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Artist of the Month

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The featured artist for the month of August is Anita Wheeler from Canada!     

Anita was born in Tilburg, Holland, the daughter and granddaughter of antique dealers. The family was involved not only in buying and selling fine antiques but they were also skilled at restorations of European pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries. Among their clients were the Dutch Royal Family. Anita moved to Canada with her parents when she was three years old where her father eventually opened his own antique store. 

Anita’s mother was an accomplished seamstress and needlewoman. “Unfortunately, impatience and youth did not translate to me until I was much older, but the threads of creativity had been deeply instilled and grew quietly undetected for years” comments Anita. 

Before being bitten by the teddy bear “bug”, Anita had a career in the Insurance industry in Toronto where she met “my true love in life, Michael.” In the late ’70’s they moved to Edmonton where Michael’s Business successful enough for Anita to retire from Insurance. 

It all started when a friend of Anita’s asked her to repair a 25-year-old panda. Anita had no idea how teddies were made, much less how to repair an old one! So she told her friend she would try to make a new one. Armed with a commercial pattern and some synthetic fur, Anita tried her hand at making a panda. She was amazed! There in front of me was a panda, it looked like a panda, sat like a panda, and even grinned like a panda and I had made it!” As you can guess, this is all it took to hook Anita. 

The Wheeler home was shared by several manufactured teddy bears, most of them sort of Michael’s. When Anita felt “the need for a new bear”, she would buy one as a gift for Michael hoping he would get the hint and buy bears for her. Some of the teddies were even delivered to Michael’s office by a clown loaded with balloons. It seems Michael never got the hint, so Anita kept buying him more bears.

Shortly after making the panda, Anita and her mother-in-law discovered a teddy bear store, “Teddy’s Treasures”, in Edmonton. They were advertising teddy bear making workshops and Anita says, “Like pins to a magnet, I just couldn’t walk by”. Needless to say, she signed up for the workshop and learned how to make her first jointed mohair bear. Shortly after that Anita took several of her first creations on vacation with her to Victoria. She found a teddy bear store there and bravely entered with hopes of being able to sell them. The teddies returned home with Anita but she did receive some positive comments.

In 1993 the Wheelers moved from Alberta to five acres on Gabriola Island, B.C. There the couple built there new home. A project of this size doesn’t allow time for teddy bear making, so the hobby had to take a back seat for a while. A year later Anita took advantage of the opportunity to take a Ted Menten workshop. Now instead of just “building” teddies, she was armed with the skills to actually design. Her bears changed expression, posture and were finished more professionally. 

In the beginning, Anita’s bears ranged in size from 12” to 22”, but stuffing such large bruins is a chore. Slowly the bears are getting smaller and smaller. Now the most common size is the range of from 5” to 14”. Feeling lonely while Michael was away on a business trip. Anita began making her first small bear, a little 6” fellow. “Stanley”. His nose was slightly bent and off center and he was really quite homely. Stanley was destined to become part of Anita’s personal collection. But no matter where he was seated, Stanley seemed to draw Anita’s attention because there was just something about him. Poor Stanley looked so forlorn; Anita made a soul mate for him, Gladys. 

In the fall of 1995 Michael and Anita braved their first major show – the Bear Fair in Calgary, Alberta. Wouldn’t you know it, Stanley and Gladys were the hit of the show. Several pieces were adopted and now live in different parts of North America. One “Stanley” wasn’t quite so fortunate though. His owner was proudly showing him off on the return flight home, but somehow he got left behind. There was a frantic search of the plane to no avail. Anita made a new “Stanley” to replace the lost teddy. To this day every time Anita hears a jet roaring overhead she wonders if “Stanley” might just be a stowaway on that plane. 

Michael is Anita’s comic relief at teddy bear shows and encourages her to continue ever during those shows that are “less than successful”. When Anita is frustrated because a pattern just wont work, Michael is there with words of encouragement. The show circuit keeps them busy, averaging one per month. Anita’s table displays her other talents, she knits teddy sweaters, sews them outfits, and surrounds them with quilts and hand painted props. 

Expanding on the art, Anita sells photographs of her bears in the form of fridge magnets and greeting cards. She gets a kick out of going on photo shoots around the island. The sight of two adults loaded down with teddies and camera equipment is sure to bring a smile to the faces of the people watching. Anita is also exploring the avenue of selling her own designs and patterns, Her fondest wish is to one-day win a Toby and a Golden Teddy.

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