From Bears to Barrels

If you’ve ever been to the city of Grants Pass, Oregon in the summer (during the last 10 years or so), then you have probably seen some of the bears that are put on display around the downtown area from June – August.  I remember being so excited about them the first year I saw them, after moving to the area in 2012. I went around with my children and took photos of them with each bear statue.

Now that my family has moved to Grants Pass (proper), I pass by them almost every day while driving around town running errands.  I’ve gotten used to seeing certain ones in certain places, like they are part of the architecture.

(This is maybe a little over half of the bears currently on display for the Summer of 2016)

So, being an artist and all, a couple months ago I took the plunge. I decided that I wanted to try to become one of the artists for one of the bears. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, though, or who exactly I needed to talk to. I DID know that the bears are usually housed/stored at a place called The Bear Hotel when they aren’t being displayed, and I knew that an art group had held their meeting at the Bear Hotel in the past (which I had been invited to, but couldn’t go). And, I had heard some of my friends say that they “loved the Bear Hotel.”  Oh – and, I also knew that the Bear Hotel was somehow affiliated with Evergreen Federal Bank, especially because when I searched for The Bear Hotel on the internet, it was the Evergreen Federal Bank that came up. Hmmm….

OK, so- I emailed them. I sent an email to their main email address saying that I was a local artist and would love to paint one of the bears. Amazingly enough I heard back from them fairly quickly. They asked for photos of my artwork and wondered if I knew how to sculpt or carve. I sent them photos of my watercolor artwork, as well as photos of the carving I had done years ago as a scenic artist in the Seattle area at Village Theatre, and also told them of my carving experience while working at Seattle Opera. (phew!) I DID have carving experience, although I don’t really consider myself to be a sculptor. But, having experience & photos helped!

Here’s the statue I carved for the Sound of Music at Village Theatre in 2002:


They loved the photos I sent and I ended up going to an interview a week later. I got a tour of the Bear Hotel, and was told the history of the bears & the Bear Hotel, and the other exhibits at the Bear Hotel. I was also told about the history of the bank and why they started the Bear program. This actually was really interesting to me. You see I have seen other cities do art projects like this – the Seattle Pigs, the Seattle Ponies, the Portland Pigs. And, I know there have been many other cities that have done similar art programs. But, Grants Pass is unique because it isn’t the city that is organizing the art bears. It’s a bank. Evergreen Federal Bank basically uses the bears as advertising and as a way to help beautify the city and revitalize the downtown area.

Back to me working on a bear… In a nutshell, they used to buy pre-fabricated bears, which were all of the same 2-3 designs, and they would just have artists paint them. Over the years they began realizing that bears which had been altered, or completely custom-made/carved/sculpted were more exciting, so they stopped using the pre-fabricated bears and now only create custom carved bears. They only have a handful of people who are able to sculpt the bears, but apparently have a fairly extensive list of painters. They were pretty excited to know of another sculptor (Me!), since a couple of their sculptors are hoping to retire in the next year or two. I’m looking forward to learning their process of carving the bears out of Styrofoam, strengthening them with fiberglass, and then using Bondo, and finally paint.  I’m hoping to work with some of their other carvers to learn the process. They said that they will be doing some bear cubs for next year, and are currently letting the public vote on the themes for the cubs.  It is looking likely that I will be working on one of those cubs this fall/winter, but they want to make sure I am comfortable with the very toxic process, so I may not get my own bear to work on just yet (but, I’m hopeful!).

In the meantime, they partner with other local organizations on other art programs & events, including The Oregon Wine Experience. So, for now, they have hired me to paint a wine barrel which will be auctioned off during the Oregon Wine Experience in August. (Apparently it’s the largest wine event in Oregon!)  There are three wine barrels, each by a different artist, which will be auctioned off. All the proceeds will benefit the Children’s Miracle Network.

Here is my design that I submitted – before I ever saw the barrel:


Our family ended up going on vacation right around the time the barrel was going to be delivered.  So, I knew I’d have this barrel to work on as soon as I returned.  Therefore, while I was on vacation in my hometown, Santa Barbara, I was thrilled to be able to visit my favorite art store and have a good excuse for needing to buy some things. I bought some new “toys” – bottles of acrylic inks, that I planned to use on the barrel. Some of the inks I purchased were pearlescent!  I received the barrel the day I returned from my vacation.  And, it all became very real – the barrel was big & heavy!  I couldn’t lift it.  Thankfully they left a dolly for us to use to wheel the barrel around on – very helpful!  It still was a group effort whenever I needed to move it to the front deck, or back inside and up onto our coffee table – with my husband and 18-year-old son helping.

The barrels were donated by local wineries. The barrel that I received had fairly aged and grey wood. I sanded the dickens out of it with an orbital sander. I’m not kidding – I sanded it for hours and hours and hours! (probably about 8 hours at least) While sanding the wood, I discovered that sanding the metal rings gave them a wonderful glittery-bright finish, since the sander left a sort of texture in the metal. This was awesome in my opinion, so I sanded all of them in that way.


My husband removed a couple of the bands for me so that I had more room for my design.   The rings/bands going around the barrel were loose, and were easily moved up and down, since they were each only nailed to the barrel in two places on opposite sides. The nails that held the rings on the barrel were not typical nails – they had sort of a rectangular head. We found some nails with very large heads. My husband ground down the sides of the nail heads to resemble the other ones in the barrel, and was able to secure the rings to the barrel so they were no longer loose.

The wood was discolored under the two bands that were removed, and even after sanding them a LOT – I was unable to completely remove the discoloration.  I decided it would just have to be part of the charm of an aged barrel.

My idea in using the inks – was to have a sort of translucent look, so that the woodgrain would show through.  For the most part that worked.  However, as I worked on it, I ended up using some other acrylic paint in some areas – mostly white & yellow acrylic(but a few other colors too) to help the colors look more vibrant, rather than be sucked up by the thirsty wood.

I ended up putting two quotes from John Steinbeck on the top of the barrel. One quote about wine, and one quote about the color of poppies.

Here are the quotes:

“Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.”

“These too are of a burning color–not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.”

Here are some in-progress photos of the barrel.  I am hoping to get some better photos of it during the wine event, after they have added a glass table-top to it.  (Note: don’t look too close – there is a “typo” in the photo of the wine quote, which I fixed later. I had spelled “paisanos” wrong. Oops!)

You can probably see in the photo – the shiny pearlescent inks.  I used gold, pink & blue pearlescent inks – over the top of the other colors – but in specific areas like the sky, the poppies and the lupines.  The pearlescent inks added the same level of sheen that the bands had, which tied it all together well.

One other thing about working on this barrel: it was a used wine barrel, therefore it used to have wine in it!  And, when I was working on it and was very close to it – I could smell the wine.  It was a sweet smelling wine aroma.  Apparently (they said) that one of the other wine barrels DIDN’T smell sweet – but had more of a rotten wine smell.  So glad I got the particular wine barrel that I did!  The wine aroma I had was pleasant, and definitely added to the overall experience!

Looking forward to seeing the other two barrels, and finding out how much this barrel auctions for!



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