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Strokes of Genius PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Finnegan   
Friday, 01 August 2008 00:00

Teddy Bear Review senior contributor Stephanie Finnegan canvasses the bear world to find enterprising artists and their unique artistic impressions.

When a bear artist feels compelled to try her hand at an alternative to a traditional teddy bear, where does she turn for a muse? The answer, surprisingly, is not very far from her studio’s workspace. The preferred model is usually a snuggly, cuddly teddy or a sleek, majestic bear. In their new incarnations, however, they are carved on wood, painted on canvas, colored on paper or airbrushed on jackets—the variations are endless. Teddy Bear Review had the privilege to chat with several well-known bear luminaries who moonlight as artists with distinctive, personalized voices.

“My boxes vary in size from 3 inches to 12 inches. All are different shapes and different materials, as well as hinged or lidded,” Donna Armstrong explains. “My miniature boxes can be found online for $10 to $30.”Donna Armstrong, Brandon Bears

Fort Worth, Texas, artist Donna Armstrong has been making mohair bears since 2000. Her love for decorative painting dates back even further, to around 1978. For two decades, she has been perfecting the technique of tole painting (the folk art of decorating tin and wooden utensils, objects and furniture; tables, chairs, toy boxes, jewelry boxes and chests are among some of the household, common objects painted in this style). When Armstrong lived in California, she began taking lessons in this technique, and when she migrated to Texas, she continued studying via books and plenty of trial-and-error. “Mind you, all of this was done while I raised four kids and a husband!” the artist chuckles. “My painted boxes are inspired by my love of all things teddy and also Brandon, my son.”


Armstrong began to paint miniature boxes two years ago as gifts for friends and also to hold tiny treasures, like miniature crocheted and fabric bears. “I paint both inside and out, and some of the boxes are covered with layers of tissue for texture, while others are stained or painted with several layers of acrylic paints. Different media are used for crackled, old and worn looks.”


Knowing that these boxes can contain itty-bitty bears, she spends time lining and decorating the insides for teddy bear comfort. “The love I put into each of my painted boxes is a continuation of my passion for the remarkable teddy.”

Edie Barlishen, Bears by Edie

Edie Barlishen doesn’t consider herself a trained artist, though she did take some drawing and painting classes years ago. She has always had a “crafty” bent to her personality, and through perseverance and persistence she has excelled in all manner of artistic outlets. A triple threat, Barlishen has earned kudos for her ursine interpretations in T-shirt, coaster and tile forms.


Edie Barlishen relished the chance to channel her energies in other ursine directions. Using her imagination and her attention to detail, the bear artist created T-shirts, coasters and tiles that celebrate the joy of teddy bears. The tiles are available for purchase at for her charming teddy creations, she took the familiar features of a bear and translated them into unexpected places. “Stepping outside of my traditional bear making was a lot of fun,” she shares. “Having a teddy shirt to wear to a bear occasion is a great boon, and I even had a jacket screen-printed for when I do shows.”


Since Barlishen makes her teddy bears to be bought by collectors, she has a special attachment to her other artistic avenues. “I keep very few of my own bears, so it is nice to have a visual representation of some of them. I have really enjoyed the stretching and learning experience of trying bear art. I hope to have more opportunities to do so in the future!”

Michelle Lamb, One&Only Bears

Collectors quickly sweep up Michelle Lamb’s one-of-a-kind creations. Her stationery versions of her popular designs make them accessible to a wider audience.Michelle Lamb is an aptly named artist. Gentle of nature and sweet in disposition, she fashions bears that are soulful and delicate, docile and serene. Lamb has enjoyed booming business on the Internet, and with that technological vehicle, she has stumbled across another conduit for her creative juices.


“Online, great photography is key in capturing my bears’ appeal,” Lamb notes. “Many of my bears look great with storybook settings, alongside props and accessories. I thought that it would be great to take advantage of the extra effort I make in photography by having greeting cards printed up on nice cardstock.”


