Diana Ussery has built a solid reputation for her dragons and other sci-fi oddities. Her creations are often quirky and comical — octopuses that wear top hats and carry luggage and other travel essentials in all their twirly-swirly tentacles — while also managing to appear regal and luxurious. (She frequently garbs her characters in rich fabrics and high-end textiles. An opulent octopus, anyone?)
Ussery is a fun interview, and a prolific artist. Her chat with me will be in an upcoming issue of Teddy Bear & Friends, but there are some photos that just didn’t make it into the layout. Thank heaven for The Plush Life!
The award-winning artist began her creative life back in her childhood. She had a plastic horse that she wanted to embellish and decorate. In fact, she wanted to present this plastic pal with a whole new, expanding world to gallop within: “I made barns for him and other surroundings. I didn’t have a make-believe friend. I played outdoors with the neighbor kids.” Yes, it’s true that young Diana was frolicking outside, but there was a heck of a lot brewing on her inside.
After a conversation with Ussery, you walk away realizing that she doesn’t simply read a novel or watch a film. She absorbs everything that she sees — and it is perfect to be a cinematic sponge when you are working as a soft-sculpture artist. The movies that she enjoys, the books that she peruses — all of these help to inform her choices when she sits down to create and to coax forth her fanciful lives.
“I am open-minded when it comes to what I read and watch. I’ve enjoyed audiotapes of books as I am driving. It helps to get my creative juices flowing,” Ussery told me. “There are times when I’ve seen something, and then it goes into my head. I think about it for a while and I re-imagine it. I walk around, and then what I end up making is way different from what I first saw. But it is that first thing, that first image, that lights my spark.”
In addition to the otherworldly designs that Ussery in lauded for, she has also made delightful hybrids of fantasy and reality. One of them is her tribute to a dog trainer that she knew, and a pair of absolutely adorable pooches. Ruth with Raymond and Maggie was made by Ussery as her gallery piece for the Quinlan Show in Philadelphia. “Ruth was a trainer we used to have, and she did have a distinct personality!” Ussery observed. The chic bear is decked out in an outfit that evokes the glamorous, heady days of 1930s Hollywood. “The costume is fully lined, like it would have been for us,” she shared. “The bear and the dogs are made of mohair. The outfit is wool.”
The Ruth bear is quite elegant, and it is a dip into reality (if a bear could become a dog whisperer), but it does retain its sense of whimsy (a bear that works as a dog whisperer). Occasionally Ussery’s work does touch down upon the earth. Beyond her high-flying, fire-breathing reptiles, she has made beasts that resemble the critters that inhabit rain forests, the woods, and other wildlife habitats. She can trade in the preposterous for well-done portraiture.
The onetime hairstylist is comfortable using her hands and her imagination to usher forth her pieces. Whether they are creatures of legend or lifelike characterizations, Ussery gives her heart and soul to each rendering that she undertakes.
“I still get a thrill from seeing my creations come to life. I love making the collectors happy and talking with them at a show and watching them smile when they see my work. That has always made me feel that I am doing what I am meant to do,” Ussery told me. “I started to make bears and other critters way back in 1992, so it has been more than 25 years of doing this. I never get tired of making my creations. I never get tired of meeting collectors and speaking with them. I still love going to shows and discussing my work and other work with the other artists. I am lucky to have this life.”
Diana Ussery resides in California, but her mind does indeed reside in a faraway location without a set zip code or area code: “I think outside the box. That is why I love fantasy so much. It lets me create things that we can’t see in everyday life. When I do make more realistic bears and other critters, I try to give them a lot of detail. I try to make them special. I want my work to speak to the collectors.” Ussery’s work does live up to her company’s name, Diana’s Merry Bears, and the collectors are overjoyed to share the good and happy news.