Like May Lillie, Marilyn Lysohir ’79 came West from Pennsylvania-both, I’d venture to say, for Love. May Lillie, née Mary Manning, was an otherwise good Quaker girl who fell for Gordon William Lillie, the Pawnee Bill of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, when he brought the show to Philadelphia toward the end of the 19th century. After May and Bill wrote each other for a year, she followed him back to Oklahoma to ride horses and become a sharpshooter.
Lysohir followed her love of art even farther west, to Washington State University. She got her M.F.A., married Ross Coates, became a successful sculptor-and then she re-discovered Chocolate. Now May Lillie stares determinedly down the barrel of her six-shooter as the logo for Lysohir’s Cowgirl Chocolates.
“You have to have an adventurous spirit to try a Cowgirl Chocolate,” says Lysohir, in her new shop in Moscow, Idaho, having just moved the business out of her home and studio. She sets a bowl of chocolates down beside me.
Although the spice of adventure came later, Lysohir and chocolate go way back. She started working for a local chocolate factory when still in high school and on into college. Where chocolate and sculpture first came together was when the owner asked her to sculpt a four-foot chocolate bunny for an Easter display.
“It just got away from me,” she says. “Oh, Pete, how wide are your doors?” she asked her boss after she’d finished-a question she would find herself asking again later in life as she planned her monumental ceramic sculptures.
Thousands of people came to see her eight-foot chocolate bunny. Her turtles and rhinoceroses, too.
But let’s focus for a moment on these truffles before me. At the very first bite, they’re awfully good, but not that different. Made of fine European chocolate, they are sweet and dark and so delicious. And then the cayenne kicks in.
“They’re different,” she says, smiling, “they’re rugged, they’re not your normal truffle.”
The pepper lingers with the chocolate in the throat. It’s quite wonderful. And of course, if the idea surprises at first, it is not exactly new. Think of Mexican mole.
As the spice lingers and you get your bearings in Lysohir’s Cowgirl world, you realize that where Business begins and Art leaves off is not exactly clear. Consider, for example, that in the beginning it was sales of her art that supported her chocolate adventure.
“It was hard,” she says, telling of her struggle to cover her expenses.
But then the Food Channel discovered Cowgirl Chocolates. The response crashed Moscow’s Internet connection to the outside, non-Cowgirl world.
“Now this,” she says, “takes care of the art.”
There is no romantic regret in her observation, no longing for a more innocent art/commerce balance. Indeed her art still resides in a number of galleries, in Seattle, Ketchum, Boise.
“Chocolates sell faster,” she says. “But when you sell one $10,000 piece of art, it takes care of you for a while.”
In fact, though, she doesn’t really separate the two. Think of Cowgirl Chocolates as performance art, if you will. And it all, somehow, converges as personal history.
For example, consider her installation Bad Manners, a portion of which sits next to us as we talk and eat her spicy chocolates. Amidst the ceramic representations of various foods mingle, of course, ceramic chocolates.
“My art really is an extension of my history, my belief system, my value system, that I got growing up, from my parents, my aunts and uncles, my teachers.”
At times that extension is very personal. A collection of life-size bronze bear heads-one of which guards Jim Kolva’s loft-a large bronze bear, now in Boise, and steel flowers, which she calls The Last Immigrant, commemorates her Ukrainian grandmother, who died at age 99.
Consider also The Dark Side of Dazzle, which includes a 24-foot-long ceramic battleship, which started with the fact that her father survived World War II. Currently, she is creating ceramic busts, based on their senior portraits in the high school yearbook, of each one of the 167 girls she graduated with in 1968.
“I’m on my 50th-something now,” she says.
Meanwhile, I try the various flavors Lysohir sets before me, including a couple of new ones from the mild-mannered, non-spicy “colts and fillies” line. Raspberry lemonade. And sarsaparilla? Yes. It’s milk chocolate, though. It didn’t work with the dark chocolate.
“It’s a very American flavor,” she says.