UNTIL SHE GOT TO COLLEGE, Rebecca Mowrey was Rebecca. Then classmates started calling her “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” then “Sunnybrook” and, finally, just “Brook.”
Going with the flow, today Rebecca goes by Brook Mowrey. “If I hear someone call out ‘Rebecca!’ I know it’s someone from back in Chadds Ford,” she says, referring to her Pennsylvania hometown.
Brook’s career has evolved over the years too. Once an art director at Time-Life Books, she freelanced for a long time as a graphic designer, and then decided with her husband, David Nelson, that she would stay at home, in Loudoun County, with daughter Sage to help the little girl cope with three years of back-to-back surgeries to fix nerves and tendons that could have stood in the way of her ability to walk correctly.
It was while trying to amuse her daughter, who just turned 15, during those long days of surgery and recuperation–and lots of physical therapy–that Brook started making little paper displays and ornaments out of paper–little birds with paper hats, paper crowns, decorations for Halloween. A tree branch that Brook brought into the house and painted became a Christmas tree, an Easter tree, a Halloween tree, all decked out with paper ornaments Brook and Sage worked on together.
Then one day Brook’s best friend of 40 years, Dan Kessler, introduced her to Judy Philactos, owner of Periwinkle Gifts, an exuberantly charming candy and gift shop in upper Northwest Washington. “Show her,” Kessler nudged her. And Brook showed Judy the colorful little birds she was making, with silly hand-cut paper hats on them. Judy was smitten and decided to sell them. Today Judy recalls her reaction as being just commonsense: “I have a shop. Why not put them in the shop and see if they sell?”
The charming little birds attracted oohs and aahs and virtually flew (sorry) out of the shop. They were soon followed by various little hand-sculpted animals (“charlottes,” Brook calls them * ) trimmed with paper clothes and decoration. And then elaborately trimmed little paper slippers that the shop fills with candy. And effusively decorated paper headbands and crowns to help little girls (and big ones) celebrate birthdays, communions and sometimes just themselves. (In fact, the crowns are incredibly popular and, at around $50, are about the most expensive thing Periwinkle sells.)
“Judy helped me to change my life,” a grateful Brook says today. “She encouraged me.”
Brook has repaid that encouragement in the past couple of years by “dressing up” the shop every few months with a paper confection fitted on a vintage dress form–now a Marie Antoinette-inspired gown, recently a lace and flowers spring dress, a “spring botanicals” gown–all fashioned from cut paper and bits of ribbon and artificial flowers (“We like to call them ‘permanent florals,’ ” Brook says with a grin). There have been paper butterflies, paper lace, paper just about everything.
People are noticing: Brook has been commissioned to do several seasonal gowns for the upscale Dupont Circle consignment boutique Secondi. She maintains scads of Pinterest bulletin boards–headdresses, masks, antlers(!). Some 2,900 people follow her, and her images have been “pinned” around 15,000 times.
“I’ve always collected paper,” Brook says. She figures out what to do with it later. Brook’s evolution probably wouldn’t surprise Mrs. Brugler, her first-grade teacher, who had Brook do seasonal bulletin boards with pieces of construction paper. Mrs. Brugler even lent her out to other classrooms to dress up the whole school.
With Mrs. Brugler starting her off young and Judy Philactos pushing her forward now, people are getting to see what Brook can do with bits and pieces of paper and lace the rest of us throw away.
Today it’s fanciful dresses in the windows of Periwinkle and Secondi. Tomorrow? “I’d love to do those big, elaborate displays, like what Anthropologie does.” Brook ‘s eyes are dancing. You know she sees in her mind exactly what kinds of confections she would come up with for them.