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Yosemite Bearworks

Yosemite Bears - Behind the Seams

Bedtime for Bears by Donna Butts
"Bedtime for Bears" is Donna's 2001 TOBY winner. This stunning 20-inch sleepyhead is all ready for the land of nod.
"Teddy Bear Scene" Magazine, Issue 52
Dec. 2001 – Warner's Group Public – UK

"I have so many ideas buzzing around in my head that I just know I'm going to be busy for a long time yet!" – That's Stateside supreme Donna Butts making the understatement of the year!

The 2001 TOBY winner, it soon becomes clear, is an artistic time bomb waiting to go off and I sit gawping like a fish as Donna rapidly reels off her plans. There are Flower Bears waiting to bloom and Jack-in-the-Box bears waiting to spring into life… bears with stories to tell and ‘Bedtime’ teds who want to hear your stories. There are lots of animals waiting to be brought to life too – rustic rabbits, felines with fashion statement fur, and Donna even has a hedgehog in the pipeline. She already has a piece of fur with a prickly pawson’s name right on it!

"I've got several ideas for bear sets that need a really small bear to go with them and I'd love to collaborate with a miniaturist sometime!" she beams. Eek! I've never yet lost an interviewee but barely five minutes into talking to Donna Butts and I’m already starting to contemplate dialing 999 – she has so many ideas that I’m worried that any second now she’ll spontaneously combust.

Donna herself never dreamt she would be an artist. "Although I always did well in art classes at school and got a lot of praise from my teachers, I really never though I'd actually become an artist," she reveals. “My big sister was – and still is – a wonderful artist and I always admired her drawings so much that I knew I couldn’t compete.

“Besides, when I was little what I really wanted to do was to work in the library. We lived in a really small town called Strathmore here in California and there was never much going on for children to do. We lived across the road from the town library and once I could read I was forever going back and forth with armloads of books. I loved that library and all its wonderful stories on its shelves, I couldn’t think of anything lovelier than working in a place just like it when I grew up! For a while I actually did.

“When I was older I got me degree and worked in several libraries very much like it. In fact, that’s the way I met my husband. He came in one day, only instead of checking out with some books, he checked out with the librarian – me! That’s another story though.”

Donna also worked as a teacher for several years. “What I enjoyed most about that was sharing my love of books and storytelling,” she smiles. “I feel that in some way I’m still doing that with my teddies. In my mind, each new teddy has a story to tell. By designing and accessorizing I begin the story and let the teddy’s new owner carry it on from there. A lot of my inspiration for new designs comes from children’s literature too. I’ve always loved the old folk and fairytales and the illustrations in them are wonderful. Last year, after I’d set myself the challenge to create other animals, I found a beautiful illustration of a rabbit in an old book of folk tales. He was standing on his back legs and has such a mischievous attitude that he was a real marvel to behold. I worked for a week until I finally got something of that rabbit’s look.”

When Donna was getting to grips with recreating the charismatic folk story character, she approached the project in the same way she approaches every she ever does, with sheer gusto and a great deal of determination. No furry fiend will ever get the better of Donna Butts. She thrives on a challenge and every time she perseveres with a new project it pays off – she really does seem to have a Midas touch when it comes to creativity.

As she reveals, “I’ve always been involved in arts and crafts and over the years, I’ve tried just about everything. Knitting, needlepoint, dressmaking, quilting, I’ve done them all. Quilting was a BIG passion for a long time and I still love everything about it. It was actually through quilting that I first became involved with bears. I belong to a group of quilters and we’ve been meeting together every Friday morning for many years. A few years back we wanted to do something different for a change and we decided to give teddies a try, so we found a pattern and all made a bear. For some strange reason that I still can’t explain, when I finished mine and looked down into its face, something clicked. I just knew that this was something I wanted to do. HAD to do, even. There was no going back for me. I still meet with my friends every Friday, but nowadays I’m more likely to be working on a bear while they work on their quilts. They’ve been super supportive of what I’m doing now and when I bring a new design along to work on, they all immediately want to order one. They’re among my best customers.”

One bear Donna’s friends will never get their mitts on is her first bruin. He belongs to her hubby and he steadfastly refuses to let him go.

“That bear wears all of my husband’s school sports medals on a sash, as well as his High School class ring on a chain around his neck,” Donna laughs. “He’s no masterpiece, my first bear, but we love him and maybe all that glory helps hide his shortcomings. And there are lots. I made my share of beary blunders when I first started out, but, because I knew bear making was something I really wanted to do, I set myself the challenge of learning the craft properly. I read every book I could find that looked promising. I also began experimenting with designing my own bears almost from the beginning.

“My biggest improvement in bear making and design though was when I took a class from Ted Menten. I came home from that class with pages of notes and a much greater appreciation of what care needs to be taken to produce a quality bear. My bears improved immediately. My first show after that was a small one in a nearby city and my bears sold really well and with that small success, it gave me the confidence to book larger and larger shows.

