Photos Courtesy of Barbara-Ann Bears
I’ve always adored chatting with married bear makers Barbara and Andy Cunningham. Barbara is the talented visionary behind Barbara-Ann Bears, and she and her spouse collaborate to create bears, bunnies, and even dragons that seem to have erupted from a person’s deepest wish list. The Cunninghams devise critters that can be kooky and crazy — psychedelic colors and groovy patterns and hues. They also can conjure up designs that are dignified and evocative of long-past eras.
Amazingly, the same pair that drummed up punk-rock-inspired characters also fashioned the staid, classically alluring bear that popped up time and again on “Downton Abbey.” Little Marigold, the illegitimate daughter of long-suffering Lady Edith, received a teddy bear companion from her foster mother, Mrs. Drewe. Rather a crusty, no-nonsense woman, the farm wife shows her softer side when she bestows the bear upon her tiny charge.
That vintage Teddy was made by the Cunninghams. It seems nearly impossible to reconcile that with their more outlandish, cutting-edge fabrications. Makepeace is one of their traditional creations, and it was used as the cuddle confidant of the poor little unsuspecting “heiress.”
Both Barbara and Andy have a flair for the dramatic, and it makes sense that their work would find kindred spirits behind the camera lens. They are movie and TV fans, and both Cunninghams adore animated characters and icons from beloved children’s programming of the 1960s and 1970s.
As a matter of fact, when Barbara was a young girl, she was an active, imaginative member of her Brownies troop. At the age of 10, she qualified for her toy-making badge. “I used to make knitted toys — rabbits and bears — and I remember sewing a Sooty glove puppet, which was from British TV. In those days, there were no books about bear making, just books on basic toy making,” she recalled. Through trial and error, Barbara figured out how to fashion a teddy bear from a kit, and then proceeded to create and adapt her own patterns. “Not having books to teach us, and being self-taught, has helped us create our own styles, and not be influenced by others,” Barbara stressed.
Also a born artist, Andy has been doodling and sketching since childhood. His mind has also gravitated to the plush realm from a very early age. Before he was able to speak, he was given a teddy bear pal. When his sisters asked him what he wanted to name the friend, he answered: “Agg-a-ger.” According to Andy, “Yes, ‘Agg-a-ger’ is how babies pronounce the name Agatha. Obviously, this is the first name that any incoherent baby would think of. She was a typical, pale-blond, jointed teddy bear. I just realized the other day, I could still remember the taste of the metal loops behind her eyes. That must be among my earliest memories, and it is probably why safety eyes were invented!” Andy humorously remarked. “I’ve drawn her, and I’m happy to share it with you,” he merrily added.
Stuffed animals played a huge role in Barbara’s toddlerhood, too. She had a sprawling menagerie, possibly a harbinger of her future, grown-up career. Among her hug were bears, bunnies, and exotic overseas species: “My first plush pet was actually a pram toy rabbit in blue-and-white art silk, joined soon afterward by a cream-and-brown teddy bear who has a sticky-out red tongue. Brown Teddy was as big as me, and considering my feet were huge, that’s big! I was a bit wide-eyed at first, but he is now much flatter! Miranda is a nylon Pedigree bear and Wonk a kangaroo-fur Koala from Australia, for that was where my nanny (my grandmother) lived. He got dragged out on a lead (a leash) a lot and now has knackered ears!”
The duo has a sincere and deep affection for the world of teddy bears and collectibles. They love conversing with their fans, followers, and other like-minded bear peers. “I do our Facebook and Instagram accounts,” Andy listed. “We keep in mind with folks that way. We also hear regularly from our collectors who e-mail us from time to time throughout the year from the States, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, and even a few in England.”
In addition to creating their own hypnotic artwork, and leading workshops to help aspring artists perfect or develop their techniques, the partners are tireless collectors as well. “Barbara has collected many artist bears, and she also collects old-ish English bears, Steiff cats, and pajama-case dogs,” Andy explained. “I collect whenever I see something really odd! Of course, Barbara likes odd things, too, but our tastes in oddness don’t always coincide.”
One of the reasons why they have been able to flourish in the bear world for nearly 30 years now — the first Barbara-Ann Bear debuted in November 1990 — is that they have an appreciation for the industry, and for each other. They have both found their niche in the bear marketplace, and they work to maximize their strenghts and abilities.
“We face each day knowing that there is bound to be an unexpected development,” Barbara stated. “Absolutely, it was unexpected that we would be making a bear for ‘Downton Abbey.’ It is something we wouldn’t have foreseen.”
Andy Cunningham has keen insight about why this business has succeeded and never runs out of cerebral steam. They are the little inspirational engines that can! “We both love the chance to be creative, and we both love that freedom of being self-employed,” he said. “We can do whatever we want, for there are no rules, no boss, no committees to run it by. If we need to visit the doctor/dentist/vet, we can just go. Of course, it’s very financially insecure and can be stressful. You have to live by your wits, by always being more creative, not doing the same thing over and over. There are definite similarities, but they’re all different.”
Barbara has the last, defining word: “We make bears that make collectors smile. They offer comfort and they offer solace. Our bears extend a paw to collectors’ hands in friendship. It is an honor to know our work has that emotional connection and to realize our collectors respond in such an emotional way.”