Teddy Bear Review senior contributor Stephanie Finnegan chats with Emily Farmer about crafts, kits, mini bears and big dreams, and the joy that chewing the fat with fans can bring.
During the preparation for this feature, Emily Farmer and her husband, Jack, celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. That’s quite an achievement, and anyone who has ever been married knows that a successful union depends on patience, good humor, empathy, determination and being able to focus on the whole picture—no matter how big or small the details might be.
Farmer is a champ at all of the above, and much of these sterling qualities are due to her career as a master miniaturist. As the artist jokingly reveals, “One lady sent me some e-mails and told me that she and her bear-making buddies call me the miniature teddy bear guru. How funny!”
Actually, that moniker is not too far off the mark. After more than a quarter of a century in the bear world, Farmer has helped to inspire a brood of aspiring bear makers via her wildly popular kits, her hands-on workshops at miniatures conventions and doll shows, and her willingness to talk with and communicate to fans and enthusiasts.
“Famous bear makers are approachable. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I know there are a few who are not easy to contact or don’t have time to engage in much conversation, but don’t be afraid to try. Even though there is an abundant amount of information out there, there still might be that one thing you need to ask someone with experience,” the forthright Farmer declares.
Creativity was a natural path for young Emily to follow. Born in 1955 and raised in the suburbs outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., the little girl grew up in a home surrounded by love, laughter and learning. “I am the middle child with two sisters. You can imagine our home was not quiet at all. My family memories are all warm and wonderful. My sisters and I always talk about how great our childhood was. No complaints other than it didn’t last long enough…we grew up!”
Farmer and her sisters did the typically “girly things,” including playing with dolls and having them parade about in fashion shows. The siblings were taught how to sew by their mother, who was a remarkable seamstress. “I was taught to sew when I was in the seventh grade,” Farmer reminisces. “I was so tall that it was hard to find dresses and jumpers long enough. The solution was to sew my own clothes. My mother was spectacular at this skill. She had to quit sewing when we were teenagers, due to an illness. It broke her heart to give up something she loved to do.”
In addition to soaking up knowledge at her mother’s knee, Farmer also observed her dad, and saw how important it was to be industrious, determined and risk-taking. Her father, a mail carrier, also had his own ornamental ironwork business. “I still marvel at the work he did,” she recounts today. “He made spiral staircases, all sorts of railings for porches and patios, archways for ponds and swimming pools. When my father would get home from work at the post office, he’d go to the shop and work there. Daddy was a hardworking man.”
Farmer followed in her dad’s footsteps and carved out a niche for herself as an artisan and a craftswoman. Never formally trained as an artist, she embodies the same need to use her hands and to express her inner visions as her parents.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve been stringing beads, coloring, painting, making doll clothes, doing all sorts of things. I have to always be doing something creative, and I want to master each craft that I attempt. Along the way, I’ve discovered a couple of crafts that are not my cup of tea. Knitting is one of those, and before I expire, I plan to learn how to knit!”
Besides her bear abilities, where she excels at conjuring up teeny-weeny teddies and itty-bitty kitties, Farmer has shone as a doll milliner and a jewelry designer. “Before I began making teddy bears, in 1981, I was a silversmith who cut stones and made all sorts of necklaces and bracelets and earrings. I sold my finished work at shows. This was back in the mid-1970s, and then I had my son, Charley, in 1978. I gave up the torch and the stone cutting then. When Charley was 3 years old, I made my first miniature teddy bear. Charley is now 29 years old, so you see I’ve been in bears for a long spell. I am always working with my hands, and I still do doll millinery and jewelry making.”
Build a Bear
Adept at creating original one-of-a-kind and limited-edition minis, Farmer has found her true forte with her bear-building kits. “I approach each kit design with this one basic thought: Is this a kit I would be excited to complete? If the kit isn’t appealing, it will not sell. Also, another ‘must’ business practice is helping my customers with their questions on techniques, and then being honest with my answers about sources. I know that there are certain people in the arts-and-crafts industry who won’t give out the information that would make it so much easier for the beginner. Sure, you could run into that person who is only after your secrets so they can jump on the bandwagon and do the very thing that you are successful at. But that’s a rare instance.”
Another maxim Farmer obeys is recognizing that the customer’s wants and desires should come first. Farmer’s favorite bears are the slim ones that mirror the early creations of American manufacturers and European companies. “Even though I prefer the slim antique-type bears, I offer just about every other style in my line of kits. I have to do that! Everyone is not partial to skinny bears, like I am. Maybe I like those thin teddies because I am definitely not skinny.”
Farmer sees the best in people, and she hopes she has imbued her creations and her kits with her warmth and beguiling personality. If she could wave a magic wand and “gift” her bears to anyone on the planet, the artist relates this heartwarming fantasy: “I would give my tiny bears to all the precious little ladies and men in nursing homes everywhere. This way, they could keep the little bears in their pockets. During the day when they are lonely, they could take the bears out and talk to them. It’s so much more portable than a large bear, and these little ones can be on your person all day!”
A businesswoman, an artist and a dreamer, Farmer has a satisfying and rewarding life. “It took me a while to realize that the teddy bear field is a serious business place. I’ve always had, and still have, a hard time thinking of myself as an artist. Perhaps it’s because I consider those that work on canvas—the traditional arts—as the true artists. Now I know different. Through history, so many artists have had tragedy and misery driving them to their genius. Not me! I am very joyful and have peace in my heart. There is no misery here.”