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Written by Stephanie Finnegan   
Thursday, 01 February 2007 00:00

R. John Wright goes full-steam ahead with his “Bears-At-Sea.”


An artist is a lot like an explorer. At the start of the day, he sits down and sets out to navigate uncharted courses. Sailing through his memories, climbing to the pinnacle of his hidden self and finally planting a flag of achievement, a creative soul forges toward new and exciting territories on a daily basis.


R. John Wright’s “Bears-At-Sea” are a bevy of handsome seafaring characters that combine historical realism and soaring imagination. Each character is limited to 250 pieces worldwide. The captain, the bosun and the admiral stand 22 inches, 21 inches and 23 inches, respectively.Combining the courage of Christopher Columbus and the unfettered imagination of Thomas Edison, a bear maker has to challenge himself to invent original characters, unique settings and audience-pleasing artistry. It’s a balancing act: being true to one’s personal compass, while also branching out in directions that collectors want to follow.


R. John Wright’s “Bears-At-Sea” are a marvelous hybrid of a personal penchant and a public passion. Wright is a self-described seafaring enthusiast, growing up on a steady diet of mariner movies and books.


“Obviously, pirates and sailors represent a danger and adventure that is missing in day-to-day modern living. Unlike science fiction, seafaring adventures are things that are based in historical reality, and there is also an element of nostalgia associated with them,” Wright observes. “It certainly represents a much simpler time when it was easier to tell the good guys from the bad.”


As a young boy, Wright fell under the spell of exciting, adventuresome yarns. He was mad for anything penned by Robert Louis Stevenson or Rudyard Kipling. “I grew up watching Disney movies and among my favorites was Treasure Island, which was actually Disney’s first foray into live-action films,” he says. “Following that, I was really taken with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.


"Bear Captain" by R. John Wright“Another favorite from that time was The Swiss Family Robinson and the unforgettable shipwreck that begins the story. All of these films made a big impression on me that has lingered to this day. On a related note, the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ attraction at Disney World is still my favorite ride!”


Knowing how vital a role escapism played in his youth, Wright has fashioned a series of nautical bears that embody bygone bravery and “spit and polish” crispness. His bears are a fascinating example of meticulous research meshed with creative license.


“The ‘Bears-At-Sea’ costumes broadly represent naval uniforms established in the mid-19th century,” Wright says. “We researched American and British uniforms from the same period and incorporated elements of both.


“The earliest American uniforms borrowed directly from their British counterparts and they are very similar. Later, American uniforms took on more of their own individual characteristics. Since we based ours on earlier uniforms, they appear generally British. However, as a fantasy series, we didn't want them to be specifically or historically accurate. It corresponds to the way that we didn’t want the bears themselves to be too realistic, either.”


The initial three bears that have set off to see the world are a “Captain,” “Bo-Sun” and “Admiral.” Though they have the trappings of a maritime crew, they are still very much irresistible teddy bears. That was a deliberate tack. “From the start, we wanted to guard against overcostuming the bears. I think when bears are fully dressed, they become more like dolls with animal heads. We definitely wanted to avoid that. These are bears, but with a nautical twist. They have just enough clothing and accessories to define them.”


The plumage, the epaulets, the stripes, the braiding, the brass buttons—these all spell out dedication and fearlessness. Though there is an element of being cuddly and gentle to the bears, a collector knows that these characters are also noble and proud. “A backstory about this trio would have been fun to do, but we decided that collectors may enjoy creating their own stories in relation to the characters. We wanted to have them be open to interpretation.”


A lot of effort and energy goes into fashioning a “Bear-At-Sea.” From creating the legs and detailing the paws, to assembling the costuming, the naval bears go through solid and intense inspection.Wright’s decision to launch the “Bears-At-Sea” began in a rather hands-on manner. He picked up a pair of antique brass binoculars that was residing on his bookshelf, and the rest of their future was soon mapped out!


“I’ve had these for many years standing on a shelf in our library,” he shares. “One day, we were mulling over the possibility of designing a bear in a sailor suit. I immediately thought of the antique binoculars reproduced in miniature as a perfect bear accessory. Suddenly, one thing led to another and...the ‘Bears-At-Sea’ were begun.


“I have an antique hat collection and among it is a marvelous admiral’s hat, complete with bullion epaulets. What we created for the ‘Bear Admiral’ is a small replica, fully lined and constructed like the original antique. The same is true of the captain’s hat. For the bosun, a child’s vintage sailor shirt provided the inspiration.”


At press time, Wright had no intention to add any more crewmembers to the “Bears-At-Sea.” Teddy Bear Review suggested some patient, lovely fiancée bears, anxiously awaiting the return of their men from their jaunts across the ocean. Or, we suggested, perhaps a colorful and vibrant female figurehead bear? Wright enjoyed the possibilities offered, and amended that he “never likes to say never.”


The interest afforded this grouping of bears pleases Wright immensely. Since there was so much personal investment into its origin, he is delighted that the public has connected to its look and allure. “The series has been extremely popular, and we intend to keep the editions small as originally planned, at 250 pieces per style. We know collectors will be even more thrilled with their purchase knowing that the number produced is extremely small and exclusive.”


Wright will celebrate 2007 with the release of a pirate roster of bears, and this ragtag group of “sea dogs” and buccaneers will keep him active possibly into 2008. It’s a life that Wright could only have imagined when he was thumbing through his dog-eared copy of Captains Courageous.


“Like most children, I dreamed of a life apart from my real life,” Wright says. “If only Peter Pan would come tapping at my bedroom window! The fortunate thing for both my wife, Susan, and myself is that in some way we managed to continue to live out these wonders from childhood by virtue of our work. This in itself is a constantly changing adventure filled with the imagery from our childhoods!”