By Selynn Barbour | Photos provided by Karen Lordi and Susan Lordi Marker

“You must pull from within in order to touch the universal. In other words, it has to come from a personal place in order to resonate with others,” — artist Susan Lordi Marker shares.

Susan pulls from her childhood, her family, friends, her education and her Missouri history, including the Lake of the Ozarks. She successfully connects with numerous hearts worldwide through her award–winning textile art and her popular Willow Tree® products.

Her Willow Tree sculptures have a simplicity of form, yet strongly communicate; are monochromatic, yet full of life; are faceless, yet brimming with expression. They are figures that celebrate human relationships, emotions and life. Her timeless Nativity centers many homes during the holidays, yet its newest addition has personal meaning true to her heritage.

She and her family call Missouri home, and it’s here where they renew and connect with family.

Sharing good times at the Lake, as a couple, began when Dennis Marker brought Susan Lordi to meet his folks, Ginny and Clark Marker, in his hometown of Versailles years ago.

“Dad’s family was here before the Lake was,” Dennis explains. “He opened Marker’s Store in Gravois Mills in the early ’50s. At the time, there were lots of small family resorts around; it was a very family–friendly area. I actually went to work in the store when I was about 14. We carried mainly souvenirs, fishing gear, supplies and water-sports equipment. I worked for Dad all the way through college. My mom also was a shop owner at the Lake. For years she operated a ladies’ clothing store—Sun & Fun in Laurie.”

Drawing from his business background, Dennis graduated from Westminster College with a BA in business, then went on to Drake University in Des Moines for his MBA, after which he moved to Kansas City. While there, he and Susan met and married in 1978, and Dennis contributed his numeric expertise for nearly two decades to Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. He recently retired, but stays busier than ever working in the family business of Willow Tree. Yet he and Susan continuously return to the Lake to be with family and friends.

“My mom still lives in Versailles, and still has the family cabin in the Gravois Mills area,” Dennis shares. “As Susan and I were raising our two children, we regularly went down to the Lake. We were fortunate that my parents always kept the cabin. It allowed us to establish relationships with businesspeople and neighbors that we still maintain.”

One such relationship utilizes Dennis’ education, professional experiences and benevolent nature with longtime friend Dave Baumgartner, President and CEO of the Bank of Versailles.

“Dennis comes home once a month for our bank board meetings. He is absolutely compassionate about what he does. He is objective, honest and tells you what he thinks. That’s a good thing. It’s a real pleasure to work with him,” Baumgartner cheers.

Wonderful memories were created by Dennis and Susan’s family as they swam, fished, tubed and jumped in the Lake. It’s here they return to visit extended family, friends, enjoy the annual Old Tyme Apple Festival and give back. It’s here in Versailles that the people and Ozark traditions inspired Susan to sculpt a recent piece, Welcome Here, which graced the cover of the 2011 Willow Tree catalog.

“As a newlywed, I embraced the Marker family tradition of visiting with Versailles friends and neighbors on Christmas Day, sharing food, drink and warm wishes,” Susan reminisces. “Welcoming friends and family into our homes at any time of year, and particularly during the holidays, is a universal joy. Welcome Here especially celebrates this tradition.”

Another tradition that the Marker family, and especially Dennis and Susan’s son David, have enjoyed for more than 25 years is the annual Versailles Old Tyme Apple Festival.

“David is totally involved in the Fiddlers’ Contest, from designing the scoring sheets to choosing judges and prizes; the complete plan of action. He’s also enhancing the festival by providing jig dancers,” explains Jim Dykzeul, president of the Versailles Chamber of Commerce. “For the past four years, we could not have done it without the Marker family. The beauty for us is that they have resurrected the contest!”

Music, dance, creativity and loving relationships was and still is a major well Susan draws upon when making her art. While growing up in St. Louis, her close-knit, 100 percent Italian-descent family provided support for her and her three siblings. They reveled in Christmases with family concerts and poems that were gifts given straight from the heart.

“If I had not had the family that I do, I probably wouldn’t have created Willow Tree … because each of my family members has influenced and supported my art-making in their own unique way,” Susan shares.

