Bears' tales wrapped around a good deed for those in need

Stuffed with stories, teddy-bear project aids House of Ruth

April 03, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

"Lynette had her kitchen window taken out and replaced with a little pop-out greenhouse. Inside, she grows orchids."

"Malik is from Mali. He came to America to study at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health."

"Mami is an older woman who has had many lovers and knows much."

All plausible human sketches, these snippets are actually plucked from the biographies of "art bears," one-of-a-kind teddy bears created to support the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for victims of domestic abuse.

Through April, La Terra, a Hampden boutique, will display 30 of the bears, priced from $125 to $150. All proceeds will go to the shelter.

House of Ruth staffers don't expect a windfall from this project, says Terri Wurmser, the shelter's director of programs. Its larger value lies in its power to draw "people into the fold of the work we do," she says.

Transforming scraps and dish towels into art is also a way of honoring the accomplishments of clients who may arrive at the shelter with very few resources, participants say.

The art bear project may eventually expand to include mugs and mouse pads bearing images of the bears. Possibly, such efforts will help to finance a thrift store, where House of Ruth clients can receive job training and earn a salary, Wurmser says. Such a "first little micro enterprise" could also be a platform for launching the nonprofit into self-sufficiency, she says. Founded in 1977, the House of Ruth depends on grants and public funds to operate.

In a North Baltimore workshop carved from a storage space, volunteers gather weekly to bring life to a growing population of benevolent bears. Each has its own quirks, accomplishments and plush personality.

Barbara Dale, a Baltimore cartoonist, is the art bear project's artistic director and author of each creature's biography.

At first, "you literally don't know who they are," Dale says of her ursine brood. "They sort of declare themselves at the end." Along the way, a gender switch or a radical shift in destiny may occur, simply because, given the bear's raw materials, it makes sense.

Bear character development is not Dale's exclusive bailiwick. Volunteers lend their own observations and experiences to the process. With the social acuity of girls playing with dolls, they envision the lives and predilections of the bears as they adorn them with buttons, costume jewels, fur and accessories.

A satiny white bear dripping in costume jewelry, called "Ice" for now, is Shannon Benjamin's current favorite. Ice is a "sassy, upper-class bear who wears a lot of bling bling," says Benjamin, a Morgan State junior who heard about the workshop through a campus YWCA chapter.

At a recent workshop, volunteers chat about jobs and television trivia as they stitch stuffing into bears, cut bear pelts from a pattern, and sift through gobs of buttons, jewelry, thread and fabric donated by area businesses.

Kyle Kessenich, a costumer by trade, brainstorms about a "biker bear," conceived when the workshop received a batch of black leather. "She does not wear anything that's not black," she says. "She's been like that since high school."

That would be in the 1980s, when everybody wore black, another volunteer says.

Should she have spiky hair? Long, straight hair? A bandanna? Somehow, the bear will speak and tell them what she needs. When she is completed, volunteers, adhering to a workshop ritual, will sing "Happy Birthday."

Several of Dale's bears are based on real people. "Denise," with her towering, hot pink hairdo, is named for Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon in Hampden. "Po Chang" is named after Dale's friend who runs Cafe Zen in North Baltimore.

Dale also designed "Nancy," a custom bear, for Maryland state school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, as a birthday gift from her staff. Sparkly, a little glamorous, Nancy carries a cell phone and totes a purse loaded with rocks to simulate Grasmick's real purse, which is notoriously heavy.

As fulfilling as their lives have been so far, the House of Ruth art bears are poised for journeys beyond their wildest dreams. Walter, for example, a tweedy accounting major who loathes camping, recently moved to the French Riviera, with the family that purchased him.

Art Bears are on display at La Terra, 4001 Falls Road, Hampden, through April 30. All proceeds benefit the House of Ruth. An opening reception takes place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at La Terra. Information: 410-889-7562 or

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