Mark DeCou: A creator for the Creator

Blazing red sumac blending with bronze and golden leaves signal the arrival of fall along the winding roads through the Flint Hills in Chase County.

One of those roads leads to the farm studio of Mark DeCou, a craftsman and artist who prides himself in his original creations.

“I like the variety,” DeCou said of his ability to create art with a variety of media. “Anything involving wood is fun, but I also enjoy working with metals, horns, stone, antlers and ivory bone.”

DeCou was raised in Hutchinson, the son of a wood-shop teacher and a mother who loved crafts.

“My dad had amazing and phenomenal talents with carving and woods,” DeCou said. “But woodworking is at or next to the bottom of the pay scale, so you have to have a commitment other than making lots of money. It’s hard work and it’s dirty.”

He graduated from Kansas State University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

From there, DeCou went to work at Exxon in Baton Rouge, La., but soon grew homesick for the plains of Kansas. He took a position at Koch Industries in Wichita, and made furniture and did light home remodeling on the side.

In early 1998, DeCou was contacted by the director of Morningstar Ranch near Florence and asked to teach wood working, carpentry and other vocational skills to former inner-city residents.

After three years there, DeCou and wife Shelli moved with daughter Rachel, 31/2, and son Riley, 21/2, to their farm between Cedar Point and Elmdale.

“By that time, we grew so accustomed to the people and were so committed to our church at Cedar Point, we decided to find a place in this area,” DeCou said.

“I have a job in Wichita doing technical sales for a plating shop, working there Monday through Thursday.

“For now I have a family to raise and provide for and that comes first.”

But DeCou still yearned to work with his hands-to create works of art most can people are lucky to imagine. His three-day weekends allow him to do that.

“It’s just something that’s in my blood and I can’t turn it off,” he said. “For many years I pursued money, and that drove me to a career that paid well but didn’t give me daily fulfillment.

“I guess you would say this is a hobby now, but hopefully it’ll become a career,” he added. “I decided everything I loved in life was what had been in my heart, but I was just afraid to pursue. I’m happiest when I’m making things, so an office job is difficult for me.”

DeCou’s talents are showcased in myriad ways.

“I make custom knives, wooden flutes similar to Native American flutes, Native American art called a ceremonial pipe, walking canes-both decorative and folk art-and custom furniture that has arts and crafts incorporated in them,” DeCou said.

“They have carving and intricate details, which were part of the original English Art Movement-not what you buy at the store now.

“It goes back to the Frank Lloyd Wright idea of how to do a home or set of furniture-to have multiple textures and materials in the same environment.”

DeCou said the competition to make hand-made furniture forces each individual to search for a unique identity.

“A lot of men were trained in woodworking and can typically make things more efficiently than I can,” he said. “So I try to find unique tools and products that are either different than the average woodworker would make, or has the ability to make.”

He recently purchased a woodworking tool that’s a combination lathe and milling machine.

“I like to make things with wood twists,” he said of the $4,000 machine. “I’m looking for products and projects that give me a niche and differentiate myself.”

While proficient in many areas, DeCou said he doesn’t have a signature item. “People know I do unique things, but I don’t think I really have a specialty,” he said. “People use my talents and incorporate them with their ideas to give me other ideas.”

DeCou gets his raw products from a variety of sources.

“I might get wood from friends or buy it from a Burdick mill or wholesaler out of Wichita or Kansas City, and lately I buy a lot over the Internet,” he said. “I can buy cow horns off the Internet that are much better than the ones I find around here.”

DeCou transforms the horns into works of art through the ancient process known as scrimshaw.

“Some of them take as few as 10 hours to make and some take over 200 hours,” he said of the art of making intricate carvings on horns or ivory. “I can only do that for about three hours at a time because my eyes and hands get tired.”

Whether DeCou is considered an artist or a craftsman is still in question.

“An artist doesn’t worry about the cost of the material or the waste of the material to get something out of it,” he said. “A craftsman constantly strives to use every scrap and use it efficiently.

“What I’m trying to do is move from craftsman to artist and get what I want out of my heart and my mind into that product-even if it costs a lot of work and a lot of effort,” he added.

“I want to get out of the constant pull to do it quick and easy and do more complicated work with more expensive materials.”

DeCou said he used to figure about 20 percent waste on wood materials, but has since increased that figure to 50 percent.

“It’s not because I make more mistakes, but because I want to match wood grains and use only the wood that makes the object exactly like I want it,” he said.

“Actually, I find the cost of wood material is very inexpensive compared to the time I spend making something out of it.”

Visualization is one of DeCou’s natural gifts.

“I tend to look at a block of wood, but I see what I want carved out of it and not the wood,” he said. “I like to see the completion of the product. I don’t mean any thing spiritual; I don’t have woods talk to me. I just visualize things and create things out of raw materials that are enjoyable to me and a collector’s item to someone else.

“The challenge is trying to create new and interesting things that utilize the best of my current ability and then try to see that product,” he said. “Sometimes it turns out better than I thought it would and other times it doesn’t.

“All of my projects have mistakes, and oftentimes mistakes are unrepairable. But sometimes I can use a mistake and develop something different out of it.”

DeCou said the variety of items he creates is limited only by his imagination.

“It’s fun to use what’s in my heart in the product, like a scripture writing, because the bottom line is if I’m not serving God in what I’m doing, I just end up making things that will eventually end up burning in fire anyway,” he added.

“If I can have fun and make an eternal impact on people, I can’t think of a better scenario.”

DeCou markets his items in a variety of ways.

“A lot of my sales come from word of mouth-from friends, family and coworkers,” he said. “But e-Bay isn’t a place to sell fine art because everyone wants to buy bargains.”

DeCou participates in a couple of shows each year, but uses the venue to make business contacts more than for actual sales.

“Typically, people want to apply their own ideas to my products,” he said. “I learned it takes a number of years to be good at what you do and to find people who like your work and are willing to buy it in quantities that allow you to support yourself.”

DeCou said people typically respond to his work with three comments:

n “What is that?”

n “How did you do that?”

n “I’d never have the patience to do that.”

“To all of those I reply, God made you and me certain ways,” he said. “God built my temperament and my ability to sit and do tedious details and love every minute of it.

“It takes a special person to do any type of job, whether you’re introverted or extroverted,” he added. “It doesn’t make you or me better than someone else, just different.”

DeCou simply wants to employ his God-given talent.

“I’m trying to demonstrate with my own life that there are higher priorities than just living for the here and now and for the pleasures the world has to offer and the money you can make doing that,” he said. “I try to instill old-style wisdom I believe comes from God.

“I’d like to teach my kids that what’s most important in life is not pursuing the most money, but what’s in your heart.”

Mark DeCou has a Web page at He can be reached at 620-273-8992 or at Wildcat Creek Road, R.R. 1, Box 59, Elmdale, KS 66850.

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