Photos courtesy of Sumiko Shimizu
The other day, I was lazily perusing my Facebook timeline — okay, I was studying it intently and clicking on every cute kitty-cat video that was coming through (did you see the cat and the returning war hero?) — and I saw a reference to Japanese soft-art maven Sumiko Shimizu. I had the great good fortune to interview her for a past issue of Teddy Bear & Friends, but like many features, I couldn’t showcase every thought or image she provided.
According to her current Facebook profile, she is a “former teddy bear artist,” which makes me rather sad. If she is no longer making teddy bears or their plush pals — she had a fantastic propensity for pigs — then I wish her well in whatever new venture she is pursuing. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom she cast before me!
Shimizu began her career as a teddy bear maker in 2007 or so. Residing in Tokyo, Japan, she was very much influenced by the goings-on and daily rituals of the mid Showa period of her nation’s history: “This is around 40 to 60 years ago in Japan, including local festivals, craftsmen, and traditional style. It is an older time but still underlying and remaining in our mind. I can say that much of my work reflects my country very much!”
In addition to reflecting some of the workers, citizens, and cultural aspects of her homeland, many of her characters keyed into the “cute factor” that defines much of what populates Japanese pop culture and anime. Remember, Japan is the nation that has launched a thousand Hello Kitty mascots and emojis. They do indeed know how to manufacture adorable!
“Teddy bears have become just like close friends for many children since their babyhood, even here in Japan. As a business world, the teddy bear is getting much more popular with adult females nowadays, but the number of adult males is very few compared with the western countries,” she reflected. “Of course, the teddy world is not eccentric! Adult collectors are playing an active part in it. I think people have been recognizing that the teddy bear is an art form rather than a hobby or toys,” she emphasized.
Many of Shimizu’s creations — cats, bears, pigs, and more pigs — have a gleeful, humorous aura. Their ability to radiate a fun-loving personality was all part of her master plan as a cheerful and cheerleading bear maker: “I just want to make people feel happy when they see my work. For that, I suppose that I, too, must feel happy during bear making. Actually, it does have a great healing effect. So, my message is ‘Enjoy, be happy!’”
In 2016, when I chatted with her, the artist was hoping to be able to incorporate a more vintage/nostalgic look into some of her work. “I’m attracted to old cloth and antique goods,” she stated. “I would like to obtain the skills to make bears matching such old things.”
Her creative process was a meticulous and hands-on one. “I make all my bears by hand-sewing, and I love to sew each of their parts before getting them together. I especially love making the potbellies! That is a great, fun creation,” she declared.
From the time she began to work her magic in 1997, up until my conversation with her nearly nine years later, Sumiko Shimizu had received global recognition with awards, ribbons, and honors. Her animals — dressed or bare, anthropomorphic or more naturalistic — were the recipients of trophies in the United States, Europe, Asia, and her own nation of Japan. Her work was upbeat and emotional — just what she had desired to do.