“My parents let me fly—they gave me space—they didn’t judge. I saw how creative they were in their own lives. Dad is an electrical engineer, always thinking, building, making something. He’s also a musician who has played the clarinet and saxophone since he was a young boy. He was principal clarinetist for the Alton Symphony, with a chair named in his honor. At 86, he continues to play and teach young students.

“My mother was talented in the dramatic arts—she was Juliet, she was Barbara Allen, she was Amanda Wingfield—then, she had a long career as a high school teacher of Spanish and English as a Second Language.” A lover of history, her mother is an example of a lifelong learner, as evidenced in her frequent sojourns to different countries and cultures.

Traveling home at Christmastime, Susan explains, “With the giftgiving, whether it was a poem or handmade something, or whatever, were hugs and kisses and sometimes tears, and afterwards, you felt so FULL. The fullness could carry you—energized and confident, for the entire year—on your family’s love. We learned this from our parents, and carried it over to our own families, and in a way, it carries over to what I try to express through my figurative sculptures.”

Designing a commercial product was new to Susan when friends asked her to create a piece to be manufactured by their wholesale gift business in 1999. Yet her education and experience provided a solid foundation to meet the challenge. She graduated from Parkway Central High School, Chesterfield, in 1972, then a bachelor of science, cum laude, majoring in environmental design from the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1976. Susan then moved to Kansas City and designed restaurant interiors. In 1993, she was conferred a master of fine arts degree with honors in textile design from the University of Kansas.

She has instructed textile and design courses at KU and the Kansas City Art Institute. Her artwork has been exhibited and recognized both nationally and abroad. Her fiber work is featured in the books Art Textiles of the World: USA and Susan Lordi Marker: Portfolio.

Susan’s textile work engages the viewer with interesting surfaces and materials. Whether the resulting piece is constructed of carefully stitched and dyed layers, or a fragile and ethereal veil, she challenges herself to work with cloth until it bears the humanness, saying, “It must breathe the hand of the maker.” Susan sometimes painstakingly highlights her work with gold or copper until the overall effect is a layer of embellished elements suspended on sheer filament. Her large pieces have movement and a sense of life.

The essence of Susan’s early work draws energy from her past. She carries on her Sicilian and Italian lineage with references to family members who made their clothing from cloth they wove by hand.

“The fact that my ancestors worked with cloth endears them to me,” Susan explains. “They were skilled makers—and I love having that connection.”

Her more recent textile work is influenced by her time spent outdoors. Susan describes her work best: “I’m fascinated with the thousands of elements that surround me when I am immersed in a natural environment. Happenings in nature suggest rhythmic patterning—ripples on the pond, seed heads beginning to unfold and release… I like to ‘record’ these natural rhythms by making patterns or marks on cloth. They become metaphors for cycles of life—time passing, regeneration and renewal. These are themes carried throughout all of my work.”

Susan continues to create and exhibit museum-quality textile pieces. This one-of-a-kind approach to art-making has served her well in the creation of Willow Tree—her line of figurative sculpture that has grown significantly over the past 13 years. She approaches each piece uniquely, paring the form down to the essence of a gesture.

“I work from live models—my family, my friends,” she teaches. “I carve in the round because we express ourselves 360 degrees. I think there are little inflections and body language that we miss or don’t really see during normal conversation. But in the making of Willow Tree, I want to be closely observant of people… of life. When you’re carefully observant, you can capture some of these subtle gestures.”

In reference to how minimal her sculptures are, Susan remarks, “Maybe what is left out can speak stronger than what is visually apparent. So the viewer fills in the missing pieces. I want to keep the work very open to interpretation. When the viewer fills in the missing pieces, the giver becomes more of a participant in the giving and the receiving. When that happens, hopefully the gift will be much more personal. People see what they want to see in each piece, and I love that.”

Seeing dear people in her life, Susan sculpted her parents in Anniversary. Peace on Earth is modeled after her daughter, Sara. Her newest piece for the Nativity is Zampognaro, a shepherd’s gift… a joyous melody… proclaiming the news! It is representative of their son, David.

