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Written by Robin Ruinsky   
Thursday, 01 February 2007 00:00

Sheryl D’Ath’s bears express curiosity and creativity.

Sheryl D’AthThe moment you see a Sheryl D’Ath bear, you know you’ve come upon something extraordinary. The expressive, alive, sculpted and hand-painted visages of these bears have led them to new homes the moment they are posted on D’Ath’s website.


D’Ath has always been creative. She has made dolls using everything from porcelain to clay, as well as using the soft-sculpture techniques she now applies to her bears. Eleven years ago, feeling the need for a new direction, the New Zealand artist decided to try her hand at making a teddy bear.


“Bears are, and I think always will be, a part of our lives at some stage. I never had one as a child, though.” Not worrying that she hadn’t owned a childhood bear, D’Ath began to boldly create bears under the banner of Bells Stuff. (Bells is her husband’s nickname for her.)


“Cubby” is a 19-inch tall mohair bear that has the signature needle-sculpted face that D’Ath’s bears are known for.Soon she was working on what has become a signature look. “I had been making soft-sculptured dolls for years, but wanted my artwork to last longer than stocking fabrics. Mohair bears seem to last generations. I have always sewn and sculpted and painted, so here was a product that involved all that I loved.”


These are not your traditional teddy bears. The detailed needle-sculpted faces are all different. The openmouthed bears have teeth. Each bear is an individual with its own set of features and distinct personality.


Where did the artist get this look that has so distinguished her bears? Her answer might surprise you.


“My poodles are my models. They are very used to having me peer at their beautiful faces. I want a realistic look that shows feeling and emotions without looking like a taxidermy animal. I try to change slightly each face to get a new look.”


Spiked like his namesake, the hedgehog, “Hedgie” is 12 inches tall, but there is no sting in his fun-loving personality.D’Ath’s adored pooches, Baron, Jessie and Sassy, are her muses, but how did she bring together all the techniques that make her bears so clearly her own? “I am always thinking about colors and textures for the next bear while working on a bear. But the faces often are different because when needle sculpting, depending where you put the needle or position the eyes, the look will change. The same goes for hand painting, and nose shape and size. I now hand sculpt each nose from polymer clay. The exciting thing is that even I really don’t know what the end result will be!”


It isn’t just collectors who have taken notice of Sheryl D’Ath’s work. Artists have as well. Jean Olsen, known for her own unique approach to bears, says of Bells Stuff bears: “I find her bears to be some of the most unique and original that I have ever seen. Not only do they have totally charming faces, they are exquisitely crafted, with great attention to every tiny detail from head to toe. Sheryl's bears are just full of character and personality...a wonderful reflection of Sheryl's own lovely personality. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my latest Bells Stuff bear as I tell you this!”


“Lily” is an 11-inch tall  bear made of silky white mohair.Australian artist Jo Duckworth says of Sheryl D’Ath’s creations: “I appreciate and admire Sheryl's needle-sculpting technique, but most importantly I am intrigued by the comfort and understanding I find in Sheryl's work.”


Duckworth went on to say that the bears look as though they have been captured in midthought. This is a very interesting observation and so true, because when you look at the faces of the bears, you do wonder what they are thinking.


A part of the bear artist’s life is attending shows and meeting fellow artists and the collectors. But for D’Ath, shows haven’t been a big part of exhibiting her work. “I have been to bear shows in New Zealand and one in Sydney, Australia. Although I really love meeting people, I have a terrible phobia of crowds! I found myself hiding most of the time and going outside to stop the tremors and cold sweats. My daughter or husband were left to run the stand most of the time. I even have trouble visiting shows because of the crowds and noise.”


D’Ath is lucky, though, that we live in the Internet age, where communication can be done in a whole new way. Bears can be seen online, and while for some people it might not be the same as seeing an artist and bear in person, it is still a great way to show the work to the world.


“Panda” is a combination of the traditional panda color and pattern, with the Sheryl D’Ath style.“I am very grateful for the Internet, where I have so many friends and collectors I can talk to daily. I do have collectors visit me at my home now and have a beautiful apartment for them to stay in (attached to my house) if they come from a distance away.”


The artist's home on the East Coast of North Island, New Zealand, is an idyllic setting for her creativity and musing. “We spend a lot of time on our deck looking out over a tidal river, which we can throw a stone in. We can see across some lovely reserve, to the ocean. We can actually watch dolphins swim past on occasions. I am so fortunate to be able to work from home in this wonderful environment. We live on fish and shellfish. It’s a great life!”


D’Ath’s husband, Jeff, said that he is the reason that she is so passionate about bears. “He has been a workaholic and has had so many hobbies all our married life,” D’Ath explains. “He is a Volly Fireman and was a Volly Coastguard. Motor racing, fishing. You name it, he got involved. He said if I hadn’t been alone so much, I would have never gone this far! He does, of course, forget I had a registered salon at home for years, reared three daughters and now babysit my grandsons. More likely it was a need for something purely for my relaxation and sanity that kept me involved with bears. The quiet time has been useful for thinking and finding solutions for solving family problems. Of course, it has also given me an identity and helped gain self-worth.”


D’Ath’s three daughters, Nicci, Gina and Tammy, have given her encouragement and support. Gina, her middle daughter, designs and runs the Bells Stuff website. One very noticeable feature of her website is that rarely is there a bear available. The minute they are posted, they are sold. Creating bears gave D’Ath a renewed self-confidence. And though she describes herself as “animal crazy,” creating other animals holds little interest for her. Her heart is with her bears.


Collectors are often heard to comment that it is the face of a bear that they connect with. It is the face that calls to them and tells them they must have this bear in their lives. The unique, whimsical and expressive faces of Sheryl D’Ath’s bears call out to collectors globally. From her native New Zealand, to Australia, to the USA, the UK, Germany and Singapore, the call of the wild, to bring a Sheryl D’Ath creation home, is heard worldwide.