Beth Phillips sits down with Sherry Shepardson of Sherr-Bear to discuss the artist’s designs and her biggest inspiration.
Florida teddy bear artist Sherry Shepardson vividly remembers her first glimpse of a grizzly bear in the wild. She and her husband, Bob, had taken a trip to Yellowstone National Park, and she spotted her first big bruin near the Grand Tetons. Watching the formidable bear catching salmon in a river left such an indelible impression on her that she resolved to try to capture that “look” in her own designs—not that she lacks for inspiration in her own back yard. Sherry lives right smack in the middle of Florida bear country, in Volusia County, where it’s not unusual to see “Bear Crossing” signs or find special tunnels under the roadway for bears to use when crossing highways.
Although most people associate Florida with cute trained bottlenose dolphins and pet-eating alligators, black bears are native to Florida and frequently make the news with their antics. (The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission even publishes a pamphlet on living in bear country and has a website, myfwc.com/bear, with information on Florida black bears.) So it comes as no surprise that the bears Sherry creates by hand are often realistic depictions of bears in the wild—claws and all.
Always interested in arts and crafts and skilled as a seamstress, Sherry began to collect artist-made dolls in the 1980s. She found her interest in them limited by their cost and decided to try her hand at making dolls herself, throwing herself head first into the doll-making world. After buying a kiln and finding success with creating her own dolls, she started attending and selling her dolls at eight to ten shows a year. “I made the dolls by hand—this involved pouring liquid porcelain into the doll molds, tedious sanding of the greenware, painting and firing many times in my two kilns,” Sherry explains. “After the eyes were set and the dolls assembled, I sewed all my own doll clothes.”
Doll making was challenging and quite rewarding, but it was also extremely labor intensive. What began as a hobby grew quickly into a full-time job, and what was once fun became just a great deal of hard work. Like many artists, the business side of creating began to leach the joy out of the process, and Sherry stopped making dolls altogether. For sentimental reasons, she kept a number of her beautiful dolls, which can be found throughout her house—winsome reminders of that time in her artistic development.
But Sherry is not the kind of person to sit around and watch TV. She “needs” a creative outlet, she says, like the delicate orchids she grows in a small greenhouse in her backyard, a hobby that requires patience, dedication and attention to detail. She has more than 300 gorgeous cattleya orchids in her collection, which require the proper balance of sunshine, moisture, warmth and propagation techniques to survive. A metaphor for Sherry’s life? Perhaps.
Transition to Bears
During her doll-making years, Sherry began to acquire Steiff and artist-made teddy bears. Impressed, intrigued and inspired by the quality construction and classic structure of those bears, she decided to try her hand at bear making. “I just picked up some books and videos on bear making and taught myself.”
Sherry made her first bear in 2000 and admits, “I was very pleased with it, although I think my bears today are so much better.” She enjoyed bear making so much she decided to keep at it and started selling on eBay.
After her experience of getting burned out making dolls, Sherry deliberately keeps her work on a casual, as-life-permits timetable. She doesn’t do shows but has met “wonderful people from all over the world” through her eBay sales, selling to collectors in Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom.
“I want to take my time making bears. When I feel rushed I’m not as happy with how they turn out,” Sherry notes. As a result, she doesn’t take orders and only makes about 20 to 25 bears a year, but each one is made with care and attention to detail. She laments the dearth of good shows in Florida, but with a full-time job, it’s difficult for the artist to travel to exhibit at bear shows. And while Sherry misses the personal contact with collectors, she appreciates the opportunity for online interaction, especially “talking” with other bear artists and collectors at Intercal’s Teddy Talk site.
Preferring to make her bears one at a time, each bruin is constructed to last, with double-stitched seams and securely jointed “with locknuts, bolts and hardboard discs, firmly filled with poly-fil and safely encased poly pellets and either steel or glass pellets for weight.” Sherry also carefully trims the faces and needlesculpts details.
The glass eyes are sometimes hand painted for special impact. At times, Sherry also airbrushes details onto the limbs and faces, finding this easier to do before the bear is assembled. Ultrasuede is used to create detail on the paws and feet. Sometimes foam-covered wire armature is used to allow the bear to be fully poseable. Each bear is different, created with love and care, and Sherry likes to vary the style and design of each bruin she makes, frequently going from the classic designs to the more realistic.
“The noses are carefully hand stitched in pearl cotton, sometimes waxed, or I use glass noses or hand-sculpt my own,” she explains. “I also sometimes sculpt teeth, tongues and claws.” And she never makes the same bear twice, saying she would find it “impossible” to do. That kind of personalization has won her many fans among bear collectors.
Valerie Sewell, an Orlando-area collector, has purchased four of the artist’s creations. “Sherry’s bears are wonderful,” Sewell enthuses. “I was first attracted to one of her bears (‘Sakari’) because he looks so lifelike, claws and all, yet he had the most gentle facial expression. When I received him, I was blown away at how beautiful he was. Now owning a number of her bears, I’ve fallen in love with each one. Sherry’s artistry is exceptional, the quality of materials and workmanship superb, and the accessories she includes with her bears just add that ‘something’ that makes them extra special. My wish for when I win the lottery is to own a menagerie of Sherr-bears.”
