Karen Lyons’ realistically rendered cats, and bears, make collectors purr and purchase.
“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this,” an anonymous wise person once said. Perhaps it is their enigmatic aura that has captured the fascination of humans for untold centuries. It’s what inspired soft-sculpture artist Karen Lyons, of KJ Lyons Design, to start creating cats.
“Cats are mysterious and beautiful. I see every cat as an individual personality,” she says. “I like the many varieties of cats and their wonderful kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. They have very elusive and expressive faces.” She says she could design a different cat every day of the year, if it were possible, and never duplicate one.
And just how does Lyons achieve incredibly lifelike results with her cats? She uses her clay sculptures as a template to design her patterns. She also creates adjustable eye sockets, so that she can manipulate the expressions on the cats’ faces.
“So much of a cat’s expression is in the eyes,” she explains. “The trick to creating a realistic-looking cat is getting the negative spaces just right in the face, and the only way to achieve that is by using soft-sculpture techniques.” A final trick Lyons employs to make you wonder if her cats are living and breathing creatures: she uses white or cream-colored fur on nearly all of them and hand colors the coat patterns and markings.
Lyons hasn’t always created cats, though. Her sculpting career began when she was just six years old—she created a series of paper bird sculptures. “My second-grade teacher was amused,” she remembers. And it obviously didn’t end there. Karen Lyons spent 20 years studying classical clay sculpture.
“I finally found my true calling with soft sculpture. I love the warmth, detail and personality that are possible with soft sculpture,” Lyons says. For the past 18 years, the artist has been attending to her true passion, creating all kinds of soft-sculpture animals. She worked much of this time as a freelance soft-sculptor for well-known companies.
“I’ve become known as ‘the designer for unusual things,’” she reveals. She designed most of the toys for the Pee-wee Herman Show—“Chairry the Talking Chair” and “Pterry the pterodactyl,” among others. She also worked with a company, creating animatronic animals. She made the skin that went over the animals. Several of the animals were bought by Disney and displayed in amusement parks.
“Since then I have continued on this path, creating my own realistic and character animals. My special favorites are my cats and kittens,” she says. But Lyons also creates bears: There’s a realistic polar bear named “Nanova,” a large grizzly called “Nulki,” and a 19-inch grizzly, “Nakoda.” She’s won two TOBY Awards, a Ted Award, four Golden Teddy Award nominations and a TITA nomination—for her cats and bears.
And it’s not only the people who give awards who are taking notice of Lyons’ work. She’s got a cadre of dedicated collectors who are equally enamored. In fact, Lyons considers her collectors the most rewarding aspect of her career. “I receive beautiful letters from people all around the world! My collectors are such an inspiration to me!” she gushes. She explains how their amazing life stories are a positive force in her life in the midst of all the negative news we are subjected to each day.
Dorienne Esposito, New York, N.Y., has been collecting Lyons’ creations nearly since Karen began making them. She owns more than 30 of the masterpieces. They are mainly cats, but she owns some bears as well. Esposito explains her fascination thus: “Karen has a talent for designing creations that speak to you and stand out in a crowd. Her cats appear as if they are about to meow, and their beautiful eyes follow you across the room. Each is an individual one-of-a-kind work or art, which encourages avid collectors to purchase multiple pieces even of the same style.”
Jacquelyn White, Phoenix, Ariz., is also hooked on the magic of Lyons’ work. She’s the proud owner of nine of Karen’s pieces. “Nakoda” was the first one she bought, at the 2004 Doll & Teddy Bear Expo. She was not familiar with Lyons’ work at the time, but when she saw him, he beckoned to her. “I was enthralled,” she says. “He just stood out among all the other bears at Expo.” She was drawn by his cape, accessories and overall spiritual demeanor. He reminded her of a shaman.
“All of Karen’s bears have very realistic features. When I look at them, I expect them to say something or laugh or sing,” White says. She admits to having an uncontrollable urge to bring every one of Lyons’ bears home with her. She’s a self-described addict. White’s next goal is to start acquiring Lyons’ cats. “My favorite is ‘The Stray’ [left]. I haven’t been lucky enough to buy it yet, but it will find its way into my home one of these days,” she says.
Another KJ Lyons Design collector, Paulette Goodreau, explains why she bought “Maine Coon Cat” at a Disney auction: “The craftsmanship is unparalleled,” Goodreau says. “No one else in the industry was doing such realistic plush work at the time. I look for art pieces that will stand the test of time, and Karen’s definitely stand out.”
In the future, Lyons wishes to keep growing as an artist. She plans to continue working with the sculptural aspects of her work—new poses, new faces and “anything that helps me capture the essence of the animal,” she says. “But I also like to play.” Meaning what? She’s coming out with a new line of character cats—a pirate, a gambler and a dance hall gal.
“Although a costume is necessary, I’m more interested in the expressions in their faces and the body attitudes of the characters,” Lyons explains. “They’re going to be my versions of ‘Puss ’N Boots.’ And then I’m going to create some snow cats with interesting snow hats and mittens. They’ll be reaching out, catching realistic confetti snowflakes in their paws. Then maybe I’ll sculpt a tongue, if I get brave!”
And from what we’ve seen, if anyone can do it, Karen Lyons can! Collectors, everywhere, get prepared to have your hearts melt from these wintry wonders.