January 28th 2011 - Beth Herman
Ten years ago, you’d have found me in my Charlottesville art studio, nestled within a pink building memorialized by Dave Matthews (a tenant early in his career) in his iconic song "The Warehouse," slathering oil paint on canvases. I was composing portraits of my faithful models—teddy bears.
I came late to painting. Ten years before, already in my late 30’s, and in the midst of a successful sales career, the impulse purchase of a child’s paint set in a museum pop-up shop inspired tracing my hand and layering color inside the fingers. This led to drawing classes, painting workshops followed. Long on creativity, but spatially challenged, my poor drafting skills prompted one of my teachers to suggest setting up still-lifes at home for practice.
That teacher was probably referring to a series of stout jugs, thin necked wine bottles, and perhaps a vase, in the spirit of Giorgio Morandi. Maybe some hand-held fruits on a wooden table, after Cezanne. But in true nonconformist fashion (“I’ve only ever had one other student who saw things the way Beth does,” another teacher once told my husband), after painting a series of canvases each featuring a single shoe, I turned my attention to teddy bears. By January 2011, I had been painting bears for eight years.
To me, my bear portraits appeared deep and complicated, expressing a past possessed of more turmoil than the average teddy deserves. Bears repeatedly thrown against the wall by an agitated toddler, teddys as the objects of tug-of-war between siblings who pulled until the stitches connecting shoulder and torso weakened, or the treasured keepsakes stolen and hidden by a jealous older sister.
A friend once generously described them as soulful. Now, I see that the faces covering my canvases, posters, and cards simply appear sad. Whether playing golf, fishing, or dancing, the lines beneath the bears’ little snouts all drop downward.
My successful sales career provided the confidence and know-how to market my work. Ten years ago today, I was likely packing up for a solo show at one of Charlottesville’s many cafes or coffee houses, or preparing my wares for display on a rented table at a local crafts fair. Probably checking in by phone with the proprietors of the card and gift stores, or children’s boutiques that were selling my greeting cards. Whatever the feedback—we’ll take more, or they’re not really selling, they don’t quite fit—my reaction was complicated and intense. When a store manager rejected my cards, when a crafts fair customer walked away empty-handed, when a Richmond hotel gift shop returned the stack of my teddy bear books, I felt rejected, crushed, heartbroken.
Who knew teddy bears could summon such complicated emotions? I see now what I could not comprehend ten years ago: the bears are a metaphor for a larger personal narrative, clearly representing a certain stab at recapturing lost youth.
Last week in our storage room, where I’d gone to purge old files, I came across the remnants of my output from 2011. Boxes and boxes of cards and canvases created by the BearPainter.
SantaBear, in his red velvet suit with white woolen collar, makes a lovely holiday greeting. In the spring, You Oughta Be in Pictures, with one golfing bear preparing to swing while being photographed by his teddy buddy, welcomes the warm weather. First Position Barely, celebrates a tutu clad teddy bear mastering the basics of ballet.
Re-discovering my work as the BearPainter in January 2021, I’m surprised at how skillfully the bears are painted, how much feeling they convey, and how original the idea, infusing an innocent childhood symbol with complex emotion.
I still sometimes send the cards, especially over the last 10 months, during our Covid-forced isolation. Before inscribing and preparing one for an old-fashioned snail mail journey, I employ a few swipes of a black Sharpie, adding an upward tick to my teddy bear frowns.
Many of the recipients did not know me ten years ago, registering surprise when I tell them that I am the card’s creator. I then sometimes share some part of my artist story. Omitting origins rooted deeply in an uneven childhood, asserting itself on canvas.
Today, amid a devastating pandemic and serious political and cultural unrest, I look at the paintings and feel grateful. My bears, which once summoned such sadness, have the ability to contribute some small joy during our unkind time—to both their creator and recipient.
Beth Herman is an artist, essayist and museum docent. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Moment Magazine, Bella, and on NPR. She is the author/illustrator of two children’s books, You, Me, and Mr. Moopoo Makes Three and Mr. Moopoo in the Kitchen. You can read more of her essays on her blog: releasethebeast.home.blog