By not always following the rules, Lisa Bunting Thoms has forged her own path.
April 2008 marks Lisa Bunting Thoms’ tenth anniversary as a professional bear artist. In truth, Thoms, the talented visionary behind Twin Cubs, has been plowing her fertile imagination and harvesting quirky and clever creations for nearly three decades.
The modest and unassuming mother of three, however, doesn’t recognize those early childhood years as counting toward being a real-life, real-deal artist. Even though she wasn’t selling her burgeoning attempts at rendering a bouncy bear or a soulful sock monkey, she was indeed getting in touch with her inner Van Gogh.
Growing up in Waldorf, Md., Thoms was surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She credits the encouragement from her mom, dad and grandma for enabling her to have the courage and conviction to always strive for her dreams.
“My mom was the creative, outgoing one who was very much into arts and crafts. She was constantly encouraging us to pursue our interests, so we took piano and dance lessons, held various roles in a number of children’s theater productions and were active 4-H’ers. My father is the quiet one who occasionally comes out with a zinger that makes you double over with laughter. He enjoys singing and playing his ukulele. He’s a super-talented photographer with an eye for detail,” Thoms asserts.
“My grandma also lived with us until she passed away, which was just shy of my 14th birthday, in 1981. I spent a lot of time with her and enjoyed listening to her stories about her childhood. Since she was born in 1897, she had seen so many historical things—from wars to presidents to life-changing inventions, like the television.”
As Thoms and her grandmother chatted about world events and personal milestones, the two generations passed their time with sewing and improvising. Initially, they would design and create dresses for Thoms’ dolls. Soon after, Thoms had enough confidence to try her hand at making her own soft-body Piglet, one of Winnie the Pooh’s cohorts.
“When I was 9, I noticed that my sister and I had Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore, but we did not own a Piglet. I scoured the Sears Wishbook catalog and noticed that they didn’t carry one, either. So, I set out to make my own,” Thoms shares. “I used an old pink sheet and my mother’s sewing machine. I was surprised in the end that it actually did resemble the illustrations of Piglet, even if it was only slightly. After Piglet, I started making hand-sewn Christmas ornaments for my tree, and finally began making teddy bears.”
One of the fascinating components of Thoms’ foray into fabric arts is that she didn’t follow a pattern or any established guidelines. “My grandmother never used a pattern,” she recalls. “She would just cut something out and sew—which is what I did until I started making bears professionally. It was only ten years ago that I decided to draw out my pattern on paper and then scan it into my computer so I would have a record. Before that, I would just cut out something and sew it, or I would just start sewing with the material already lying on my machine. I still do that sometimes with sock critters, for I let the sock dictate the creation that emerges from it.”
Today, 40-year-old Thoms resides in King George, Va., with her husband and three daughters, two of whom are twins. In fact, her 3-year-old twins are the namesakes of her thriving business. “When I started back in April 1998, my business name was Bunting-Thoms Teddybaren, which was just a mix of my maiden name and my new last name, plus the German word for ‘teddy bear,’ which reflected my husband’s German heritage.
“I took some time off to have my children,” she continues. “We had my 4-year-old in 2003, and then just a year later, we had identical twin girls. We were quite surprised, as we really thought we were having only one. We weren’t aware of her twin until the fourth month of my pregnancy. When I found the time to make bears again, after the girls were born, I decided to celebrate our little surprise. I changed my business name to Twin Cubs.”
Thoms credits her husband’s good nature and patience with helping her launch her retooled and redubbed venture. “Before we had children, he went to every bear show with me, helping me to set up as well as carrying boxes, displays and bears for other artists, too. He called himself ‘the roadie,’ and still is very much involved with my bears. These days, instead of going with me to shows, he has taken on the role of ‘babysitter’ and graciously agrees to watch our girls while I pursue my dream.”
Ironically, the realm of dreams plays a prominent role in the artist’s work habits. She keeps a journal by her bedside, and when a nightly idea creeps into her subconscious, she is quick to capture it in those pages. “I run into the bathroom so I don’t wake my husband and I sketch it out. If I don’t do it right then and there, I will forget!”
Interestingly, even though she is adamant about recording her nocturnal brainstorms, an occasional free spirit wanders into her mind. Case in point? Her q.D.paToOtieS, which is her line of very small bears. “My husband observed that these have a strong resemblance to our tiny Pomeranian that passed away last year. He is more than likely correct. I designed the pattern right after losing her, and she was such a huge part of our family and our hearts. I wasn’t aware of the connection, though.”
As her anniversary year unfolds, the bear artist will continue to do what she does best: explore her imagination for whimsical and eccentric characters. No matter their size, their style or their species, they all have one trait in common. They’ve sprung forth from a mind that doesn’t follow the rulebooks or the flashy trends of the moment.
“Early in my career, I think I was trying too hard to make a bear that looked like all the other artist bears out there,” Thoms shares. “As recently as last year, I was trying to keep up with the techniques that were ‘hot,’ like needle felting. I quickly found it was more work than fun, and it didn’t reflect my personality or my tastes.”
Having begun her creative journey by ignoring patterns, Thoms is finding success by concocting her own guideposts and parameters. These new directions pop up in the most unexpected places, but because she has such a curious eye, she is able to appreciate and acknowledge them. “Last year, during a difficult flu season, I opened my 20th box of tissues, only to notice that the insert I had just torn out resembled a pattern piece. After playing around with that piece, I was able to come up with my funny bunnies. I even hosted a challenge on my blog for other artists to do the same. I was delighted when a number of people sent in photos of dogs and other critters that they had made.”
That occurrence brilliantly sums up Thoms: a woman not afraid to think outside the box.