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Marjorie Hoeltzel: Artist and volunteer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 9, 2012 - The Rev. Anne Kelsey, visibly moved, advanced to the front of the nave of Trinity Episcopal Church Sunday morning and spoke to her parishioners of a paradox, in this instance the intersection of lives ending and beginning.

She told them one of their number, Marjorie Hoeltzel, had died at 90 of a massive stroke. As her daughter Rebecca Glenn said, "She took her last sweet breath at 12:30 on Saturday morning."

Sitting near the rector in a front pew -- actually bouncing gleefully off her parents and grandparents who truly were sitting -- was 21-month-old Zoe Bradley, daughter of Leaf and Stuart Bradley. Presently she was to receive the watery sacrament of baptism, which Christians regard as a beginning of a new life in the church. Thus Kelsey's paradox: One physical life comes to a conclusion; another spiritual life commences.

For decades, Hoeltzel, embroidered bright threads of jubilation and loveliness not only across the tapestry of the parish of which Kelsey is rector but also through St. Louis and perhaps even the world. She designed sacred vestments for two legendary and charismatic priests at Trinity: the Rev. Richard F. Tombaugh and the late Rev. William D. Chapman, who for a time shared the job of rector. She created objects of no functional purpose, other than to delight the eye and the senses. She exhibited her work widely, often in the company of other artists, especially women artists who were her intellectual and artistic collaborators -- and her friends as well.

Although she ducked the label "artist," she indeed was one and instinctively knew it. Her medium is categorized with abject lack of poetry as "fiber art," but what she produced, with bits and pieces of fabric or cast-off neckties, arranged with careful, architectural balance and structure, with taste, and with a strong foundation in craft, is a transformation, a variety of visual magic, an elevation of the basic and the anodyne to the noble status of art.

Her friend, the artist Jane Sauer, once a leading light of the St. Louis art scene, now brightening up things in Santa Fe, encountered Hoeltzel when both of them were cooking for a volunteer charitable organization called the Mustard Seed Caterers and when both of them put themselves at the mercy of a formidable and coruscating mentor, Lesley Laskey, professor of design, now emeritus, in the college of architecture at Washington University.

Laskey's role in the development of these artists was not as a technician. That is, he did not teach Jane Sauer to produce sculptures from the materials of basketry, nor did he instruct Hoeltzel in stitchery. Rather, Sauer said, he dealt with the conceptual side of the the artists' educations and with inspiration.

"He was able to encourage us, to help us to learn to explore," Sauer said.

Sauer described Hoeltzel as every inch the artist.

"She was always modest about her work, she always felt she was not as well trained as many of her fellow artists. But so many times," Sauer said, "she outstripped them." Sauer described Hoeltzel's method of working, one was based on a system of starting small and building up. "It was a very structural, very architectural way she brought things together." And in a way this notion of artistry influenced her entire life, Sauer said -- it informed "how she dressed, how she fixed her apartment, how she stood and how she walked. It was not labored or overdone, but Marjorie was herself an artistic experience."

Her circle was not limited to artists. One of her best friends was Ellie Chapman, a former lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She met Hoeltzel in the late 1960s when she moved to St. Louis with her late husband, William Chapman, when he joined the staff of Trinity Church.

"I got to know her," Chapman said, "just as she began doing more than sewing for her family and took off with such flair. Eventually she got involved in design classes with Leslie Laskey at Washington U., and one thing led to another and she became a real artist."

With her art and other endeavors, Chapman said, "she thought of herself as doing things she enjoyed."

One of those things was walking. Chapman said she and Hoeltzel were steady walking companions. Forest Park was their loved and usual destination, although "deciding where to walk in the park was a large part of the experience. It usually was governed by what happened to be in bloom," Chapman said.

Chapman said although art was a central focus, "it didn't take over her life. She was truly interested in movies and books and religion and we had the most wonderful talks on our walks.

"So she was more than an artist -- and she was so loving, so glad to see people, and so long-suffering." Her patience with even the most difficult and demanding of her friends seemed infinite, although on one occasion, when pushed to the wall by a particularly needy and unappreciative person, she exploded.

"I was so glad to see her really let go," Chapman said.

Rector Kelsey spoke of her generosity of time and treasure.

Hoeltzel was a stalwart volunteer with the food pantry at the church. Her fellow workers in that charitable endeavor, Kelsey said, "are devastated."

Kelsey said art figured into her experience of Hoeltzel's generosity. Kelsey once commissioned a liturgical vestment, a floor length cloak called a cope. It came came to her too short. Working with great sensitivity and cognizant of the original artist's feelings, Hoeltzel set right the hem of that garment issue. Another time, Kelsey said, she admired a pin Hoeltzel was wearing. The next time they met, Hoeltzel showed up with a similar pin, which she gave to Kelsey. It is an ornament Kelsey will wear on her stole at a memorial service later this month.

Marjorie Miller Hoeltzel was born on March 19, 1921, in Quenemo, Kans. Her husband, Orval (Doc) Hoeltzel, died in 1970. Her grandmother taught her to sew when she was 12. Hoeltzel wrote recently of her grandmother, "She didn't know she was an artist, my grandmother. But she was."

Sounds familiar.

Hoeltzel is survived by her daughter, Rebecca Glenn (Gene Ruth); two sons, Gregory (Jane Johnson) and Geo. Anthony (Susan) Hoeltzel; seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

The memorial service, a send-off that Marjorie Hoeltzel planned in detail, is to be at 4 p.m., Sat., Jan. 28 at Trinity, 600 North Euclid Ave.

Meanwhile, to cinch the ring of paradox, Zoe Bradley's baptism was a joyful success, accomplished at the church's venerable font with style and grace -- and with neither a squirm nor a wiggle.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.