Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist
Have you ever seen a bluebird? They’re not as common these days, like so many songbirds that have lost habitat to encroaching urbanization and invasive species. Every once in a while, however, there are surprise visits from these jolly guys who flit into our yards for a quick snack of summer bugs. If I want to see a tribute in glass to our cute feathered friends, all I have to do is stop by my friend and co-worker’s desk to glimpse a couple of bluebirds. Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education and mistress of this blog, cares for the two glass bluebirds that recently joined our Education Department’s teaching collection.
FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard bought them while perusing glass art online, thinking they’d be great fun for kids to see and touch, and they come with a wonderful story. They, and their millions of siblings, were dreamed up by a fellow with interesting Indiana connections. Leo Ward, the Bluebird Man, who passed on in 2017 just weeks short of his 90th birthday, made his first glass bluebird in 1982.
Ward, orphaned at three-years-old and raised by an aunt, grew up exploring the hills and forests around Long Hungry Branch, Kentucky. While immersed in the glorious natural beauty of the Kentucky hills and hollers, Ward grew up very poor; the U.S. Army offered him a way out of his impoverished existence via his service at Fort Knox and a tour of the east during the Korean conflict. A couple of other benefits came from his service: he met Rita, his wife of nearly seventy years, at Fort Knox and his time in Korea introduced him to Zen Buddhism.
After his military service, Ward studied at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, earning an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in English. Ward’s practices reveal a generous and kind man – he taught English to men at the state prison in Pendleton, Indiana. Later, he taught English at Palomar College in San Diego, California. While teaching at the college, he and his wife were able to enroll in art classes – a life-changing move. Though Ward enjoyed the rewards of teaching creative writing to young people, glassblowing brought him even greater happiness. He and his wife decided to become full-time artists and to set up a small glass “hot shop” and pottery at their home in nearby Vista, California. When code violations shut them down, they packed up and moved to the Ozarks, later launching Terra Studios outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was here that the first little bluebird took flight!
Ward made several of the little birds to try to sell at the War Eagle Craft Fair in the early 1980s, a venue established in 1954 in Arkansas’ War Eagle River Valley by Blanche Elliott to bring Ozark crafters together. The fair launched the birds into the Ozarks, then the wider world, where they were dubbed the Bluebirds of Happiness.
The little bluebirds began to appear in gift shops around the United States, then internationally. Millions were sold and each came with a little message of hope from the Bluebird Man. The sales of these little icons of inspiration fueled Terra Studios’ growth, funding employment of artisans, art instructors, and eventually providing a beautiful art-filled 160-acre retreat for visitors.
In keeping with Terra Studios’ motto, “Using art to create a better world”, and in accordance with the Bluebird Man’s gentle tread on the earth, the production of bluebirds was suspended in 2020 to lessen the environmental burden of greenhouse gas-producing glass production. Terra Studios, now a not-for-profit entity, is researching more sustainable methods for producing the glass birds. Despite this, the Bluebirds of Happiness and their sisters, the Pink Birds of Hope, can still be ordered from Terra Studios’ large flock, er, stock!