“I also began entering contests whenever the opportunity arrived. I think this is an excellent way to challenge myself and I find that I learn most whenever I have to ‘leap into the unknown’. I’ve won quite a few blue ribbons and two ‘Best of Show’ awards this past year – so entering contests has really paid off. And of course, I was totally amazed when a bear of mine was nominated for a TOBY this year, and utterly stunned when I found out he’d won.”

I wasn’t – Donna’s designs are utterly delectable and are as perfect as they are gorgeous, so it’s no surprise the judging panel and voting public fell head over heels for them. Donna, though, is still floating three feet off the ground with shock and excitement and I have to drag her back down to earth to ask her what words she thinks best describes her creations. She smiles.

“Well, overall, I’d say they’re traditional with a touch of whimsy. Sometimes the whimsy turns out to be more than a touch, though!”

Cute and capricious and always original, Donna’s designs range in size from 5 to 30 inches and are always beautifully crafted from mouthwatering mohairs, lush alpacas and high quality synthetics. A self-confessed fabrics, fiend, Donna confesses to owning a fabrics collection that would rival Liberty’s and laughs, “I can spend hours chosing just the right piece. I love to go inot a fabric store and see the explosion of textures and colors. I think one of the main pleasures of being a bear artist is getting to choose the mohair. I was a goner the second I picked up my first piece and felt its yummy texture and saw all the incredible colors and textures that are available.”

Donna has been addicted to this ‘mohair high’ ever since, and sheepishly admits that the mountain of mohair in her tall cabinet is beginning to reach Everest proportions.

Luckily, Donna has as many ideas as she does pieces of fabric. The Yosemite Bear family is ever-growing and Donna never fails to delight and tantalize collectors with her latest additions to the clan.

Jovial Jack-in-the-box-bears, show stopping Senoritas with pawfect piñata teddies, botanical bunnies and blooming marvelous Flower Bears… you name it, Donna’s made it – her collection really does have something for everyone. Along with the perennially popular family of Flower Bears, Donna’s much loved Bedtime Bears are among her most sought after designs and these sleepyhead teds – all ready for bed with their beary original slippers and own cuddlesome companions – are an ongoing part of her collection. Her fantastic felines are also ever popular and like her rabbits, these furry friends are often the first ones to be snapped up at shows.

Donna says, “I love having a variety of animals to offer my collectors and there are still lots of animals I really ant to do. I have so many designs that I can’t wait to bring to life.”

Asking an artist to name their favorite design always seems to get the same reaction as asking a mother to choose a favorite child and Donna looks horrified when I hit her with the dreaded question.

“I can’t do that!” she exclaims. “I love them all! My favorite always tends to be the bear I happen to be working on at that moment in time – I guess that makes it easier to let them go to new owners. I’m always looking at the next bear in progress.”

There’s no hesitation there, though, when I ask Donna what part of the job she enjoys the most.

“Costuming and accessorizing!” she exclaims with her eyes lighting up. “I create nearly everything myself and I love every minute of it. I taught myself leatherwork so I could make shoes and backpacks and purses and learnt millinery skills too… I love making hats now! My biggest sense of achievement was when I figured out how to make a gentleman’s top hat. I’d wanted to make gentleman bears and rabbits for a long time and I could never find hats to fit them, but now I can make any size I need.”

“It’s obvious Donna loves a challenge and she always enjoys working to special commissions.

“My favorite so far had to be a bear I made for a friend,” she smiles. “She saved a very special pair of leather shoes that belonged to her grandson. They were darling! They had little frog faces on the toes and I made a bear wearing the shoes and a pair of denim overalls with a little mohair frog that dangled from the bear’s back pocket. My friend her grandson loves that bear and hugs it every time he comes to her house. He still wants his old shoes back thought!”

There’s no doubt abut it, Donna’s creations appear to everyone, young and old, and her designs are now in demand from collectors all around the globe. Well, I hear you cry, how do I get one? The bad news is that currently Donna only attends shows on the West Coast of the USA. The good news is she does – wait for the magic words – mail order.

She says, “My bears and animals range in price from $75 to $400 and I do offer layaway. The terms are pretty simple, I ask for a 25% deposit with the remainder to be paid in installments over 6 months. At the moment my waiting list is around 4-6 months. LL Knickerbocker manufactured three of my designs this year too, so I can reach so many more collectors this way now. The whole year has been really exciting for me. I was really pleased that one of my LL Knickerbocker designs, Fleurette, was nominated for a TOBY. Being nominated was incredible. But to actually win one for Bedtime for Bears! Ever since I began making bears, receiving such an award seemed like such a far away dream that I can hardly realize that after such a short time, I have really won one. I still have to keep going and looking at ‘Bedtime’ with his trophy to make sure I haven’t been dreaming. I’m really been a big year for Yosemite Bears.” Long may it continue.

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(c) Donna Butts, 2004
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