Photos courtesy of Collector Bears by Helga Torfs
This year’s blogging for The Plush Life gave me a fantastic opportunity to revisit many of the very talented artists I’ve gotten to know over the years. Many of them reside overseas — in Europe, Asia, and Australia — and many are based here, out of the United States, and in our “neighbor to the North,” Canada. It’s been so much fun taking these cyber journeys, and my Plush Passport has gotten a great deal of cyber stamping. It’s been a glorious global trek, hasn’t it?
For our last stop, then, in 2016, we are taking time to visit a Belgian artist who truly lives a fairy-tale existence. When I interviewed her, Helga Torfs was residing in a tiny hamlet called Meerhout, located 60 kilometers from Antwerp and 150 kilometers from Bruges. Everyone is familiar with photographs of Bruges, which make it look like an illustration from a classic children’s storybook. It is a place that appears magical and wondrous. Torfs’ life in this setting matches one’s expectations.
Torfs worked as the “home-keeper to the castle of Meerhout, as it is known locally.” Yes, that’s correct. Torfs has gotten the chance to live out every boy and girl’s fantasy: her home is a castle! It’s not just a figure of speech — “A man’s home is his castle” — no, this is an honest-to-goodness fortress from a bygone era.
“Although it is in the heart of the town, it is very quiet, as it is surrounded by a big park and pond,” Torfs told me. “We really have our own little world here and it is just so relaxing to work here, with my favorite music playing in the background.”
The award-winning artist is known worldwide for her bears and other critters that combine an old-fashioned wholesomeness with a great big dollop of whimsy. Her creations have that rare ability to look both lifelike and fantastical. It’s not too difficult to imagine any of her creatures waiting until the entire household is snoring and then sneaking about to make mischief.
“As I am a romantic person, vintage-looking bears are one of the different styles of bears I create. Beside that, I have a passion for creating theme bears. The choosing of a new theme is always followed by extensive research into the subject,” Torfs related to me. Some of the themes that she has loved to explore are clowns, Native American tribal members and chiefs, and Eskimos. “I love to do something that is visual and different from my daily life!” she enthused.
At the time of our interview, she was busy checking out the folkloric history of gnomes. It’s an in-depth investigation that she took quite seriously: “I have many books on gnomes, and I used them to find out what type of clothes my gnome bears should wear, and in which colors, as well as the tools they should carry. Do you know why gnomes wear a hat? It is essential not just for warmth but also for protection. Because gnomes are small, they are vulnerable to birds of prey. However, when the birds swoop down and try to pick up a gnome, they end up with just the hat! One of my very first gnomes named ‘Bebbel’ won a TOBY award in 1998! I have revisited that them many times over.”
It makes perfect sense that Torfs would be comfortable creating bears that combine the vestiges of make-believe as well as the vestments they need to wear in this fictional universe. She loves all the trappings associated with “pretend” and “playfulness.” According to Torfs, “I am always surprised by what I decide to do! New ideas always come to me spontaneously. When, for instance, I see an object somewhere that speaks to me, I start to think, ‘How can I incorporate that into a new creation?’ One time I saw a very realistic piece of cheese and this made me decide right then that I had to make a bear in a mouse outfit. That is the way I get ideas. I see something and I have a spark of creation in me.”
The bear artist began her critter career 20 years ago. She attempted her first bear in 1996 and managed to discover her own style and motifs through simple trial and error: “A bear maker taught me the basics of bear making so that I, at least, had an idea of pattern pieces — how it was assembled, how it was sewn, how it fits together. I started immediately to try to make my own designs. After many failed attempts and a lot of perseverance, my ‘Pedro’ was born. He was the first bear to come up to my expectations.”
From that decisive moment, Torfs has been cultivating a reputation for meticulous craftsmanship and lovely designing. She has won many honors and has a loyal collector base that hails worldwide. Torfs adores the chance to network and mingle with them.
In fact, if we had actual passports and plane tickets — instead of our cyber plush ones — we could drop in and visit Helga at home. She welcomes her fans into her house and gives them the royal treatment!
“I have almost every year a group of people from New Zealand and Australia who come to buy bears here,” she stated. “Cooking is one of my passions. I cook for them and I make them a homemade cake with teddy bear chocolates. It’s always fun. I always look forward to their visit! I also have collectors here from Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and very often from England and the Netherlands. It is always great when they come personally to pick up their bear.”
Helga Torfs’s life does revolve around her cute cubs and her other adorable offerings. Her good friend Ben is a professional photographer and they enjoy setting up vignettes for her characters to cavort within. It is a passion that they both share: “I keep a prototype of almost each bear for myself as we need them for photo shoots that we do here at home in our own photo studio to create complete bear scenes, like, for instance, the picture with the old books. We often visit antique markets to find the last object that we have in mind to complete a scene. That’s always the challenge! You can imagine how much stuff and bears we have here!”
The inviting, enchanting realm of Helga Torfs is the perfect place to conclude this year’s round-the world cyber excursions. I’ve loved being your tour guide. I can’t wait to see where we end up next year. I’m sure it will continue to be lush and plush. Happy 2017 from The Plush Life and may the new year be filled with ursine wishes, arctophile dreams, and mohair memories!