Big things happened in a relatively short time for Donald and Blenda Marquardt.
In 1998, Donald retired as an industrial education teacher from Hickman High School; in 1999, they bought Village Pewter, a business for handcrafted artisan pewter products, from their neighbor in Rocheport; and in 2000, the two got married.
The Marquardts wanted to spend their retirement meeting people, working with their hands and developing their “artsy” natures, and they weren’t entirely unprepared for the new venture. Donald applies his metalworking experience to create products like plates and goblets that, they boast, keep a beverage or a meal at a constant temperature during dining. Blenda, who retired in June as program coordinator for adult education in Columbia schools, runs the business side of things.
“I’m management, he’s labor,” she said. It’s something she says a lot — their inside joke.
Donald nods sagely, agreeing that his wife is “the boss.” But their joking turns to frankness when they cite their membership in the Missouri Artisans Association, better known as the Best of Missouri Hands, as one of the main supporters of their business. Both are on the group’s board of directors, and Blenda is membership co-chairwoman; the Marquardts have been actively involved in the organization since they took over Village Pewter.
“It’s the single most significant thing we’ve learned in our business,” Donald said, explaining that the association educates its members in their art careers and promotes confidence in their own work.
Through yearly educational seminars and other events, the organization provides information, networking opportunities and encouragement for promoting Missouri arts and crafts. For instance, this year’s ArtSmart Conference covered digital presentation of work on a Web site, as well as new electronic application processes for art shows.
Founded by the MU Extension in 1985 to encourage local farmers to turn crafts into supplementary income during the farm crisis, the organization took over its own administration in 1989. It became a volunteer-run nonprofit educational group in 2003 and now has more than 450 members. The group emphasizes instruction and is specifically not a trade or selling organization.
“The principle is to further the community legacy of craft,” said Mary Benjamin, of Columbia, a 20-year member. “We like the public to realize when they buy from an artist in Missouri that they’re getting a handmade piece with a direct connection to the maker.”
Benjamin, a clay artist who makes vessels and jewelry using colored porcelain, said the group educates members in all aspects of developing their work and businesses as well as informing the public with community showcases of the value of supporting local artists. The Marquardts describe this aspect as “edutainment” — for example, when artists set up booths to demonstrate their craft to onlookers.
Nine-year member Carolyn Linton, who creates vintage wood furniture through her Green Meadow Barn Company in Millersburg, said she especially appreciates the opportunities that arise among members. Her furniture, which she makes from old barns in the community, comes with an engraved description of where the wood came from and a pewter medallion depicting the barn. She and the Marquardts have recently formed a business relationship; Village Pewter will begin making her medallions.
“The Best of Missouri Hands has been a gift, meeting other people with common goals who may have solutions for each other,” Linton said. “It’s a great way to make the world go round.”
The Marquardts and Linton aim to maintain tradition in their art, in keeping with part of the Best of Missouri Hands’ mission statement of “preserving cultural heritage.” Village Pewter products are made with many of the same techniques used in the 1800s, and the couple collects casting molds from that era; Linton said each piece of furniture is like an archive of the original building from which it was created.
“Now that this wood is preserved, this wood that was a tree 200 years ago growing in Missouri soil, it’s a Missouri product,” Linton said. “That’s a lot of history.”
The president of the Best of Missouri Hands, Sandy Schulz, said the organization is more than just education and preservation; it also gives the art community relatives.
“You go to an art show and see the Best of Missouri Hands banner, and you automatically have a family member you can count on,” Schulz said, explaining that juried artist members hang banners at shows because it is a sign of prestige and respect.
The Marquardts said they think that through this organization, they are achieving their goals for their retirement: meeting people and making friends all over.
“No matter where you go, you see another (Missouri Hands) member,” Blenda said. “We have that connection; we’re always there for each other.”
More about the Best of Missouri Hands can be found online at bestofmissourihands.org.