Photos courtesy of Raspbeary Bears
If asked to conjure up a compliment for a bear and a bear artist, the adjective “sweet” would spring to the front of the line. How perfect, then, that Florida-based artist Darlene Allen has cut right to the chase and named her business “Raspbeary Bears.” The joyful and talented bear maker has fashioned a reputation for creating critters that tug at the heart and tickle the funnybone. That’s quite an amazing feat.
Allen is a die-hard lover of books and movies. She told me in an interview early last year that one of her favorite pastimes is simply to lose herself in the pages of a good book: “I love to sit back and just read! It is a pleasure. I also love old movies — I love to find a movie that will make you want to watch it again, even when you know the ending!”
Immersing herself in an imaginary world is second nature to the artist, and that is how her “punny” company name Raspbeary Bears came to fruition. “When I started out, I wanted a name no one else had,” she recalled. “So, I came up with a story about a bear who was snooty and didn’t want to eat fish. Instead, he stumbled upon raspberries, fell in love, and also ate too many!”
It’s fitting that the origin of Allen’s label has the feel of a children’s bedtime tale. The artist often turns to children’s book illustrations as her inspiration and creative springboard. “I like the way Johnny Gruelle drew and dressed his witches in his Raggedy Ann illustrations. When I made a witch, I took my inspiration from him for the clothing,” Allen explained. Many of her pieces have reflected children’s storybook characters and their recognizable costumes, personalities, and escapades.
Beyond the pages of a favorite picture book or fairy tale, Allen also finds her muses in everyday, ordinary moments: “It could be the sound of kids playing, a scrap of fabric, or a button. Everything is open to interpretation by me.”
Friendly with many of her collectors, always willing and happy to chat with them, Allen attributes this to her love of people. She considers herself “a people watcher. I like to observe people!” One thing she has observed is the customers’ reactions to her pieces: “They seem to be drawn to their facial expressions. They seem to look at you, and some even seem to move! Some collectors like the names. Because I have a hard time thinking of real names, the pieces get names like ‘I didn’t start it!’ for a bear with a black eye.”
Having been a tireless bear maker and advocate since 1985, Allen has dreamed up scores of ursine characters and nonbear companion critters. She is modest when she is asked to explain why her reputation is so solid and why her Raspbeary Bears have been charming collectors for more than 30 years.
“I don’ think I’ve made anything that is totally unique or has never been seen before. Over the years, I have learned that the same idea can come to a lot of artists, but it’s made with your personal interpretation,” the craftswoman observed. “What you do, and how you do it, comes from your background. It’s your skills that make what you do original!”
Among her many skills, Allen prizes her sewing abilities, which she learned from her foster mother, and later had them reinforced in her home economics classes. All of the other “bear necessities” she taught herself.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, young Darlene was artistic, but she doesn’t believe her family acknowledged it. “I think my sister was the only one who paid any attention to it,” she mused. “I can’t say if my family supported my artistic leanings, because I don’t think it was noticed.”
After graduation from college, Allen left Ohio, and has called the small town of Oviedo, Florida, her home for many years. When Allen described her home to me, it sounded as if she was quoting from a bedtime story or pointing out the design elements of a picture book’s colorful spread: “Chickens walk around the downtown shops, and there are antique stores, art galleries, and farmers markets. We have U-Pick strawberry, blueberry, and blackberry farms. It still has a small-town flavor to it. You can hear the high-school band practice from my house and you can see the sky clearly at night. It is beautiful.”
Oviedo sounds like an ideal place to live, to retire to, or to raise children. Allen’s family is close-knit, and her children are now grown. They still, however, hold a place in her heart when she sits down to create. “My daughter is why I make bulldogs. She wanted one for a coworker, and that inspired me,” Allen admitted. “My husband, Keith, attends shows with me when he can. He even does one for me when it conflicts with a three-day show I attend. My husband and my children have been a sounding board and a previewer of new work for me.”
It’s her son, Dwayne, who was the most personally involved in his mother’s handiwork. “When Dwayne was little, he’s grown now, he used to give each bear a kiss as it was finished,” she reminisced.
Working in a field where her son could bestow innocent, gentle kisses on a slumbering cub or a drowsy giraffe is something that Allen has never taken for granted. “All around me, life surprises me,” she said. “It gave me a husband who is a friend and two kids, when I thought I wouldn’t even have one. I get to use my imagination every day!”
Putting her career in perspective, Darlene Allen theorized, “I am able to create bears and other animals, and I know that my ability has made people smile and laugh. It is something that I treasure and feel honored to do.”