Artist Susan Lordi created Willow Tree®, her line of figurative sculpture, as a way to communicate beyond words. Her intricate carved and hand-painted pieces indeed say a lot with subtle details and a soothing color palette. The simplicity of form and absence of facial features signify Willow Tree. Through beautiful, gestural expression, Willow Tree figures reflect our personal relationships, and remind us of the emotions that bring us together.
Susan had been making one-of-a-kind abstract textile art pieces when DEMDACO co-founder Dave Kiersznowski approached her with a request to create a figurative sculpture line. She began with a sampling of pieces, which included small angels and the six-piece Nativity. As the top-selling Willow Tree line approaches its 20th anniversary, it’s interesting to note that several of the original pieces introduced in 2000 are still consistent top sellers. Angel of Healing was the first piece Susan sculpted, and it helped define the look and feel of Willow Tree.
“It was a very quiet piece, very much in juxtaposition with the 1990s,” Dave said. “There’s a lot of storytelling in her work; I feel the Willow Tree line is very nuanced and provocative—with all the small gestures—a lot like her textile work.”
Willow Tree became an instant hit when it was first introduced at gift shows in Dallas and Atlanta during January of 2000. In fact, DEMDACO sold more orders that one month than it did during the entire previous year.
“The market really took to it in Dallas,” Dave said. “People would literally do a double-take when they saw her pieces, and the volume of orders was beyond any expectation.”
Since then, the Willow Tree universe has expanded from figures to formats that include ornaments and tree toppers, keepsake and memory boxes, cake toppers, and more. Susan hand carves each original figure from her studio in Kansas City, Missouri; pieces are then cast from her original carvings, and individually painted by hand.
While DEMDACO added dozens of other collections to its portfolio over the past 20 years, Willow Tree continues to serve as the company’s flagship line. Its success helped build DEMDACO into a company that now also sells giftable products for home and entertainment, baby, fashion, and holiday.
“Willow Tree has meant our existence; it’s literally the reason we exist as a company,” Dave said. “And as a company that exists to Lift the Spirit, it’s the clearest personification of that. It’s allowed us to make lasting, meaningful relationships and live out our mission. We’re so excited to see what the next 20 years will bring.”
Here’s some insight into Susan’s creative experience in her own words, and how her work sculpting Willow Tree intersects other artistic pursuits:
What do you find interesting in your art now compared to when you began Willow Tree?
When I first started out and was still teaching at the Art Institute, doing very abstract artwork using textiles as my medium, it was almost like I saw Willow Tree as something separate… but then as the years have gone by, they have completely meshed. It doesn’t really matter what medium you’re working in; your ideas are still the same. A lot of my textile pieces have influenced my figurative sculpture, and my figurative sculpture has influenced my abstract work.
Can you give an example of how your textile work and sculpture work complement each other?
On the Signature series, a lot of the surface patterning has been directly influenced from work I’ve done with textiles. Surface patterning is very much a part of textile work, so I really pulled a lot from my two-dimensional abstract work. I absolutely love patterning and texture, that’s why I like working with textiles. With textiles you have more movement… Movement, pattern, texture, light…these all feed my figurative work… there’s really no difference. I move from one to the other.
Even the concepts run together… a new piece I carved for 2020 is directly from a photograph I took for a textile piece I did back in 1990… when my daughter was young, and she modeled it. I used the same pose… that was one of those a-ha moments, where it all comes together. So, over the years, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, even out on the prairie, it all feeds my work… and comes together in a surprising way.
It’s said that you carve what is present in your life at the moment. How do life experiences inform your artwork?
I remember telling my students that you can’t make meaningful work if there’s nothing ‘in there’ (pointing to her head). You have to go see, go do, go feel, and take in experiences. Live and experience the world. You have to put something in, in order to pull something out… it has to come from somewhere; it doesn’t come from a vacuum.
With Willow Tree, I’m pretty much pulling from my life experiences. I don’t think I could have done Willow Tree without the memories of being a daughter, and the experience of raising children to adulthood, and now, what it’s like to be a grandmother… Willow Tree is so much about relationships and family and feeling happiness and pain and healing that you experience just through living life.
Which moments have you carved that would have been most unexpected when you began?
A piece that I just finished for 2020 doesn’t even have a title yet. It’s about being a daughter of elderly parents… really thinking a lot about my mom, and how much she’s always done for us, and now we’re helping her and my dad out. Maybe it’s about the circle of life. As an adult with older parents, I’m wanting to be there for them, wanting to protect and care for them… as they age. And appreciating more than ever, all they did for us while we were growing up.
You have many interests outside of your art. How do your personal/non-art-related interests influence what you make?
Everything that I see or hear or touch—everything that my senses take in—influences what I make, so there really aren’t any non-art interests. It’s just like breathing—you don’t really think about it. Then, maybe, later on, you might think aha! Something that you took in or experienced flows out. I think this is how ideas are born… things flow in, and flow out.
Are there any similarities between your creative/artistic pursuits and your interest in prairie restoration?
I have always loved gardening, plants, digging in the dirt—the textures! (and this relates so much to textiles when you think about it—textiles are from plants) When in nature, you’re working with the same design elements: color, scale, value, texture… all the same elements that you work with in any medium, whether it’s textiles, sculpting Willow Tree pieces, whatever…
To me, when I’m on the prairie, I’m creating with a medium, but the exciting thing is the medium is alive and it changes throughout the growing season—I mean, how exciting is that! Over the last ten years or so, I’ve really gotten more into native gardening and was enlightened to realize that gardening is not just about aesthetics for human beings; but rather, gardening is considering the whole ecology—thinking about the plants and animals, and especially the insects that depend on the plants you choose… so you’re gardening now for the environment and for the health of the planet. And that’s like a huge challenge, and it’s so exciting to move in that direction.
Prairies are the most threatened ecosystem on the earth right now and being able to be involved in saving and restoring prairie – is actually saving and providing habitat for insects and birds that are in decline right now.
Is that why you carved the piece, “Butterfly?”
I couldn’t wait to do a piece like Butterfly! The monarch butterfly is like the poster child for all other native bees and insects and birds that depend on the prairie and native plants. If you can plant habitat for butterflies, you’re helping everything—it’s like all boats rise. So, for me, a butterfly is a perfect metaphor for making a positive difference in our world. And everyone wants to make a positive difference—it’s a good feeling. Butterfly for me, is a very hopeful piece—but also an appeal for others to be aware of the need to help little creatures that we all depend on.