Eric Dowdle — painter, puzzle maker and the star of the Magnolia Network series “The Piece Maker” — defies the common perception of an artist.

By looks alone, he could pass for a withdrawn, mysterious and aloof creative genius, with his large glasses, salt-and-pepper hair and understated clothing.

But as soon as he speaks, both on screen and in person, it becomes clear that Dowdle, 55, has no interest in navel-gazing, and abundant interest in other people — where they live, what they do and how they live their lives. This extroverted fascination with the lives of others drives the art he creates and the puzzles made from that art.

His puzzles are so popular they can be found in roughly 5 million homes and counting, and Dowdle has become a celebrity of sorts on popular streaming platforms.

Every episode of “The Piece Maker” features Dowdle visiting a different location — Alaska, Hawaii, San Francisco, the Outer Banks, New York, Miami, New Orleans and southern Utah. He visits each of these places in preparation to paint them, and eventually, to turn that painting into a puzzle. 

In the age of Google Images and Wikipedia, some might consider travel an unnecessary and expensive step in the puzzle-making process. But Dowdle explains there’s a large gulf between his renderings of places he’s only seen online and those places where he’s seen the sights for himself. Met the people. Tasted the food. The key to his success both as an artist and as a puzzle maker, he says, is having an experience at each of the places he paints.

“The Piece Maker,” available for streaming on HBO Max and Discovery+, documents each of those experiences: Dowdle enthusiastically trying bagels and lox, screaming as he flies a motorized chair in the sky and listening with rapt attention to the owners of a coffee bean farm explaining their production process, for a beverage he, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, doesn’t even drink.

At the conclusion of each visit, Dowdle sketches the people he’s met, the food he’s tried and the experiences he’s had in his folk art interpretation of the town.

Folk art is rarely seen in galleries alongside modern works or Renaissance classics. It’s not the kind of art one tilts their head at and ponders while eating cheese and sipping wine. But the folk art created by Eric Dowdle, and the puzzles made from that art, demonstrate the importance of making art literally for the people. And why doing so matters.

Eric Dowdle speaks after unveiling a giant puzzle he made for Herriman City, commissioned by Friends of Herriman and paid for by community sponsors and businesses, at W & M Butterfield Park in Herriman on Saturday, May 6, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

I met Dowdle at his Lindon studio, where he promptly whisked me through the warehouse’s retail space, back to where his team of artists sat painting, a giant puzzle looming behind them on the wall. He immediately noticed a piece out of place — the piece featuring his high school art teacher, the late Rudy Gunter. He held the piece up, smiled and placed it back in its rightful place.

Dowdle tells me he believed he was Gunter’s favorite student of all the Wyoming high schoolers he taught. Or at least he believed that until he learned that every other student of Gunter’s believed they were his favorite.

Nearly every question I ask him during our 90-minute interview elicits a response that includes the importance of art education in schools. The arts, he tells me, foster creativity. Not every student will become a painter, a musician or a dancer. Very few will. But many will end up in professions that require idea generation and problem-solving. “It’s all creative,” he says.

It’s clear Gunter had a profound impact on Dowdle’s life trajectory. “He was like a second father to me,” he says. Then he’s quick to add that his actual father was also great, as was his mother. Together they raised 12 children on their Wyoming farm. It was a perfect childhood, surrounded by the chaos of nine older siblings and two younger, he says. It was in that chaos that Dowdle developed a love for stories and storytelling that now drives his art.

He initially approached art as a competition, having given up his childhood hopes of becoming a professional basketball player. “Art was just something I could do and I wasn’t smart enough to know that you could fail,” he said. He saw the world differently from his siblings. “I’d see shapes. I saw angles. I saw math in art.”

Dowdle stops short of admitting he has a natural gift for art. But others familiar with his work say he’s second to none. Marty Patch, founder and executive producer of Monument, the production company behind “The Piece Maker,” recalls when he saw Dowdle unveil a completed piece for the first time. “You’re just like, whoa,” he said. “Aside from all of Eric’s other talents, he’s just an incredible artist.”

Eric Dowdle visits Alaska for his Magnolia Network program “The Piece Maker” and sketches sled dogs. | Magnolia Network

Dowdle says he finished high school with a scholarship offer from the Chicago Institute of Art, but chose instead to attend what was then known as Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) to, as he says, meet girls. He left to learn art the old-fashioned way — painting all day every day.

In the early ’90s, he went door to door offering to create paintings of homes and eventually dove into the world of folk art. He tells the stories common to artists: of barely making ends meet, of selling a painting moments before arriving at complete financial ruin. It was not a sustainable model for supporting his wife at the time and their two children (Dowdle later had a third child with his third wife).

