Photos courtesy of Judith Anderson
With Halloween approaching, I am watching my two children as they gear up for the big costumed celebration. When I was growing up — and I’m sure many of you, as well — putting on a disguise and pretending to be someone or something else was a rare and fleeting event. It happened at Halloween and maybe at a masquerade party if a friend was hosting such a gathering. (In my neck of the woods, the only chance to be a vampire was on October 31. We didn’t have masked balls or fantasy dances!)
Today, with the popularity of “cosplay,” getting dressed up and becoming somebody different isn’t as valued. Folks are constantly posting on Instagram or Snapchat their attempts at morphing into well-known celebrities and characters. So, Halloween is still a high point on a kid’s calendar, but it’s not the “end all and be all” for fantasy fans.
Living in a fantasy world is now open to everyone. We can all dress up and reinvent ourselves. However, being able to conjure up a critter or a creature that smacks of make-believe and otherworldliness — now, that is still something special!
Meet Judith Anderson, the clever mind and hands behind Ashenberry. Her ever-expanding menagerie is a perfect blend of imagination and lifelike possibilities: “Most Ashenberry animals are anthropomorphic and represent the inhabitants of a tiny world that exists concurrently with our own. Most of my work is whimsical and intended to tickle your funny bone. It is very detailed, and each bear is designed to be displayed. My work often incorporates my love of antiques, glitter, and color.”
The Connecticut-based artist chatted with me at the end of 2015, and she had her eyes pointed toward this year, 2016. “I began as a part-time teddy bear artist in 1991 and turned full-time in 1996. I’m excited about 2016 because it marks my 25th year in this business,” she shared with me.
“Working as a therapist in a private psychiatric facility in New York, I would frequent a local doll/toy shop during lunch hours. It was mostly as a way to relax and get some respite from the grueling demands of the hospital. One time, an artist bear caught my eye and got me thinking that I might enjoy creating a bear of my own. Having absolutely no idea where to start, I purchased a Teddy Bear and Friends magazine, read it cover to cover several times, found an ad for Edinburgh Imports and their mohair, and the rest is history! My first bear, which I still have, was a polar bear aptly named ‘Polarity.’ Lunch hours became designing and sewing sessions, and over a period of five years, one local show turned into seventeen!” she proudly states.
Anderson found her calling, and her collectors have been responding to her body of work with much delight and devotion. Developing a strong camaraderie with her customers and with her fellow soft-art colleagues is an essential part of the bear maker’s lifestyle. “It has been my pleasure throughout the years to have developed long-term friendships with collectors from all over the world. That personal connection has afforded me the opportunity to give and receive caring words and support during some of life’s happiest and saddest moments,” Anderson observed. “I also collect other artists’ work. Especially in this age of technology, it is refreshing for me to encounter like-minded folks who value and/or produce a well-executed, individually handmade original creation.”
The Norfolk resident dwells in a large Victorian home. The entire third floor of her manse functions as her studio. It’s in that retro personal space where she’s able to explore her own musings and her fans’ requests: “Early on, my work reflected my interest and involvement in animals rights causes, political issues, and psychiatric conditions in our society. Over the years and many ‘life-changing experiences’ later, my work is concerned less with ‘making a statement’ and more with having fun.”
One of her series that truly tapped into this fun-loving, frolicking attitude was her “Great Race” offerings. “Each vignette depicts a team comprised of a tiny bear who rides on the back of his/her racing buddy. The buddy might be a rabbit, maybe a fox, a wolf, perhaps even a turtle! The possibilities are endless! Time is the only constraint, as each ‘team’ is completely hand sewn and uniquely decorated to be different from all others that have come before,” she enthused. “Color play and the use of glitter to catch the light play an important role in these and all Ashenberry creations.” It’s quite extraordinary that all of her bears and cubs featured here — packed with such drama and panache — measure anywhere from a mere 2.5 inches to only 5 inches tall!
It is fascinating that Judith Anderson has such large, wide ambitions while working in a world defined by smaller, hand-sized creations. She focuses on the big picture — the big dream — as she fashions characters that can (in some cases) be cradled and held in one’s palm: “I love it that something so small as a teddy bear has the ability to ‘say’ so much. And what could be better than a tiny teddy bear that peeks out from behind a plate in the china cabinet, stands guard over your jewelry, or sits atop a book on the shelf? It’s always ready to light up a moment in your day!”