Sherry’s workroom is impressively organized. She keeps meticulous records on each bear she makes, saying she writes down “details such as the color and type of mohair used, stuffing, jointing, eyes, whether or not a growler is used, any accessories such as collars or clothing and size.” She adds, “My favorite medium is curly kid mohair,” and she has stockpiles of mohair just waiting to come alive in her capable hands.
Because Sherry’s bears are primarily realistic bears, she sticks to colors most often found in nature: browns, rusts, beiges, cream and black. She has drawers full of eyes and claws, and even a rack of bear-size clothing for future creations. And sometimes even she doesn’t know until a bear comes to life it if will be a boy or a girl, naked or dressed. Each bruin develops a personality and a look that tells her how to finish it. Sherry laughs and says when she is stumped as to whether the new bear is a boy or girl she asks her husband to decide!
Sherry delights in shopping for accessories and clothing for bears yet to come, and enjoys finding just the right look and accents for each bear. Her workroom often yields something as exquisite as an embroidered silk collar or fleece hat, something as simple as just the right shade and texture of ribbon.
Her other passion—for Steiff—led to the frequent pairing of small Steiff animals with her bears. Sherry looks for them on eBay and keeps a small variety on hand so she has just the right vintage Steiff companion to add to her creations. She also sometimes makes “jewelry” for her bears—Indian-style beadwork, with real turquoise and other natural stones with a native feel—and particularly enjoys creating the collars for the bears she has decided to keep.
In addition to meticulous choices in costuming and accessories, Sherry goes the extra mile to make her collectors feel special, creating individual birth certificates for each bear, with the date the bear was “born” and the name of the collector. Each certificate is customized to coordinate with the bear. Sherry then makes a set of note cards starring the newly purchased bear to send to the buyer. What a remarkable keepsake! And, of course, each handsome guy or gal has a sewn-in tush tag and hang tag.
A Wild Life
There’s no question that the native bruin as observed in its natural setting in the wild currently has the greatest influence on Sherry’s designs. Her early bears were more typical of artist-made bears, with a wider variety of colors and a classic teddy bear appeal. But then Bob, Sherry’s husband of 25 years, began to develop an interest in nature and wildlife photography, and that led to trips to Yellowstone National Park and Alaska. Sherry admits she expected the first trip to be boring, with nothing for her to do, but she has an entirely new perspective on the experience. The couple has since made five additional trips, with more planned.
Sherry is reticent when talking about herself and her art, but she lights up when discussing their trips into the wild. The pair took their first excursion to Yellowstone in July 2005 and then went back in July and September 2006. They followed up with trips in February, May and September 2007. Together they have observed wolves, black bears, grizzlies, coyotes, elk, deer and bison, among other wildlife.
Though the trips have cut into her bear-making time, Sherry isn’t complaining. On their trip to Alaska at Redoubt Bay, they saw two Alaskan black bears fishing for spawning salmon. The Shepardsons flew into the area on a float plane and then took a pontoon boat out to a location where they could see the bears. On a bus trip to Denali National Park, they spotted a reclining mother grizzly bear and cubs. Rare spectacular views of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain peak, were the icing on the cake. Bob’s wildlife photos (generously shared here) offer a sneak peek of their adventures.
Traveling to Bozeman, Mont., and Yellowstone National Park has provided Sherry and Bob with some truly extraordinary experiences, including a visit to Animals of Montana, a game farm and wild-animal casting agency. (Who knew wild animals auditioned for film roles?) Here, trained animals live in relative freedom and perform for fascinated visitors. They are well cared for, exercised and treated with love and compassion.
The result is not only in the animals that frequently appear in movies and on television but allowing guests the opportunity to safely photograph and view animals in the wild. Twenty-three different species of wildlife provide a unique educational experience—one that Sherry and Bob cherish and plan to repeat. Adam, a grizzly, looks menacing in his photos but performs on command for his favorite treat: marshmallows! Muckaday, a 600-pound black bear, is another ham for the camera. (Read more about these unusually accommodating bears at animalsofmontana.com.)
Having just returned from a September trip to Yellowstone, Sherry gushes about the experience. “We had a fantastic time—saw four grizzlies, nine black bears with cubs, 17 wolves in two packs, 25 coyotes with pups, four red fox, which we had never seen before, ten mountain goats, numerous sheep, elk, deer and bison!” This past November the Shepardsons made a trip to Africa—for a safari—to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, and they will be heading back to Yellowstone in the spring for more photo shoots. So you will have to forgive this extraordinary bear artist if she is a little behind on her sewing but far ahead in the idea department!
Sherry remarks that Bob was a helpful partner when she was making dolls, unloading and loading, waiting patiently while she sold her wares. Now together they explore the world of bears, both real and stuffed—in a way that few couples can.