This is the entrance to the gift shop at Terra Studios in Durham, a few miles east of Fayetteville on highway 16. See those little blue glass blobs lined up on that rail? That's a procession of one of Arkansas' most widely distributed commercial products: The Bluebird of Happiness. Not just any old bluebird of happiness, mind you. The true blue officially trademarked accept-no-substitutes actual/factual THE Bluebird of Happiness.
If you've ever been to a hospital or airport gift shop anywhere on earth you've probably seen a Bluebird of Happiness that originated right here.
Leo and Rita Ward came to Arkansas as refugees from California. There were some problems between the San Diego zoning authorities and Leo's glass furnace. The couple set up shop on this acreage, lived in a used trailer and sold pottery and glass art objects to the Ozark/Branson/Silver Dollar City gift shops. The Bluebird started as an incidental doo-dad sold at the War Eagle crafts fair just a few miles to the north. They sold out quickly the first year of their introduction, so the next year they loaded their booth with bluebirds, all of which sold. When a salesman talked them into buying an ad in a regional magazine, they didn't have a name for their product. The salesman suggested "Bluebird of Happiness" and a phenomenon was born.
Right inside the gift shop there's an observation window that allows a visitor to watch this, a highly skilled maker of happy bluebirds doing what he does. I clocked this guy, and it took him about forty seconds to shape a glowing glass tootsie roll into a bluebird with a few effortlessly economical nips and twists. At the height of the Bluebird of Happiness craze, these guys sold $3 million dollars worth of bluebirds in one year. That's according to the Democrat/Gazette article referenced below. At eight-fifty each, that's roughly 350,000 bluebirds. At forty seconds each that's 233,450 man-hours. That's full employment for 117 glass-tweaking bird makers.
In correspondence with Mr. Ward, he wrote to me that two women were hired full time at the height of the bluebird craze to inspect the bluebirds and engrave each with Leo's signature. Someone put a sign on their workspace door, "The Forgery Room."
The success of the product is easy to explain, yet impossible to pursue. The Wards discovered the perfect balance of motivated demographic and price point. Here's what I mean. You show up at the airport and you're headed to the home of some cousins you kind of halfway know. You're crashing at their place while you interview for a job in their town. Something like that. You suddenly realize two things. You haven't brought a gift and you've got ten bucks in your pocket. On the way to the concourse you find a gift shop. You want to find something pleasant and innocuous. Something that won't be overinterpreted or misunderstood. A bottle of wine? Are your host's drinkers or teatotalers? Will they think you're calling them alcoholics? Chocolate? Does anybody in their family have a weight problem? Diabetes? Are you sure? How about a card? Sure, the card is funny to you, but people don't always get your sense of humor. You're about to panic and then....
AHAAAAAAAAAAAH! You spot the Bluebird of Freakin' Happiness. Bingo. Sold. It's the most universally accepted symbol of cheerfulness, happiness, prosperity, hearth and home, get well soon, congratulations on the new baby, any and all positive sentiments can be attatched to the bluebird with practically no negative aspects. Practically none. In magical symbologies, you almost always find that every symbol has positive and negative aspects. Here you'll see bluebird used to represent confidence in the positive aspect and egotism in the negative. I also discovered a long homemade epic poem on the net where the bluebird was used to symbolize the British Empire's occupation of China. A dead bluebird is a symbol of disillusionment, of the loss of innocence, of transformation from younger and naive to older and wiser. Native American tribes considered the bluebird sacred. The Navajo held the Mountain Bluebird to be a god in animal form and associated it with the rising sun. I also found on the web a reprint of a Korean newspaper article that mentioned a mythological Korean bluebird that had symbolic meanings similar to those we have, but also operated as a kind of metaphysical operative for the gods. It flits around and spies on the humans. "A little bird told me." That kind of thing.
But I digress. So, ten bucks or so for a glass bluebird and you've safely fulfilled your gift giving obligations. From a marketing point of view this item really hits the mark, and the Wards recognize their good fortune. They've even built a little gazebo on the property acknowledging the contribution to their security made by the Bluebird of Happiness. Here's the gazebo above on the left. It incorporates over 1200 bluebirds. Every bluebird made is inspected, and if it passes muster, it is signed by Leo Ward. If it ain't signed, it ain't official. If you're on a bluebird budget, you can buy unsigned factory seconds at the gift shop.
Now let's get away from the bluebirds. The bluebirds are just one corner of what they've got going on. The core businesses are ceramics and glassblowing studios. Ancillary to those operations, and occupying the same 160 acres, they have a restaurant, an RV park, and a sculpture garden.
The restaurant is called "Otis Zark's," and it has been closed all summer of 2003. I've read accounts by other visitors, and I'm sorry I missed the inside of it. By all accounts it's really something. Rita and Leo are kind of particular about finding the right kind of person to run the place. I was not told, but I assume that along with a head for business, the restaurant manager will incorporate O.Zarks (get it? Ozarks?) into the philosophical and artistic sensibility of the place. Kind of like the restaurants at Disney World. You don't just park a Red Lobster next to Space Mountain and think you're doing right by either the park or the restaurant.
The big free attraction is a sculpture garden that covers acres and acres. Everywhere you look, there's some interesting little thing tucked into a nook or a cranny. They've got a pond. The kids can feed the fish. They've got picnic tables, and everything is a work of art. Every rail of every fence, every ashtray, every lamp post, retaining wall, garbage can, bathroom wall and porch chair is either designed or modified such that they just don't seem like standard earth issue gear.
From these pictures you should be able to get some sense of the storybook brand of whimsey that serves as the guiding spirit of Terra Studios. In spite of the fact that Terra is the exclusive realm of a benign artistic sensibility, I assure you that even cynical adults won't find it sappy or overprecious. It's eccentric and fun and there's even some satire to enjoy if you're tuned in to it. And oh yeah, it doesn't cost anything to go hang out on the grounds. Great spot for picture taking. Endlessly surprising.
I don't want to short anybody on the credit by implying that Leo and Rita did all this. Lots and lots of artists have worked here over the years.
Toll-free phone 1-800-255-8995. Web address www.terrastudios.com.
Source: Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 1Sep02, sec D, p. 1, col. 1.