Photos courtesy of Donna and the Bears
Well, when it comes to the arrival of spring, there are certainly excited whispers that float around Peter Cottontail’s imminent journey. Can’t you hear the expectations as the noble rabbit gets ready to spread his merriment and mischief — or whatever it is that he is preparing to hop, share, and leave behind? (Oooops, that doesn’t sound too precious, does it?) Though Peter might not be THE Easter Bunny, he is indeed the most famous cotton-tailed character out there. As I ponder about springtime and colorful eggs, bushytailed critters and happy characters, there is one particular bear artist that leaps into my mind. That artist is Donna Griffin, and it’s not unusual that a bear maker who labels herself “Donna And The Bears” should have a penchant for Peter and his cousins.
In fact, Griffin is always up for a challenge, and the months of March and April always give her an opportunity to dream up the most adorable and huggable bunnies this side of Mr. McGregor’s cabbage patch! When I’ve interviewed Griffin over the years, I’ve always been impressed by her positive energy and her can-do attitude. Part of that stems from her career in the U.S. Army, where she attained the rank of captain. While serving her country, she met her husband-to-be: “Travis Griffin was a Ranger instructor, while I was assigned as adjutant to the Florida Ranger Camp. We were fortunate to travel to many wonderful places together.”
Interestingly, one of the first bears that Griffin made was a fund-raiser for her husband’s headquarters in the 10th Special Forces Group: “I called it the ‘Green Bearet.’”
In 1996, Griffin took her creative energy and decided to take the plunge into the full-time bear world. Having owned her own calligraphy business, and also having earned an income as an art instructor and a watercolor portraitist, she had an inclination toward what was needed to survive in a crafty/artistic environment.
“As an artist, I have learned to SEE things. So often, life is full of activity that we fail to really see the little things and appreciate the beauty and majesty of life,” Griffin asserts. “I’ve been fortunate to have done lots of things in my life. I think one can bring creativity to any pursuit. I do believe life is a journey, and I can’t wait to see where it leads next. I am so overjoyed that it has led me to the bear, and the bunny, world!”
Before Griffin sits down to “birth” a character, she has to feel comfortable that she is about to usher forth the right creation. There isn’t a blueprint or a template that she follows — rather it is recognizing when the right mood and the right inspiration has struck.
“I am always making a bear or a bunny, either in my head or with my hands. I ‘visualize’ each piece before I begin to work. I write nothing down, and I make no preliminary drawings,” she explains. “When doing the gallery pieces, which are often quite involved, I have the picture in my mind and go about creating it. When I decide upon a theme or a ‘moment in time,’ I can see the scene in my head in its completion. Believe me, I add to my problem-solving skills at every turn.”
Thinking back on her early years, where she watched her skillful parents and grandparents — all of them multitalented and eager to impart their wisdom — Donna Griffin is confident that she has found the right niche for herself. She honestly cannot imagine an occupation that is more suited to her abilities and her upbringing.
All of her relatives were gifted with abilities in the visual and performance arts: poetry, prose, illustrating, painting, embroidery cooking. “I just knew these people could do anything, so I thought I could, too,” she shares candidly. And her very wise family encouraged her to show appreciation and respect for the toys that she received throughout the year: “Every year at Christmas when I was very young, I was told that I should dress my dolls and toys and make them look pretty. This way, Santa would know I took good care of them.”
That sense of gratitude and appreciation were sown in Griffin’s heart at a young age, and she has never lost sight of it. It is especially fierce and abundant when she reviews her life as an ursine (and bunny) artist.
“I aim to lead a life of compassion for all other humans and creatures. I’m a vegetarian, a ‘tree hugger,’ and a passionate advocate for animals and the planet. ‘Namaste’ is my silent mantra for all those I meet — roughly translated, ‘I honor the Spirit in you, which is also in me.’ All life is precious, and we should value it,” she affirms. “If my creations can drive home the impact of how precious animals are, then I have accomplished all I have dreamed of and more.”