Photos courtesy of Kim Russell
If you’re like me, you have a red circle drawn around November 18. What’s so special about that date? Nope, it’s not Election Day. The fate of our nation was voted upon 10 days earlier; it’s not Thanksgiving. Turkeys still have nearly a week more of living and loving to do. So what, then, makes this day so unique?
Potterphiles, assemble! It’s because the newest release in the Harry Potter franchise (or an offshoot of that blockbuster series) is debuting. My son and daughter both adore Harry Potter, but my daughter is especially taken with the boy wizard and his peers. We have a date to catch the new film as soon as my schedule clears. It’s a real big deal to witness the “Fantastic Beasts” on the big screen. This kind of magic can’t be contained on a DVD; it demands the silver-screen experience.
The notion of fantastic beasts reminds me of a very talented and popular Australian teddy bear artist, Kim Russell. What’s so incredible about Kim is that her work goes beyond the enclave of bears and cubs. Kim Russell also excels at all manner of woodland creatures and — drumroll — mythic characters, too. If J. K. Rowling wanted to add a “fantastic beast” maker to her “wizarding world,” she would be quite happy with a visit to Russell’s studio.
I’ve had the pleasure of cyber chatting with the Aussie artist about her bears, bunnies, and bunyips. Yep, you’ve read that right. A bunyip? Pray tell, what is that critter? Well, I’ll let Kim tell you.
“A bunyip is an important part of Aboriginal mythology. Sometimes they are called kianpraty and they live in swamps, creeks, and billabongs. They exist in water holes and riverbeds. They are a character that we all have read about here in Australia,” she shared.
Russell took that basic definition and dreamed up what a bunyip means to her. She managed to make it into a creature that is charming, whimsical, and heart-tugging. Just check out its big puppy dog — err, I mean bunyip eyes. With its pleading eyes, earnest-looking face, and adorably rotund body, the bunyip is a mythical, fantastical beast that looks like it just wants a great big hug. What a sweetie!
Many of her characters have an otherworldly, make-believe pedigree to them. It’s not by chance. No, Russell is a bona fide devotee of the fantasy genre, and it has helped to sway her work in her studio.
“Most of my work has a real quirky character about them. I could easily see them in any fantasy movie or book, couldn’t you? The ultimate aim for my designs is to fashion characters — real or imaginary — that take on their own lifelike presence. I want them to capture the hearts of those that look upon them,” Russell confided.
Among her stable of fantastic beasts number a host of recognizable, archetypal fairy-tale animals: unicorns and frog princes are popular motifs for her.
“The frog prince, in fact, was probably one of my first designs in the fantasy world. Collectors appreciate something that is a little different. I definitely enjoy creating something that is just a little bit outside the box!” she revealed.
One of the reasons why she is so drawn to the world of “let’s pretend” and imaginary landscapes is that she admits to being a world-class Disneyphile. The same way my daughter can’t contain her Potter pride, Kim Russell is daffy for all things Disney: “As a child, and even now in my adult years, I have loved all things ‘Disney.’ Even now, my favorite movies are anything that have mythical and magical creatures in them. I think it all comes from my childhood. I loved all my stuffed toys as a child, and I treated them like they were real. I remember loving animals from a very young age, so I have put the two together.”
It’s not every child who gets to grow up and pursue her favorite childhood dream — if they did, the world would have an overabundance of ballerinas, cowboys, firefighters, and rock stars. Russell is fortunate that what she gravitated toward doing as a playtime pastime has become the bedrock of her career.
“I remember distinctly the bear I loved most in my childhood. It was my mother’s childhood bear, too. I remember tucking it into bed and pushing him around in my pram — the dolls were booted out and the bear went in!” she recalled with glee.
Being able to immerse herself in an alternate reality — letting the inner recesses of her mind come out to play — is an essential ingredient for her success. With a dab of fantasy and a pinch of make-believe sewn into each of her make-believe characters, Kim Russell has a close, personal connection to pretend. If she could actually transform into an honest-to-goodness, real-life fantasy figure, what would it be?
“I would probably like to be a guardian fairy that could protect the innocent from harm,” she shared after a moment’s consideration. “By the ‘innocent,’ I mean Mother Nature and all that dwell within her. There is too much wrong in our world that I find hard to accept, and I would need some amazing powers to fix that!”
Kim Russell: protector of bears, bunnies, badgers, and — yes — bunyips, too!