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Rita Jo Ward

Gratitude legacy of studio founder by Helaine Williams | May 14, 2020 at 3:15 a.m. | Updated May 14, 2020 at 3:15 a.m.

For artist Rita Jo Ward, life was all about being grateful. Grateful for whatever life had to offer.

"She would coin the phrase of being a 'gratitude mother,'" said her son, Bill Ward. "She actually spent a lot of her life working with ceramics and clay, and some of her sculptures were, as she would call them, Mother Gratitudes. They looked a lot like a standing, praying, nun-type thing, wishing the world the best."

Rita Ward, founder of Terra Studios in the Washington County community of Durham, died Sunday at age 89.

She and her husband, Leo Ward, were known for the Arkansas Bluebird of Happiness glass figurines that are sold in gift shops.

Leo Ward, the creator of the Bluebird of Happiness, preceded Rita Ward in death in October 2017. In addition to Bill Ward, Rita Ward leaves behind another son, John, and a daughter, Lynda.

"She spent a lot of time trying to think about the words that need to be said to help us understand how to live in this world in the best way possible. ... So we had these gatherings," Bill Ward said. "A couple of times she would have large potluck gatherings on a hilltop with a fire, and it would be a potluck to celebrate either the solstice, or the equinoxes, kind of the changing of the light, the changing of the time.

"[She wanted] all of us to be aware that change can actually be good."

According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette obituary for Leo Ward, more than 9 million of the small glass bluebirds have been sold through Terra Studios and have become nationally known.

Ward and her husband married in 1950, and she began a glass and ceramics studio in California. The couple moved to Arkansas in 1975 and with son John began Terra Studios, a place for artisans to hone their crafts, as well as a tourist attraction that offered education and solace.

The Wards established "this wonderland of art [that] was founded as a glass and pottery studio" according to an article in Idle Class Magazine. "Together they worked in their respective fields -- glass, pottery and sculpture and other artistic endeavours. Eight years later, they created their first Bluebird of Happiness and started a business that boomed."

Using Art to Create a Better World, the nonprofit organization that now owns Terra Studios, suspended production of the bluebirds in January for environmental reasons.

Art was among the many threads in the colorful quilt that was Rita Ward's life. Not only did she spend much of her time teaching others how to create pottery, she lent a helping hand to many in her community.

"Somebody was local and needed help, she would bring them in and give them a job around the place," Bill Ward said. "[She] was real good about that."

Bill Ward recalled that his mother also would host lunch gatherings each Tuesday, inviting extended family. She called the gatherings Bean Day.

"It ... started as a very simple, meager meal in which to get together, for folks to talk and share ideas and ... needs," her son said. "Of course, the food got better and better as time went on.

"We had this little basket full of little pieces of paper with all these quotes written on it. It would be passed around the table as we sat down. And during our time of eating, it'd be your turn to read the quote, or two or three quotes, that you'd pulled from the basket. And at which time we would all then think about it, and if it spawned a conversation we'd talk about it ... and in a way to make us all think a little deeper and a little differently."

The Bluebird of Happiness, Bill Ward said, was actually his mother's idea but one "that my father, of course, helped run with."

"It was actually the vehicle which actually gave her a little bit of freedom in which to work in the clay without having to struggle to make payments on it," Bill Ward said. "She could actually do it and give her art away. She didn't have to sell it, which was a really good thing. A lot of her art and sculptures [were] just handed out to friends and relatives, to associates."

Bill Ward said his mother didn't want a ceremony or flowers in remembrance of her.

"If anything was to be done in her name, she'd ask everybody to submit some ... funds to Meals on Wheels to help those who were in need," he said. "That was her wish.

"Her legacy would be that gratitude is the most important thing in this world."

State Desk on 05/14/2020

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