Artisans Create Bluebirds of Happiness

American Artisans, People
on December 30, 2001

When Terra Studios proprietors Rita and Leo Ward introduced their glass “Bluebird of Happiness” figurines more than 20 years ago, they had a feeling they’d unlocked the key to their personal and artistic freedom.

Still, they had no idea how successful their fledgling mail-order enterprise would become, or how much their creation would come to mean to their newly adopted Ozark community of Durham, Ark.

The couple moved from California to northwest Arkansas in 1975 to be closer to Rita’s parents and to try a career change after years of teaching.

Leo had studied glass blowing at the community college where he taught English. Rita had taken pottery classes, and the two believed they could make a go of it as artists. Entering their 40s with three children grown to adulthood, they decided it was time to spread their wings and fly.

The couple’s cross-country caravan—a pickup truck and an old station wagon loaded with their possessions, remembers Rita—led them to the hamlet of Durham (pop. 50), a place where they would find time and space to explore their artistic natures. On a stretch of land they dubbed Terra, Leo began experimenting with the art of pulling glass—using rods to actually pull hot glass into different shapes.

It seems nothing short of serendipity that the shapes most naturally formed by this technique were those of little birds—an image that would send their creative dreams soaring.

Today, 120 representatives market the miniature birds worldwide. Boxed with a written message from Rita, the “Bluebird of Happiness” has long been a symbol “commemorating marriages and anniversaries and a messenger for contentment and health,” she states.

They’ve even become a favorite gift for Arkansas ambassadors to carry with them to foreign countries. One senator’s wife presented two bluebirds to an appreciative Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife.

“Those little bluebirds,” says Rita, “have made everything possible.”

One look around the park-like facility the Wards have transformed into a fantasyland of glass and clay art provides some idea of what “everything” is. The 10-acre plot the couple homesteaded has grown into a 130-acre complex of fancifully landscaped grounds, housing not only the bluebird-making operation but an art glass gallery, sculpture gardens, a restaurant, and classrooms equipped to teach glass blowing, clay building, and others.

Gary Carter is one local beneficiary of the Wards’ passion for educating others in the art of “living creatively.” Seven years ago, Carter answered an ad to train as one of Terra’s bluebird makers. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Carter, one of Terra’s two artists-in-residence.

“I used to sneak around to watch the (studio’s) glass blowers after I’d finished with my work on the bluebirds,” Carter says of his fascination of the process. Last year, he tried his hand at blowing the studio’s multicolored “Painted Desert” art glass vases. Now, he says, he feels like an artist.

Maeve Corteau, Terra’s other artist-in-residence, says she’s always felt creative, but her role as mother to seven children didn’t always allow her to explore art. When Leo asked her to join Terra, she was working at a broiler chicken house. Today, her stoneware sculptures grace Terra’s galleries, while her fantastical trolls and dragons decorate the grounds.

“Rita and Leo offered me a lifeline,” Corteau says. “To me, the real story of Terra is that local people . . . have found out what most people don’t know: that we all have talent and don’t use it, and that art is a need we all have.”

That message is one the Wards live by. It’s the secret, they say, of their success and their happiness.