copper and silver jewelry is displayed and marked for sale. So far so good. But on the right, through the window, is a desk lined with engraver’s tools.

Today, a silver belt buckle sits on that desk. It is unfinished. At its center, nestled in a symmetrical nest of fine cuts and patterns, are the letters T-A-L-L-G-R-A-S-S, made from a series of short, parallel lines cut into its surface. The artist is Bruce L. Carter, silversmith.

58 years old, Carter wears a dramatic mustache that hangs over the corners of his mouth. When he steps outside, he covers his close-cropped hair with a worn cowboy hat and walks with his head down so only the top of his hat is visible.

Carter is a new inhabitant of Pawhuska. He moved her eight weeks ago and opened up Tallgrass Gallery at the beginning of July. Technically, the gallery opened officially on Aug. 1, but it was open to visitor sbefore.

He is showing his own work in one of the storefront windows at Tallgrass. He’s also bringing in other artists, especially those who have never shown their work before.

“I will take as many [artists] as I can get in here” within reason, he says. “Some galleries are walls of art. I want to avoid that. I want you to see the art. I want to keep it local as much as I can.”

“There are artists here. They don’t know they’re artists.”

In just two weeks, Carter has become a source of fascination for the occasional passerby, and children have often been witnessed with their faces to the window watching him work.

Carter tells a story about one such child, who gazed in on the silversmith with his father.

“Now look at that,” the father said. “You’ll never see that again.”

This tale launches Carter on a soliloquy in defense of traditional metalwork. He touches on meditation, history, mechanization.

“It would be a pity if we let machines take over our lives,” he says. “Something’s lost.

It’s no wonder one of his friends dubbed him “The Cowboy Philosopher.”

Six nights in a class at a junior college is the extent of Carter’s formal instruction as a silversmith. He’s otherwise completely self-taught. Carter took that night class when he was a senior in high school, 17 years old.

Growing up in the country between Blackwell and Ponca City, he was accustomed to self-reliance.

“I grew up on a farm. You teach yourself stuff,” he says. “My mom gets all the credit for this. She made sure we were exposed to art.”

At the time he thought he’d become a machinist or a welder.

“But I ended up addicted to this,” he says.

That night class launched Carter on a years-long career as an art jeweler, during which time he lived in Nevada, California, Texas and elsewhere. He’s made ornaments for the Philbrook Museum of Art’s Festival of Trees, sold works to the Gilcrease Museum and once had a gallery in Santa Fe.

But in the late 90s he stopped. He took a break. For 14 years, he dialed back his work as a silversmith and learned about computers as the tech boom took off.

He ended up training call center employees, which was “hell.”

When he returned to silversmithing his attitude had changed. Over time, Carter had grown less interested in art jewelry and more interested in the historical uses of metalworking, the traditional techniques.

“I decided I wanted to do hand engraving, but I couldn’t find anyone to teach me the old ways,” he says. “I started looking at old patterns, old books. I went to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.”

“And that’s what I decided I was going to do: I was going to keep these patterns alive.”

Engravers were once in high demand. If you wanted an image printed in a book, you’d need an engraver to cut the image into a a metal plate for you. The same held true if you wanted a poster, map or chart reproduced.

Now, engraving has been almost entirely replaced by photographic techniques, but Carter wants to preserve the knowledge and skill that once went into everything from mapmaking to decorating stirrups.

Carter demonstrates on the belt buckle. Using edged tools call gravers, he cuts into the surface leaving pits and grooves. It is a painstaking process that requires patience and good eyesight.

Carter shares something else with the engravers of old: he often doesn’t sign his work, a habit that irritates some of his customers.

“I get wrapped up in the process and forget to sign,” he says. “When I’m finished with them, I’m finished with them. I don’t care anymore … I got less interested in what the future thinks of my work than what I think.”

Gesturing to the buckle, he continues: “This buckle, when I’m done, I think, ‘Okay, I’m done. Now how can I make it better?’ Every piece I do has to be better than the last piece. If I learned something from each of them then they served their purpose.”

Although he parts willingly, almost indifferently, with his pieces, he cleaves faithfully to his work. His mantra—and word to the wise—is “Follow your bliss.”

“I have a friend who meditates, and he always talks about nirvana, that state where you’re no longer away that you exist,” Carter says. He picks up the silver belt buckle, now finished. “This is nirvana for me.”