Photos courtesy of Diana’s Merry Bears
In the classic musical “The King and I,” Anna, newly appointed teacher in the royal court of Siam, sings the bouncy song “Getting to Know You.” One of the lyrics really resonates with me: “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought. If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” That sentiment certainly holds for me, because I am amazed at what my 12-year-old daughter recently taught me, or at least exposed me to. Substitute “parent” for “teacher,” and it really is quite remarkable what we can pick up from our children — provided we keep our eyes and ears open, and our mouths closed long enough to permit them to speak their minds.
Jane has been reading a book called “The Soul of an Octopus,” written by Sy Montgomery. And, yes, the “octopus” really does refer to that tentacle underwater creature, and “soul” actually does imply that it has a consciousness, a spirit, a thought process, and a purpose. That’s pretty heady stuff to consider as an adult. Imagine reading it and processing it at age 12!
What really impressed me about my daughter’s immersion into this oceanic odyssey is that she drew a life lesson from it — she came away comparing the aversion many people feel toward octopuses (yep, that’s the right plural; it’s not octopi) to how so many folks dismiss different people out of hand. People look at octopuses and think, “Yuck! They look all squishy, slimy, and scary!” People also look at folks who are different from themselves and think much the same thing: “Different, dangerous, and daunting!” Jane was able to make the parallel of branding an octopus before getting to know it, and prejudging a person. Rodgers and Hammerstein would be proud that their “Getting to Know You” lyrics reflect everything good that happened this past week in Jane’s reading and my observing!
Following on the heels (or should I say the suction cups or suckers) of the octopus revelation, I also had the good fortune of getting to showcase Diana Ussery’s top-notch dragons. Much like the misunderstood octopus, the dragon has been presented as friend or foe, depending upon where you stand when he’s releasing his scorching fire breath. I talked about that in last week’s The Plush Life, and this week I discovered Ms. Ussery’s clever and quirky other sci-fi beasts — her characters that seem to have emerged from a maiden’s medieval tapestry design.
With a penchant for SteamPunk, many of her offerings also have that wondrous blend of reality and alternate reality. They’re not keyed into the laws and bylaws of real-world science, but they all look as if they could spring to life in the universe of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. (Also, my beloved “Game of Thrones.” Even though that show has such a fantasy medieval feel to it, they also have some pretty souped-up weaponry and modes of transportation.)
When I had the chance to chat with Diana Ussery, I asked her how she managed to conjure up so many mystifying, magical characters.
“I’m open-minded about all movies, for I never know what they will make me think of,” she told me. “I especially love fantasy in ALL ways! I like to get audiobooks so I can listen to them while I work or drive. I enjoy everything about fantasy, and I love to make anything that has been in or on my mind. It’s thrilling to be able to make a witch or a skeleton, a dragon or a demon. If I can dream it up, I love being able to make it real.”
The California-based artist has that enviable ability to make the UNreal seem real. She traffics in the art of making make-believe become part of our ordinary world. “Sometimes I see a picture that someone has painted or drawn, and that can start an image that pops up in my head,” she revealed. “What I end up thinking could be way different from what I first saw, but it ends up working and making sense for me. I will usually draw some pictures, and then I will make some of them come alive. Most of my work is not what you’d label ‘cutesy.’ I just can’t seem to do that,” she stressed. “Instead, a lot of my work is called ‘boyish’ or ‘Halloweenish’ or ‘science-fictionish.’ I understand why my work is seen that way. I favor a lot of dragons, SteamPunk, rats, and other critters that have that fantasy feeling. My critters are not cute kiddy stuff!”
Interestingly, Ussery made her first dragon back in 1995 at the request of her daughter. Many more fiery, fierce figures followed, and Ussery’s menagerie has expanded over the next 20-plus years. “I do think outside the box! All of my non-traditional teddy bears sell better than my ‘plain’ bears. Collectors respond to all the details I put into my pieces, and I love to talk to them about how one of my pieces came to be,” the artist shared.
Creating many one-of-a-kind pieces, Ussery is always delighted when her original works of art find a good home. She has her notion of what constitutes the perfect environment for her handiwork: “My ideal customer is one that will enjoy my creations. Hopefully, my teddy bears or other critters will always make them smile. Where they end up, I hope it will be where another character will eventually come and join them. It could be another piece of my work or someone else’s. It just makes me happy to know that my work will arrive in homes that love bears and critters, or medieval tales and fantasy stories.”
Diana Ussery unabashedly loves the legends and myths that contain winged, flying dragons and the SteamPunk classics that follow the exploits of hot-air balloon adventurers and innovative, inventive scientists. She identifies with all of these unique characters — heroes and heroines. When asked if she could be any fantasy character in the world, who would she become? Her answer is simple: “I think a medieval witch with unlimited power, but I would use if for good, not evil!”