Susan shares that David is immersed in the preservation of indigenous music in the regions of Italy and Sicily, from where her grandparents immigrated. From the vibrant music in Italy and Sicily of the Zampogna (the Italian bagpipe) to Missouri’s fiddle, the Markers have found a common chord that has resonated full circle.

In that circle, the family members are included as principal players in the orchestra of Willow Tree. Susan composes the piece, attuned to each note that creates a richly textured score. Karen, Susan’s sister, is “champion, voice of the brand,” as sisters know sisters best, and assists in providing words for each sculpture on its accompanying sentiment card, as well as marketing materials. Susan and Dennis’ daughter Sara is the brand liaison with international partners. Son David makes certain all the chairs are in proper form with his legal degree and experience. Dennis, the conductor, oversees all business details.

Yet the stage was first set by friends—then later business partners—Demi and Dave Kiersznowski, owners of DE MDA CO. This company manufactures, distributes and markets Willow Tree. Its world headquarters are close to the Lake in Kansas City. Closer to home is Cash Claridge. He is DE MDA CO Vice President of Sales and was born and raised in Eldon.

“We share the same Midwestern values,” Claridge says. “DE MDA CO emulates a great professional culture, where the mission is to ‘lift the spirit.’ It’s been the best ten years of my life. They do everything wonderfully right.”

DE MDA CO, Willow Tree and the Marker family believe in doing more than lifting spirits emotionally; they financially elevate others as well.

Susan shares, “Dance has always inspired my work… it’s sculpture in motion.” The Markers are involved supporters of many performing and visual arts organizations throughout the state of Missouri.

“As so much is given to me, I enjoy giving back,” Susan relates.

“The piece Heart of Gold was inspired by a young cancer patient and son of very close friends. DE MDA CO and I together donated a significant portion of the earnings from this piece to Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2005.” The Marker family continues to work with this care facility, and has established an ongoing scholarship endowment for oncology nurses, their training and research in the child’s name.

Another joint giving project was Angel of Courage. This piece represents the inner strength and fighting spirit of survivors who face adversity in their lives. For several years, sales of this piece benefited breast cancer research through the Susan G. Komen fund. Sales of Courage continue to fund breast cancer research in Canada.

The Markers also share their resource of time. As preservationists, they give to the land. They are personal stewards of a piece of land in west-central Missouri, where Susan is passionately involved in restoring the acreage to prairie land, planting native grasses and wild flowers for birds and animals.

“It is here I center,” Susan discloses. “It is here I’m grounded. The prairie inspires me to create. There are always little surprises, so much life and vibrancy… constant changes. Each time I discover a new bluebird nest or watch the babies fledge, it’s such a renewing source of happiness to me.”

A different kind of shelter was provided by Dennis’ great-greatgrandmother. Elizabeth Martin was a pioneer in establishing Versailles. She and her family arrived by covered wagon in 1853 from Virginia. She operated a hotel that housed many Missourians including Jesse James, dressing up as kitchen help. This story and many others are often retold, as this hotel is now home to the Morgan County Museum.

Remembering the family tie, the Markers enjoy supporting the museum. Susan adds, “I love the idea that my children have a direct blood link to someone who played such a crucial role in the settlement of Versailles, and was so important to the character and folklore of the area.”

Barbara Barnard, president of Morgan County Historical Society summarizes, “Dennis and Sue are striving to make this place better for upcoming generations.”

Privately, Dennis and Susan enjoy traveling and experiencing new people and places. “We enjoy walking,” Susan shares. They walk the same path but interpret it differently. Dennis, true to his last name, logs the miles, whereas Susan takes notes of the intrigues and intricacies of nature. “We are opposites,” Dennis points out. “But we merge well!” Susan forms emotional connections with others through her artmaking.

The common refrains are love of family, love of nature, respect for heritage and ancestry, preservation of cultural traditions and a deep appreciation of the ever-renewing continuum of life, learning, caring, beauty with adagio resolve.

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