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The Orchid Tree

Marsha Willard with the Orchid Tree

By: Sam Swartz

When you consider the amount of effort it takes for ArtPrize participants to express their art, a sense of admiration may emerge. You might imagine them traveling across borders, simply for the opportunity to display their passion and gain recognition for their artistic talent. In many instances, this holds true. In Dale Cote’s case, however, he never had the chance to do so. As sadly, on Aug 23, Cote quietly passed away after an eight-year battle with prostate cancer, just weeks before ArtPrize began.  

Dale Cote

In his place, lifelong friend, Marsha Willard and brother, Jim Cote, traveled all the way from Milo. A small town outside of Calgary in the province of Alberta, Canada, (almost a 1,600 mile journey) for the chance to share Dale’s work with ArtPrize patrons. Marsha, a friend of Dale’s for more than a half century and “little brother Jim,” as Marsha introduced him, worked together, taking on the meticulous task of putting every piece back together as accurately as possible.

Cote’s  magnificent entry titled, “The Orchid Tree” can be viewed by the public at the Central Reformed Church venue, at the corner of College and Fulton. A lesser known venue, but well worth a trip up the hill.

Not only does the Central Reformed Church boast 45 individual entries, the 7th largest venue of 182, but it is there, nestled into the back corner of the venue, where you’ll have the privilege of seeing Cote’s Orchid Tree. A brief observation will demonstrate how all witnesses to it, are taken aback by its incredible beauty.  

At first impression, “The Orchid Tree” is awe inspiring, to say the least. A breath-taking assortment of color and detail. An 8-foot tree, bursting from top to bottom with nearly 130 individual clusters of orchids and hundreds more individual flowers. Upon closer inspection, you realize that every single flower, down to every last petal (of which there are easily thousands) had been painstakingly cut from recycled cans and methodically painted with unbelievable accuracy. It’s then that you begin to appreciate the true magnitude of this masterpiece. Needless to say, there’s no question that Cote had put his heart and soul into it.

“He figured it took him between 3,000 and 4,000 hours. So, we just approximate 3,500 hours and know that we’re within shooting range of it,” Willard said.        

Sam Swartz
Orchids Spread Out

Dale Cote came to Marsha’s farm nearly 55 years ago, when he was in his early 20’s. Hired in as a farmhand, he soon became much more than that. And there he remained until his death. With no wife or children of his own, and living in a separate home on the Willard’s property, Marsha and her family were as much a family to him as his own parents and siblings.


“He was just part of the family. I’d tease and say we just never made him change his name, but he was pretty much one of us,” Willard said. “My brother suggested Dale come work with us and Dad hired him. Then he just stayed.”

He dedicated much of his life to the maintenance and upkeep of the Willard’s family farm. Having studied welding at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, his knowledge of fixing fences and welding various parts came in handy. Although, these abilities of his not only contributed to repair work, they also played a role in his more creative side and natural aptitude for creating art. Beginning with elaborately designed fencing, it soon transformed into more delicate, detailed sculptures. As he began gaining local recognition, he was asked by a woman from the area if he could make her a group of metal flowers to place at her mother’s headstone. It’s then that his fascination for building flowers began, eventually evolving into orchids.

“He was so intrigued by how weird they were,” Willard said. “They were so intricate. And somewhere in there he just got hooked on them.”

This new found fascination with orchids quickly became almost an obsession, as Willard explained.

“He ran amok,” she said jovially. “I walked into the house one day and they’re under the bed and they’re in the closets and they’re in the drawers and they’re…just everywhere. I asked him, ”aren’t you going to start putting these together?” What’s going on?”

A few days later, Cote approached Marsha Willard and asked her to come take a look at something in his living room. No explanation. Marsha, expecting there to be something wrong braced herself for a predicament. She never could have imagined that she was about to come face-to-face with what is now “The Orchid Tree.”

“He has added more to it since then,” Willard said. “But even then, when it was comparatively more naked, it was astounding.”    

Since then, The Orchid Tree won the Diamond Award of Excellence at the Alberta Orchid Fair, in which nine international judges gave it their unanimous vote, due to Cote’s incredible attention to detail with each specific species of Orchid. Afterwards, it went up on display at the Calgary Zoo for a period of time, before Cote decided to apply for it so be shown at an ArtPrize venue. To no one’s surprise, “The Orchid Tree” was approved. But unfortunately, Dale Cote could not hold on long enough to show it himself.              

This is when Willard decided she would do all she could to make sure she honored her enduring friend. She and Dale Cote’s younger brother, Jim, decided they would commemorate Dale’s wish to show his Orchid Tree at one of the continent’s largest and most revered art events. But, moving this magnificent piece wasn’t easy. As Willard explained, the trip down wasn’t as smooth as she had hoped.

“There were things that moved in the trailer when I brought it. A couple of the things I never imagined would bounce so high, did. We’ve had a lot of repair work to do,” Willard said. “We’ve had to do some touch-ups and re-molding. One of the branches came down and completely flattened a few bunches of flowers. I didn’t cry, but I was real close,” she said, half-jokingly, followed by a light-hearted chuckle.

Willard held out a stunning cluster of orchids that had been crushed by the falling branch. If she hadn’t explained that just days ago, it was nothing but a metal pancake, you would never guess it had ever been damaged.

Sam Swartz

As a result of this unforeseen circumstance, the process of putting it together, which typically takes them between 3-4 hours, turned out to be a much more time-consuming venture.  

“And not only that, this is an art show. We want it to look it’s best. We want it to be best for Dale and the people of Michigan and whoever else might come,” Willard went on to say.

Despite the difficulties, Willard and Jim felt compelled to transcend Dale’s work beyond his physical life. They had been overcome by a sincere desire to exhibit this beautiful piece somewhere it would be appreciated by many, and they weren’t going to let anything stand in their way.   

“This Orchid Tree is…just fantastic,” Willard started to explain, before she began to choke up. She paused briefly while tears welled up in her eyes and then swallowed deeply before she continued. “It’s too wonderful,” she said, still fighting back tears. “It’s too wonderful to just have sitting in the house.”

And after all, when asked what they might do if Cote’s Orchid Tree were to win, it was as if Marsha hadn’t even considered it.

“I haven’t gotten that far,” she said. “It’s a big question, in that…sure, money would be nice. That’s awesome. But to share this with more people…I mean it’s…phenomenal. And I want everyone to see it. And I think Dale would, too.”

Despite Cote’s incredible capability to build spectacular and breathtaking works of art, he remained a very modest and unassuming person.

“Dale was a very simple and humble man,” Willard said. “He would never call himself an artist. If anyone would say that, he’d say, “I’m not an artist. Anybody could do this, if they wanted to. It’s not rocket science.””  
Not only is “The Orchid Tree” a brilliant work of art, it is a legacy. A legacy of Cote’s life, and his unquestionable ability to create and portray the beauty he saw in the world. It is a dedication by his loved ones, with the simple desire to have his passion live on. And not only that, it is a testament to his selfless willingness to share his vision with whoever may see it, too.

“I don’t want this to just be in some place where only the wealthy can see it. I want…Joe-average-normal-person to see it. Because Dale was a Joe average normal person, except, he had an incredible talent,” Willard said. “But he was probably just as happy fixing fences and pulling calves.”


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