Distant cousins of the hugged-till-their-fur-wears-off stuffed toys, artist bears are very much a grown-up obsession. Handmade right down to their clothing and accessories, they have working joints, alligator-skin paw pads, and onyx eyes.
Thirty artists who create such beauties will have their works on display at this weekend's Kelly Dean International Gallery Show at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. The second annual event will attract hordes of bear-loving fans.
"We have customers with thousands of bears in their homes," says Diane Miller, owner of Bear Paths, an Ohio City gallery that boasts more museum-quality artist bears than any other shop in the world.
"One customer joked that she needed a 10-step program to recover from her addiction to bears."
Really a form of soft sculpture, artist bears range in size from several inches to several feet and can weigh up to 35 pounds. They're made of mohair or alpaca, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per yard. Their creators dress them in original designs sewn from Ultra Suede, recycled fur coats, and other fine fabrics, and stuff them with smooth glass beads or steel shot for weight. The artists also make the bears' teeth, claws, and any accessories the bears might be holding, such as baskets, purses, or fishing poles.
"I spend about 35 to 40 hours on each bear," says Kelly Dean, a bear artist who has a two-year waiting list for his painstaking work. "When I started creating an armature in my bears' arms, it was almost like building a skeleton. The wrists branch out into wire for the fingers and thumbs so that the bears can actually grasp things."
Dean's bears start at $585, but customers can shell out up to $5,000 for a 30-inch Christmas Bear, trimmed with white mink.
"It's sitting next to a handmade cart filled with porcelain dolls and other toys. And in his paws, the bear is holding jewelry made of pearls and other stones," says Dean.
The uniqueness of each bear contributes to its value.
"Almost all of my bears are one-of-a-kind," says Deby Henry, a bear artist who travels to 8 to 10 bear shows a year, including some in Switzerland and Germany. "Part of the artists' goal is to achieve their own 'look,' to some degree, so their work is distinctive to collectors."
But perhaps the real appeal is that the bears fulfill a childlike need for comfort.
"Some of our customers who have trouble sleeping at night -- maybe they have something on their mind -- log onto our website and spend some time looking at the bears," says Miller. "When they're done, they feel better, and they're relaxed enough to fall asleep."