Feeding the Spirit: Olivia Brown Draws Inspiration From Nature
The "oohs" and "ahhs" are the two most frequently heard words at the hand-crafted jewelry and pottery booth of designer Olivia Dowdy Brown.
Drawing her inspiration from nature, she creates imaginative raku and stoneware beads, buttons and pendants, and fanciful recycled copper-and metal-stamped earrings, bracelets, and necklaces -- all reflecting her boundless enthusiasm for life.
"It's important to me to feed the spirit," she says. "It's not about getting money for your work; it's about making a difference and bringing joy to someone else's life."
That joy was apparent one Saturday morning at her booth at the Moore County farmers market in Southern Pines. Young girls and older "girls-at-heart" were captivated by her assortment of jewelry -- some bearing dragonflies and inspirational verses, and other items, such as her copper earrings and a stunning etched and textured copper necklace -- were winning rave reviews.
Brown has been a working artist for nearly 20 years. She always had a flair for being creative -- initially as a caterer, and later, as an accessories boutique owner in Columbia, S.C., where she designed barrettes and painted and embellished fabric for artsy camisoles.
"My items sold out before any of the items I purchased to place in the store from other vendors so I knew I was on the correct path in my life," she says.
A New Path
She recognized that path meant going back to school for a degree in fine arts if she wanted her dream to come true.
As a graduate of Sandhills Community College she transferred to UNC-Pembroke and received her bachelor's degree in fine arts, with a concentration in ceramics, pottery, and still sculpture. She thought all along that she would teach art, but then decided to feed her need for creativity and "teaching took a back seat to creating."
In 1991, she established her business ODDDesigns, which denotes the mixed media she employs in her designs as well as the initials of her maiden name.
Brown's days are spent either in her Scotland County studio, which she describes as "cluttered, but so much fun," or on the road to upscale craft shows throughout the Mid-Atlantic and South. A recent quick trip to Manhattan left her overwhelmed and anxious to return home after a hectic week on the road.
"Manhattan's just not a place you go to without some thought," she says, pausing, "of how to get out."
It is easy to see Brown's quick-humored personality reflected in her work -- particularly in the more whimsical pieces, some enhanced with colorful eyelash yarn.
"I pray for witty ideas, but I understand that God provides the inspiration," she says of her raku.
Raku is an ancient Japanese method of firing pottery. The pottery is taken out of the kiln at around 1,800 degrees and put into a reduction container with newspaper. It is allowed to smoke for about 15 minutes, and then cooled quickly.
"Unlike stone or clay work, raku is such a beautiful surprise because each item is one-of-a-kind," she says. "I'm at the mercy of God for the color, because if I could control it, I would get the same color of purple or red each time." She comments that her favorite color is purple, the color of passion and creativity.
Recycled copper, which is hand-stamped or textured with a hammer or a roller mill, is a favorite medium. Copper wire is used to embellish pendants and serves as the base for her bracelets and earrings, which she says have become an addiction for some of her clientele.
"I like to make them asymmetrical -- each earring is a bit different," she says. "The truth is, life is too short to wear matching earrings."
Brown says her buttons are a favorite with crafters.
"The word has gotten out about these buttons, and I hope to get them into some shops that specialize in knitting, crocheting, quilting where they can be used as embellishments," she says. "When someone spends hours knitting or crocheting, they usually want an interesting or unique button for their item."
Trendy jewelry designers are also taking note of her raku work. In the July issue of Beadwork magazine, one of her raku pendants was reviewed by writer, television host, and well-known beader, Katie Hacker, who said, "If earthy iridescence is your style, base a design around a handcrafted 45 millimeter raku donut from ODDDesigns "
To support her growing market, Brown established an Etsy Web site, www.odddesignsnc.etsy.com, to show and sell her designs. Etsy spans the globe with buyers and sellers coming from more than 150 countries and enables people who make a living making things to connect with buyers.
"It's been tremendous for me and has given me Internet accessibility that I can manage," she says. "I take my own photos, upload them, and don't have to worry about Web site maintenance. It's better because it's not an auction, there's no bidding, and you put an item out there for the price you want. It's unbelievable how slick and easy it is to use." (She may also be reached through e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
But the affable Brown says she loves it the most when she gets to meet the people who buy her items at the craft shows and the farmers market.
Initially, she said some friends were a bit skeptical about her going to the farmers market, fearing she would not get any business.
"Well, that's been proven wrong," she says with a laugh. "Being at the market has been great -- it has bridged the spring and holiday season craft shows and gives me business that I welcome. And, I meet lots of terrific people who really want to know about the work they are buying."
Brown says she was amazed by the number of tourists that come to the Saturday morning market.
"I've developed an established client base -- lots of area residents and people from Maine, Arizona, Pennsylvania -- you name it," she says. "I had a piece sent to China and another to Ireland -- so I received great exposure here."
She acknowledges that buying jewelry has always been a luxury, but she says that even in this difficult economy, her business has been steady.
"I think when people are feeling a bit down they like to buy a little trinket -- a gift for just for them or a friend -- they just seem to feel better," she says.
Brown notes that the majority of her items fall into the "affordable" category, ranging from $12 for stylish buttons to $150 or more for the intricately-crafted copper bracelets and necklaces, which take several days to complete.
Her busy fall craft show calendar includes an on-going gallery show at the State of Clay at the Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro; the Greensboro Curb Market, Oct. 25; and the N.C. State Fair, Oct. 15-25, where she will exhibit at the North Carolina Pottery tent.
Brown says this is the season when the retailers and crafters have to make their margins.
"You have to sell 75 percent of your inventory in 25 percent of the time offered in a year, so the push is on," she says.
Brown is in her studio often until late at night working on items she feels people will want to add to their collections.
"You never know when the inspiration will hit, and you have to go with it at the moment or you just might lose it. My soul would be empty if I did not do art," she says. "I love what I do, I sure hope it shows."
Olivia Dowdy Brown's pottery and raku jewelry will be available at the Morganton Road farmer's market, Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Items may be purchased at her Web site, www.odddesignsnc.etsy.com or she may be reached at her studio, (910) 277-2620.
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer and may be reached at email@example.com.
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