The Iowan

Telling Stories Without Words

The world of Cynthia Markle’s designs is rich in detail.

By Steffie Lederman

Legend has long held that if you wish upon a star, a dream comes true. For Department 56® collectors, perhaps a wish upon a Cynthia Markle design would create the same inspired results.

Markle, a member of the Department 56 creative team since 1992, has a history of translating her dreams, wishes, and desires into her lovely and whimsical designs. Many of her sketches and illustrations, which are then converted into sculptures, are the product of her imagination, but others are steeped in her autobiographical reminiscing. They are a beautiful example of recollecting that leads to collecting.

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a family that moved four times before she turned age seven, Cynthia and her siblings finally settled down in Minnesota when she was nearly 12 years old. Her memories of those happy, carefree days are steeped in joy and wonder.

When asked if her childhood was an idealized one, Markle responds that “this was an age when kids played a lot. We all played outside together. Snow Village represents a time period of the 1950s or ’60s when children played together, and there was an innocence to the time. I rely on memories of my family, my friends, my siblings, when I design these accessories.”

In addition to her own personal connection, Markle also will thumb through the illustrations of Norman Rockwell to gather inspiration for this slice of nostalgic Americana. “Yes, Rockwell is an influence. I look through his artwork but not for the images. I turn to him and I get the stories.”

One of the designer’s largest challenges is to “achieve stories without words.” The ability to see one of her sketches or fleshed-out pieces of art and immediately “get” the tale is important to Markle and is at the root of Department 56’s success.

“Our collection is about happy stories. These are stories that make the collector feel good. We don’t show children being reprimanded or punished. There is no illness. One time there was a new mother in a wheelchair, with the baby in her arms, but that was about it. There is no detail that would upset a collector. The aim and one of the reasons why we are so successful is that we provide happy things to collect.”

Married to a very supportive and devoted husband, the parent to “two very tall, old children,” she laughingly describes, Markle is a grandmother who has a life that is filled with happiness and good things. Her day-to-day lifestyle reflects the mission of her designing and brainstorming.

She and her husband share a five-acre hobby farm, which is located south of Minneapolis. Her time spent there, as well as in her beloved home garden, reflects her deep appreciation for animals and nature. This concern for four-legged creatures and celebration of gardening and landscaping are keyed into many of her sketches and finished renderings.

“Some of the work that I do is for what we call ‘cross products.’ That means it can cross into any of our villages. I find this to be absolutely delightful. With the garden accessories, I can show an ideal garden, but also what is real for me. The pond, for instance, I have that in my yard. I bought antique wheels and I made a rock garden. The scarecrow, though, is a fantasy of mine. It’s my wish fulfillment of what a scarecrow would do. It would keep birds from eating the raspberries, which I do grow. The raspberries take over where the strawberries are supposed to be, but that’s what raspberries do!” Markle admits with a chuckle.

Over the course of her 20 years with Department 56, the artist calculates that she designs and works on between 100 to 200 items per year. “If you multiply that by 20, you see that it’s a huge number,” she asserts. Nearing perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 objects, Markle reveals that she couldn’t possibly collect all of her own collectibles. “I would be one of those collectors who would have to give up my whole garage to display things. Or maybe even have to build a whole new house to show them off!”

One of the perks of being part of the Department 56 creative team is the chance to hit the road and interact with collectors and enthusiasts. Markle acknowledges that “enthusiast” is the perfect description for the folks she meets. “I love being able to schmooze and visit with collectors. The people are so enthusiastic and are so happy when you ask them, ‘Do you have any pictures?’ It reminds me of a proud grandmother with photos of their grandkids! They take out the photos and have a story about each display. They are avid collectors, and they all have stories and questions about what they’ve been doing. They’ll talk about the struggle they had when they were carving Styrofoam™. It is wonderful and encouraging to talk to them.”

In addition to afternoon gatherings at shops, like San Diego’s City Lights, the artist has also gone to the homes of collectors and has been impressed by the breadth and ingenuity of their setups.

“Last fall, I was in Georgia and there were these outbuildings that held the collector’s displays. In one of them, there was a huge Halloween arrangement. It was computer-programmed for sounds, music, lights, fog, and movement. You had to stand there for maybe 15 minutes to really take it all in. It was amazing. When it was over, the collector said to me, ‘What advice can you give me to make it better?’ My mouth dropped open. I had no clue what to say. It was so good now, how could it even get better?”

The southern climes of Georgia and the spooky light show are a far cry from Cynthia’s preferred Department 56 moment. Two of her favorite designed pieces—when she’s persuaded to reveal some—hail from her own Noel experiences. “One is a total fulfillment of what Christmas ought to be. It’s ‘Santa Comes to Town 2012’ and it reflects what I had always hoped for. As children, we all want that moment to see Santa and to watch him deliver the toys. In that design, the little girl—who is Cindy—has fallen asleep with her head on the hassock. She’s come so close to having her wish fulfilled. She’s there sleeping, and Santa is by the fireplace. And if you look close at the names on the stockings, two are based on me: Cindy, my name, and Sprout, my dog!” (An interesting note is that Sprout was a dog that Cynthia and her husband, Bruce, rescued when Sprout was a pup, abandoned on her county road. After six years, the dog vanished without a trace from their home. This accessory allowed Cynthia the chance to immortalize him and give him a role in her happy holiday tale.)

The other design, which is also near and dear to her heart, has a Yuletide bent. It’s the 2013 “Santa Is Coming to Town.” In this version, Santa is astride a stallion, and the horse is based upon Markle’s own “pet,” Laird, a 33-year-old white half Arab. “He is a gentle horse and would allow Santa to ride on his back. I had his mother before him, and horses are a lot like dogs in many ways. They are loyal. When I come and open his barn door, he comes toward me and wants to have his sweet nose petted. He is so, so gentle and would gladly carry Santa.”

It had been a dream of Cynthia’s to have Santa on horseback for about 10 years. Now for 2013, it has become a reality. Beginning her 21st year as a designer for Department 56, Markle is still bursting with stories to tell and to share. On her figurative and literal drawing board are plans to tackle a pairing of mother animals and their babies. She enjoys honoring that connection between family members—in nature and in her own home life.

“I think I have followed in my father’s footsteps. He was artistic. He made his living as a traveling salesman, but he was also a very talented carpenter. I had two sisters, and I was the tomboy. I would go down to his workshop in all of the houses where we lived, and ask if I could ‘help.’ I liked working with his tools and helping him build, but how much help and building did I actually do!” she reflects. “I think Dad would have liked what I do these days. I think he would have loved the collection. I can see him building the displays in his garage, and he would have loved it.”

To honor her father, and his father before him, Markle created the interior of “Grandpa’s Garage” for Snow Village. It was an homage to “all the stuff that you’d find in my dad’s workshop, and to his father’s garage. It has a personal feel to it—right down to the cat asleep in it.”

In the world of Cynthia Markle and her Department 56 designs, home, indeed, is where the heart and her dreams reside.  

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