Esther Sietman Dendel

Honored by:The Denwar Craft Fellowship
Brick location:F:6  map

Esther Sietmann Dendel is artist, writer, humanitarian, scholar, teacher, friend and recipient of Iowa State University's Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Esther was born to Lewis and Grace Sietmann on a farm southwest of Laurel, Iowa--but let Esther describe the highlights of her life in her own words:

Halley's comet was streaking over the frozen corn fields on the night I was born February 2, 1910, near Laurel, Iowa. An old neighbor woman, a seer of sorts, told my mother that her child was destined to streak across the world like the comet, that she would never be content until she had seen other lands and knew other peoples. This foretelling was given impetus when at age 10 I became heart and soul immersed in 4-H club work. We learned folk dances, learned to recognize great paintings from European countries and to listen to opera and symphonies. In college, there was an International House where we met and made friends with students from all over. And finally in graduate school at Columbia, I saw an exhibit of African masks so powerful in their expressiveness that I went about in a daze afterwards, wondering how I could get to Africa to try to learn about the kind of living that enabled artists to produce this kind of art. I determined I would get to Africa even if I had to swim.

In 1941, I did get to Africa. The man to whom I was married had a job in the Research Department of the Firestone Rubber Company in Liberia. At that time, there were no roads in Liberia except along the coast. During the next two years I walked across Liberia twice, staying in small villages, studying the crafts, learning the folk tales and customs of the people. These villages were connected by narrow foot paths winding through the rain forest. The hinterland settlements were just beginning to come into a money economy. Life went on much as it had for centuries. In order to finance my explorations I got into the business of collecting and training baby chimpanzees, which were eventually sent to an animal farm in Florida.

What I learned about the people and their culture was recorded in notes which became "New Song in a Strange Land." My adventures with the chimpanzees became "Seven Days to Lomeland." My friendship with a young black nurse became fictionalized in "The Silk Cotton Tree."

Between explorations when I was down at the coast, I had a mud-and-thatch studio where anyone was welcome to come to paint or to carve. Among those who did was one of exceptional talent, Jo Dendel. We talked about the possibility of producing what we might design after the war was over and both of us might be back in the States. This idea became Denwar Ceramics in 1946 when we moved to Costa Mesa.

After 20 years, we had saved enough money to make a return trip to Liberia. Much had changed but not the custom of "dowry" which is really the buying and selling of little girls. This story I have told in "The Crossing Fee."

Meanwhile, Denwar thrived. Jo and I enjoyed being business partners and decided to make it a life affair by marrying in 1950. In addition to the African books, we did four "how-to" books for which there seemed to be a need. Jo did the photography and the drawings. The Thursday workshop helped with the projects that were illustrated.

I have left out some large hunks of my life, particularly the six years I worked in Appalachia between my sophomore and junior years at Iowa State and the rewarding time I spent teaching at the U. of Minnesota under the guidance of the Goldsteins.


The above autobiographical sketch was written when Esther was seventy-nine years old. Six years later in 1995 at the age of eighty-five, she continues to be an outstanding role model to many women, among them more than fifty women members of her Thursday Workshop, the Denwar Craft Fellowship in Costa Mesa, California. The Fellowship has been in existence for over thirty years. Topics discussed are usually concerned with the arts; book recommendations may be exchanged or outside speakers invited to share their respective enthusiasms, experience or expertise. Through Esther's leadership the group continues to flourish. The brick in the Plaza of Heroines is given in her name by her many friends in the Fellowship and is a recognition of her enriching and enduring contributions to their lives.