If you ever saw Patricia Li Klayman fronting Grand Theft Auto, a 70s-punk-inspired four-piece that gained some local notoriety several years ago in part for her hell-raising style, you probably would have never guessed she’d end up making teddy bears and sock monkeys for a living. “Now I’ve become this,” she jokes, gesturing around her studio in her Humboldt Park condo. About a half-dozen sock monkeys still in need of eyes are perched on a windowsill. Fuzzy teddy bears in printed dresses and overalls, ranging in size from four inches to ten, sit between neatly folded piles of fabric on a bookshelf. Their oversize heads have low-set eyes and flat faces with fur that’s a little matted and worn away, like it’s already been subjected to years of kisses and smushing. That’s one of Klayman’s trademarks. “A lot of those antique bears are pretty quirky,” she says. “They get so funny after years and years–the arms, the nose. I love how they get all worn. That way they’re not so precious.”
Klayman, 36, only started sewing teddy bears in 2003, but among collectors–known as arctophiles–she’s already a minor celebrity. Working under her Asian name, Peng Peng (her mom is Chinese), she’s developed a unique style she describes as “traditional technique with an Asian-infused eclectic look.” Last year she appeared on the HGTV series Crafters Coast to Coast to give a demonstration on bear making, and she was the subject of a March cover story in the British magazine Teddybear Club International. Fans in the UK have started a Yahoo discussion group devoted to her work and at least one has a Peng Peng tattoo.
A graduate of the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, Klayman moved to Chicago about ten years ago to get into the music scene. She spent several years singing and playing guitar in Grand Theft Auto and a few other groups, but tensions with her bandmates and the series of day jobs she took to support herself–including one in the Reader’s classifieds department–were getting her down. In 2002 she went home for Christmas and noticed a tiny teddy bear that her mother, whom she describes as “a crafty type,” had sewn on a whim. “Something about the size of it struck a chord with me,” she says. Klayman, who already collected small Native American animal carvings, says she’d always been attracted to “the intimacy of the scale” of handheld art objects. “I came home and just looked up on eBay ‘miniature teddy bear,’ and then I realized that they have a whole category of artist bears and mini bears. They’re insane–so realistic, so tiny. And I was like, I’ve got to explore this.”
Handcrafted teddy bears have been around since the turn of the last century, but after World War II they were rapidly replaced by mass-produced versions made with synthetic fibers. In the 1970s an American doll maker named Beverly Port coined the term “artist bears” to refer to her one-of-a-kind, labor-intensive collectibles and kick-started a resurgence in the popularity of handcrafted bears. Many artist bears are traditional, dressed in doll clothes, but there are also knitted bears, miniature bears only a couple inches tall, and monsterlike “goth” bears. You can even have a bear made from the clothing of a deceased loved one. There are teddy bear museums in England and Florida, teddy bear magazines, and teddy bear trade shows where artists and collectors regularly meet up. Klayman insists that collectors aren’t all middle-aged women in teddy bear sweatshirts. “That’s like saying all Star Trek fans are Trekkies–it’s sort of degrading,” she says. “I’ve seen everything from kids to old people. It’s not just midwestern ladies–it’s a whole variety.”
Although she’d never taken a needle to anything other than the occasional button or patch, Klayman found a pattern on the Web and made her own tiny bear out of some wool she had lying around. “It was really crude,” she says. Soon afterward she bought a how-to book and started learning different stitches. The first bear she sold–a traditional-looking mini bear named Charles, after her brother–went for $20 on eBay. Making miniature bears was an obsession for a while. “My smallest one was under two inches,” she says. “It becomes a sick perversion–how small can I go?” But she soon invested in a sewing machine, a metal 50s model she calls “indestructible,” to start making larger bears. She bought special hand-dyed mohair fabric imported from Germany, which can run as much as $150 a yard, and painted on handblown glass eyes. For inspiration she mined Japanese craft books and anime.
Peng Peng Bears took off quickly. In a January 2005 article Teddy Bear Scene noted that Klayman’s art background had helped her to be “successful from the beginning–something that doesn’t happen to many bear artists.” Her creations are sold through her Web site, peng-peng.com, and a few well-respected collectibles stores in the U.S. and the UK, where they’re often spoken for before they’ve even hit the shelves. “I don’t have stock lying around,” she says. The bears, with names like Mr. Pretzel and Snow Puf, typically sell for $200 to $400–relatively cheap, considering some artist bears can fetch up to five figures. That may seem like a lot for a stuffed toy, but as Klayman notes, “it is artistry–it’s not like a Russ bear at Walgreens.” A larger bear can take three days to a week to finish. “I’m really slow and methodical,” she says. “This one woman I know, she makes four a day. I want to know what kind of coffee she’s drinking, because I can’t possibly make them that fast.” Last year Klayman introduced a line of sock monkeys, made from vintage red-heeled socks she finds on eBay and then “antiques” using a secret method. They now account for 30 percent of her sales.
Like a lot of small-business owners, Klayman finds that paperwork and other office chores eat up a lot of her time. “With the shops, the corresponding, e-mails, and doing my own listings, there are days when I don’t eat breakfast or lunch,” she says. “[The business is] a machine, which I should be grateful for.”
Another challenge is keeping her designs fresh. With one series of bears she incorporated the “characteristic grin and bulbous eyes” of a famous bear from 1915, Chittern’s Master Teddy. As the anime influence becomes more popular as a style, her own will have to evolve. “I don’t want to knock other people–sometimes your stuff can look like somebody else’s work,” she says. “But it’s one thing to be influenced and disclose your influences from the get-go. It’s another thing to take someone’s characteristics and just pretend like you don’t know. A lot of people, they’ll just put the eyes real low. It takes more than that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.