Then, in 1997, he decided to try making his paintings into puzzles. “It was an opportunity to get the art in front of more people,” he tells me. “Some people can’t afford $50 or $100 for a print,” he explains. “And back then, puzzles were 10 bucks. So for $10, you could have an art experience.” 

His first puzzle was terrible, he says, but it was an image of something that he felt mattered — a pioneer quilt, which stood out on the puzzle shelves, compared to the images of trees and skies most puzzle companies were selling. He had the puzzle manufactured and sold it to grocery stores. “Everything was a gamble. I had nothing but hope and prayer,” Dowdle says.

But the gamble started to pay off when he found success painting places, and finding ways to sell puzzles to people who had never before bought puzzles. He sold puzzles of the cities these people loved, and the things they loved to do in those cities. Red Sox fans would buy a Boston puzzle featuring Fenway Park, for example, even if they had never purchased a puzzle before. This strategy was so effective, and his puzzles so well-loved, that he eventually landed a contract with Costco. 

With success came more travel to various locations, which took a toll on his marriage. After 20 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. And the high cost of manufacturing and a few missed deadlines caused some financial trouble for Dowdle’s company, and one day he found himself in significant debt. 

So he decided to take a chance on television.

Dowdle shot a pilot for a travel show with two of his friends in Cancun. It was, as he describes it, unwatchable. But Patch, who worked for Cosmic Pictures at the time, saw the pilot and recognized Dowdle’s potential. Together Patch and Dowdle reformatted the show, making Dowdle the lone star, and called it “Painting The Town.”

“Painting The Town,” which premiered in 2015, featured Dowdle traveling to locations all over the world and meeting with the people who live in those locations, then creating a painting of the place. The show ran on PBS for one season.

At the time, Dowdle was hosting the radio program “Traveling with Eric Dowdle” on KBYU radio. KBYU knew Dowdle and liked “Painting The Town,” so they licensed the show, which ran for two more seasons. 

“Painting The Town” never featured the puzzle aspect of Dowdle’s work.

But then puzzles had their shining moment in 2020. Many people turned to puzzles to pass the time in lockdown. Patch realized there was potential to make a show about the artist who happened to be one of the world’s greatest puzzle makers. Jessica Patch — his wife and Monument cofounder — had initial hesitation but ultimately grew to love the idea. So they pitched it to executives at Magnolia Network, who also loved it.

Eric Dowdle visits North Carolina for his Magnolia Network program “The Piece Maker” and prepares to fly in a trike. | Magnolia Network

Filming required grueling 12-hour days of shooting, nonstop travel and packed itineraries over nearly a year as Dowdle and the crew visited eight locations for Dowdle to paint and turn into puzzles. It was a schedule taxing enough to exhaust anyone, but the Patches tell me that Dowdle showed up every morning enthusiastic and ready to work. 

“Eric is passionate, and that passion never dims,” Marty tells me. “Eric is there to inhale the soul of a place.” Jessica explains Dowdle becomes best friends with everyone he meets in the cities he visits and immerses himself in the experiences in each place. “He has this boyish enthusiasm, this, like, childish excitement about stuff that’s palpable, and he jumps in with both feet, immersing himself in that world right away,” Marty says. “He’s truly the perfect host,” Jessica adds.

The Patches tell me it’s not just Dowdle’s work ethic, artistic talent and the long list of new best friends that they admire. They also respect his innate understanding of business. “You have to figure out how to monetize your art,” Jessica explains. “I think it’s incredible that Eric has been able to do this.”

Dowdle’s art has received hundreds of awards and hung in galleries. But he believes he sits on the lowest rung of the art world ladder, both for being a folk artist and a puzzle maker. 

Dowdle, however, gets recognition in a different — some might argue better — form. Letters from a grandma who spent time with each of her grandchildren doing a puzzle over Christmas. Letters from her grandchildren thanking Dowdle for the time they were able to spend with her before she passed. And thank-you’s from the people who love the places Dowdle paints. 

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Dowdle has had his own moments of connection over puzzles. His daughter confessed her first kiss while completing a puzzle with her dad. “When we do a puzzle, our guard goes down and we start to talk openly. Before you get married, do a puzzle.”

These connections reinforce Dowdle’s belief, and company motto — no missing piece.

In celebration of America’s 250th anniversary, Dowdle is creating giant puzzles of towns all across the country. When he unveils the puzzles in a town ceremony, he has citizens who live there place pieces to complete the picture, symbolizing the importance of every individual in a community. “When it comes to puzzles, if you have a missing piece, it’s like the worst thing in the world,” Dowdle says. “The whole puzzle isn’t done without one piece.

“We celebrate the individual,” Dowdle tells me. “You fit where you fit and if you don’t fit, you’ll find a place.”

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