Esther Dendel, 92; Noted Craftswoman, Collector
Esther Dendel could see intriguing patterns in the rain trickling down the window, in the carpet pile as she vacuumed and in soap bubbles as she washed dishes.
Throughout her long life, Dendel transformed those patterns and designs into artistic crafts--making pottery, creating mosaics, weaving tapestries, designing and stitching quilts.
Esther Dendel, who with her husband, Jo Dendel, created and operated Denwar Studios in Costa Mesa for more than 55 years, died Saturday of illnesses associated with aging. She was 92.
Dendel died at the home she and her husband handcrafted beside their studio when Costa Mesa was little more than rabbit patches.
An eclectic craftswoman and collector, Esther Seitmann Warner Dendel was also a respected teacher and author of 13 books. Known in recent decades for teaching in her own studio, she also conducted classes at high schools in Iowa, the University of Minnesota, Orange Coast College and UC Irvine.
Dendel’s books were divided about equally between craft textbooks and accounts of her life in Liberia during World War II, where her former husband was employed on a Firestone rubber plantation.
Born near Laurel, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1910, Esther Seitmann began her education in a one-room school a long walk from home. An avid 4-H member from age 10 and statewide 4-H girls’ president at 17, she interrupted her time at the University of Iowa to spend six years teaching home arts and crafts in Appalachian West Virginia during the Depression.
That helped her adapt to rural Africa, where she twice walked across Liberia to study the crafts and absorb the culture in small villages. To finance her explorations, she collected, trained and sold small chimpanzees to a Florida animal farm.
She came to view Africa as “my homeland of the spirit.” To gain entree among the wary villagers, she used a simple piece of yarn.
“I would sit in the dust, playing with the yarn and arranging it into designs on the ground,” she told The Times in 1969, describing how first the children would gather to kibitz and then adults. “Soon we were all friends, and the string did it.”
Dendel later converted her 1941-44 African diaries into half a dozen books--one describing the culture in “New Song in a Strange Land,” another her adventures with the chimps in “Seven Days to Lomeland” and a third her friendship with a young black nurse in the novel “The Silk Cotton Tree.” After a return trip several years later, she described the custom of buying and selling little girls in a dowry system--the Dendels “bought” a child who went on to become a Liberian official--in her book “The Crossing Fee.”
While in Africa, the woman then named Esther Warner also maintained a studio, inviting anybody interested to stop by and paint or carve. One visitor was Jo Dendel, a photographer, carver and sketch artist. They worked well together and talked about opening a studio together.
She returned to teach at the University of Minnesota, and he served in the Navy, but by 1946 they were both in Costa Mesa, converting a small garage into Denwar Studios. The name was a combination of their surnames--Dendel and Warner, the name of her then ex-husband.
The Dendels married in 1950, and their shared goal was to make a living from their crafts. Their first product was ceramics--dinnerware sold all over the U.S. and Hawaii.
When Japanese competition increased in the mid-1950s, the Dendels switched to mosaics. Some of their resulting work is displayed in the Orange Central Library.
By 1967, the Dendels had moved into fiber arts--spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting, crocheting, creating rugs and tapestries and baskets. They taught individuals, organized a weekly Dendel Craft Fellowship and staged annual crafts fairs in their growing studio and home.
Their own well-respected crafts collection has lent pieces to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
Mindful of her own economic struggles to get an education--a master’s degree at Columbia University as well as the Iowa bachelor’s--Dendel years ago organized an annual scholarship for creative artists or craftspeople. She personally created quilts and other items to sell at annual fund-raisers.
Jo Dendel, who survives his wife, has asked that any memorial donations be made to that Dendel Scholarship Fund at Denwar Studios, 236 E. 16th St., Costa Mesa, CA 92627.
Services and burial will be in Laurel, Iowa.