Lamb prints these stationery offerings in a variety of sizes and sells them as sets or gives them as premium gifts to her collectors. “Since I make only one-of-a-kind bears, I’ve found that reproducing the images helps my art to get noticed, even after they’ve been adopted and settled into their new homes.”

Judi Paul, Luxembears

“I wanted to make paw print images on wooden pendants to hang around my bears’ necks,” Judi Paul shares. That’s how she learned the art of wood burning. Paul has plied her skill on boxes and on plaques. Pictured here is a wall hanging of an adorable polar bear cub.Award-winning, crowd-pleasing bear artist Judi Paul loves a challenge. She is not happy unless she is ushering something new and original into the world. “I need to be creative on a daily basis,” she affirms. “If life gets too hectic and keeps me away from my art, I have a withdrawal.” Paul flexes her musing muscles with forays into wood burning and airbrushing. “From time to time, I break away from sewing, because I do love to draw. I describe wood burning as ‘drawing in slow motion.’ When you use a 950-degree tool, you need to move slowly over the wood to burn each tiny detail of the image accurately.”


Through discipline and determination, Paul has evolved into a first-rate “wood burner,” but her first love remains airbrushing. “I’ve airbrushed many, many denim jackets with anything from unicorns to tigers to Marilyn Monroe. The jackets take me many hours to complete. How many exactly? I couldn’t tell you. I have so much fun that I never keep track of time.”

Christine Pike, Christine Pike Bears

“The Canadian Inuit are famous for their ‘dancing polar bear.’ Each artist has his or her own style, but the bear is usually represented balancing on one foot. The opposite forepaw is outstretched. I’ve tried to create a form from clay that acknowledges the Inuit tradition and expresses my own Western perspective,” Pike states.“I am fascinated as to what the bear represents in other cultures and how it is depicted,” admits inventive and innovative bear artist Christine Pike. When she’s not making her world-renowned bears, Pike is exploring creative outlets such as illustrating whimsical bear escapades, making jewelry and sculpting.


A proud Brit, Pike is aware of her nation’s history and the way other countries helped to shape its character. She has studied the influence the Vikings have had on the British Isles. “It’s hard to find representations of bears from that period, so I have used a bit of artistic license to create something that might have been worn at the time. I always wear one of my pendants, and I’m frequently stopped and asked, ‘Where did you get it?’ They appeal to men just as much as women, which I’m very pleased about,” Pike observes.


Additionally, Pike sculpts bears in the style of other ethnicities: for instance, the Canadian Inuit. “They are famous for their stone carvings and, in particular, for their ‘dancing polar bear.’ For the Inuit, the dancing bear represents total freedom, power and a shamanic transformation. The Western idea of a dancing bear is more negative. My little sculptures are an attempt to restore the bears’ dignity.”

Jessica Van Antwerp, Van Antwerp Bears

“Coming up with enchanting characters, plus painting or drawing, has been a part of my life for years,” Jessica Van Antwerp of Van Antwerp Bears firmly states. “I am very pleased to finally bring my first children’s book, The Littlest Hero, and my artwork to the public.” A businesswoman and a dreamer—a formidable combination—Van Antwerp is optimistic about launching her venture into children’s literature, along with the inevitable tie-ins.


The Littlest Hero by Jessica Van Antwerp is the starting-off point for her adventuresome storybook bears. The fantastical forest creatures are also spun off on note cards, mugs, T-shirts and other picture-book-inspired items.“I have captured some of the main characters in colored pencil and watercolor so that they can be collected on note cards, mugs, T-shirts and other fun, inexpensive products. Although I sell my original artwork all the time, not everyone is in the market for an original painting.”


Van Antwerp’s book is intended for a juvenile audience, but she hopes the tale will have crossover appeal to parents, grandparents and the always curious bear collectors. The critters she has cultivated for her text and her quirky pictures are quite familiar to her: They’ve been frolicking in her subconscious for a long time. “Yes, these bears have been living in my head and soul for years. The art of the bear has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. To share my work with the public through my teddy bears, and now my book and illustrations, has been a blessing indeed.”