In her mid-century Denver home, Susi Tattershall lives with her husband and two dogs. Her basement is covered in wood shavings and paintings of Christian saints.
“That one is my patron saint, I was born on his saint day,” she said as she pointed to a painting of St. Francis on her wall, sitting amongst five other smaller paintings of other biblical figures. Susi’s early life revolved around the church, and although she’s grateful to have grown up in a religious environment, she recognizes not all have the same experience.
“When religion is good, it’s really, really good. When it’s bad, oh, it’s so bad,” she said.
But her upbringing in such a religious environment is what she credits as having sparked her deep fascination with pipe organs. An empty-nester, retiree, and master woodworker, Susi has a less conventional hobby than most of her neighbors. She’s been restoring musical organs for almost 50 years.
“I graduated from Wittenberg University with a degree in comparative religions in 1971 and immediately moved to Canada to work for an organ builder,” Susi said before playing a short piece on the pump organ in her dining room.
Stephen Tappe, former music director of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Denver, worked alongside Susi as she was restoring an old, fragile 1869 hook organ for the church.
“She’s been restoring organs for many years,” Tappe said. “Susi’s just really talented. She speaks Spanish and she spent a lot of time in Oaxaca restoring organs mostly out of the goodness of her heart.”
Susi lived in Mexico for many years after graduating from college. She restored organs for churches, mostly for free as she was only paid occasionally, and it wasn’t much.
“Imagine you’re living in a place with no radios, no television, no internet,” she said about her experience restoring instruments in Mexico. “No car motors, no airplanes, and all you’ve got is chickens and the burros and cows, and an organ.”
After living in Mexico for a while, she and her two children moved to Denver, where Tattershall had to get a conventional job. There were too few organs and too many restorers in the state. She was a paralegal and a single mother for many years, but that did not stop her from tweaking and playing with instruments during whatever free time she could find.
“I worked on pianos and organs any moment I could after the kids were asleep or taken care of by my mother. I never stopped playing with instruments.”
Although Susi has decades of experience with building and restoring intricate instruments—especially the organ—she tried to teach herself to play other instruments such as the violin as her retirement plan. But she couldn’t resist gutting violins open and restoring them to a better state rather than playing them.
“I remember telling my daughter I was going to learn to play the violin, and her comment was, ‘Oh God, mom. In no time flat, you’re going to be fixing them and the house is going to be full of violins.’ And guess what?” she laughed as she showed off some of the violins she’s been restoring. She has a small violin, “maybe for a child,” imported from Germany to Ohio in the 1940s. “These were imported when Germany was a mess, and a lot of them were not well taken care of, I still find so many of them,” she said.
While she still works on instruments, Susi has also moved on to making wooden bowls—much less fragile devices—when she needs to relax. She recently put her completed bowls on sale for the first time and has them arranged on her dining room table.
“I’ve never sold my work before, I always just gave these bowls to friends and family, but now I have no one else to give them to,” she laughed.
She’s planning on selling more on her new website soon. But despite her recent trek into woodworking, she remains busy with restorations.
“A lot of these instruments I restore, I do research into the makers and I find that they died without being recognized for their mastery. I hope they live on through me.”