Photos courtesy of Mary Dowd Bears
One of the highlights of 2016 was leading all of my readers on cyber tours of the world. Now for 2017, we’re going to kick off an imaginary journey, but no passports, visas, or inoculations are needed. We’re making a totally paper-free trek to an American hometown: East Bend, North Carolina.
When I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Dowd, she and her husband resided in this neck of the woods. It was the personification of All-American — a farm nestled in the Piedmont region of the state. Mary and her spouse, Tom, owned horses, and their dogs had a chance to roam and frolic on their land. It sounds idyllic for a woman who is in constant touch with the wonders of nature.
Born and raised in western New York, Mary grew up in a family that was accomplished in the handcrafts: sewing, knitting, crocheting, and embroidery. “My mom and her many sisters excelled in all of these practices. I had a ready teacher for whichever craft I wanted to learn, which was ALL of them!” Mary enthused.
She and her cousins would pass their summer days playing at becoming fashion designers. Like little Yves Saint Laurents or pint-sized Coco Chanels, they would doodle and draw lovely outfits for their dolls. Then they would convert these sketches into actual clothing for their dolls and their soft toys. “It was heaven,” she recalled.
These days, Dowd’s forte is creating all kinds of critters. Bears, elephants, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, hedgehogs, and so many more spring to life in her studio. “I enjoy making them all,” she stated. “I love to create a variety of styles — antique or whimsical, attic treasures and Scottish themed. I always receive requests for more hedgehogs and more pigs! Truthfully, my personal goal is to do a camel. I fell in love with them when I was in India, and I would like to create one!”
Dowd started in her soft-art career back in 1994. Always a homebody (“I loved to make things for my home and family with my hands”), she was searching for an outlet for her creative drive. “By then, my children had outgrown ‘mom-made’ clothes and costumes. I had a closet filled with clothing that I had made for myself. I wanted a substitute sewing activity that would hold my attention and challenge me,” Dowd reminisced.
Figuring out what to do, Dowd’s inquisitive mind settled on a teddy bear possibility: “My initial goal was to make just one teddy bear using a commercial pattern. I found out that I loved working with the mohair so much that I wanted to do more, and I started to design my own patterns.”
It was a perfect fit for Dowd, who found a craft that combined her creativity with her practicality. Trained in physical therapy, Dowd worked in rehab and pediatrics for the 42 years of her practice. “I loved making a difference in the lives of my patients and their families,” she shared. “I always found time to create at the end of the workday. The two worlds — the two sides of my personality — complemented each other.”
The physical therapist fell under the spell of the creative process. She responded to the tools, the tasks, and the satisfaction of a job well done: “I confess — I love taking material, whether it is mohair, viscose, or yarn, and turning it into a collectible. Knowing that my work can be held, cuddled, or just viewed, I feel inspired. Making a creation that can bring a smile and a warm, happy feeling to the holder/viewer is what I love most. Just going through my mohair always sparks an idea for a new creation to me. It is a very hands-on craft for me.”
The veteran bear artist has fans that hail from all over the world, and she adores the opportunity to interact with them. Whether she’s corresponding through letters or e-mails, texting or talking on the phone, she truly enjoys chatting with and learning about her collectors. “It’s always great to meet them at a show,” she remarked. “When we’re there in person together, I get my greatest reward. I see the happy smile on a collector who is falling in love with a teddy bear or another furry friend, and I am overjoyed. I’m not geared toward competing for awards, but my big reward is witnessing a collector’s reaction to my work. It cannot be matched. The biggest compliment I can ever receive is when a collector falls in love with a face, a look, and then takes my creation home. It is so fulfilling.”
In addition to the fans who live across the country and around the globe, two of Dowd’s biggest boosters used to reside closer to her home: her two children. During her earlier years of making bears and a name for herself, one or the other of her kids would accompany her on the road at shows as her helper. The two siblings were impressed by their mother’s talent and her commitment to sell at shows and converse with her collectors. She was a driven and passionate aspiring artist.
At the time of our interview, daughter Meg was a special education teacher and son Patrick was a grad student. They both remained connected to their mom’s verve and versatility: “Meg has her favorite Scottish Clan teddy bear of mine on her mantel at home. One of my wee pigs is on her desk at school. I like to think that he’s the class mascot and helps provide her inspiration for the wonderful work she does with her special ed students.”
When her son, Patrick, headed overseas for a fellowship and a job, a Dowd original bear accompanied him on his venture. “His favorite ‘mom made’ teddy bear went to undergraduate school with him, and then it went with him to Thailand and to India. The last overseas adventure was in Kathmandu, Nepal, where Patrick was working for a Tibetan and Himalayan studies university program. He experienced the earthquakes and the resulting devastation, very near the epicenter. Happily, Patrick and his teddy returned home safe!” Dowd revealed. (At interview time, home for Patrick was Philadelphia, where he was earning a master’s degree. The time at the University of Pennsylvania was a pit stop, because he was heading off to Bhutan for an internship.)
These days, Mary Dowd and her husband, Tom, hit the show circuit together. He functions as her “driver, helper, and cheerleader.” She admits that she owes him her gratitude and appreciation. The Dowds’ life on the farm is a harmonious one — figuratively and literally.
“There is a burgeoning wine industry in this area with a growing number of vineyards. We live next to a beautiful vineyard (Cellar 4201) and enjoy the sounds of the live music that drifts through the woods on the weekends when they are hosting wine-tasting events,” Dowd confided.
How perfect — drifting melodies that serve as muses and music to this talented woman’s ears: “I respond to everything around me! Music, movies, books, pictures, and collectors — with all of these things, I can be inspired by everyone!”