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The tale of the ‘Obama Bear’
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승인 2011.07.11  07:38:32
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▲ Clockwise from left: Ambassador Kathleen Stephens with Joanne Oh. Photo courtesy Joanne Bear Museum. A scene depicting a traditional setting in which a queen and a court official meet for tea. Photo by Andrew Elwood. Oh showing off the wares in her museum’s gift shop. Photo by Darryl Coote. The letter to Joanne Oh from US President Barack Obama. Photo by Andrew Elwood.

The teddy bear was a gift.
It was made to express the encouragement and support of one lady. As she had done for 30 years, she gathered material, studied her subject, and began creating, not unlike any other artisan.

But this particular assemblage of mohair, cotton, and silk would travel far from its modest beginnings on Jeju Island. By way of the US embassy in Seoul, it would eventually complete its journey to Washington D.C. where, with the unfeigned innocence that only such a creation could possess, it took up residence with the leader of the free world.

This story begins in the months leading up to the 2010 G20 Summit in Seoul, when Korea’s former cultural minister, Lee Eo Ryeong, visited the Joanne Teddy Bear Museum in Seogwipo City.

Joanne’s work made such an impression on Mr. Lee that he suggested she make a teddy bear for each of the 20 world leaders participating in the summit. If at first the amalgamation of a cute stuffed animal and politician seems incongruous, remember that the teddy bear owes its inception to America’s 26th president, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. So she went to work. For three to four months Joanne Oh labored at the process of distilling the unique character and likeness of each leader into an individual handmade teddy bear.

Unfortunately, due to security concerns, the project was canceled, leaving behind 20 bodiless bear heads, each representing one of the 20 heads of state attending the G20 conference. Joanne light-heartedly giggles when she speaks of this, saying that for a quick laugh, she sometimes visits the heads, which she keeps in a special box in her studio.

In this endeavor her efforts went largely unrecognized, however not all was in vain; one bear escaped the “heads of state” box and made its way to the White House.

Joanne was allowed to finish and present just one of her creations: The “Obama Bear.” To prepare Joanne watched countless videos of President Barack Obama. She wanted to capture the emotion and seriousness he conveyed during his G20 speech but at the same time keep it cute; after all her medium is the teddy bear.
She focused on the president’s eyebrows, eyes, hairline, shape, and as Joanne put it, his “million dollar ears.”
Material is of primary importance when Joanne makes her bears. The Obama Bear’s fur is made from 100 percent Reinhard Schulte Mohair which was tip-dyed to create an amber sheen. The clothing fabric was made in Korea by Jeil Mojik from high quality cotton, and the tie is handmade, 100 percent silk and dyed a deep crimson in order to “create emotion.”

When the bear was finished, Kathleen Stephens, US ambassador to the Republic of Korea, accepted the gift on behalf of Barack Obama. At that time Joanne felt as if it was the end of the story and she nearly forgot about the Obama Bear.

Initially Joanne told Ambassador Stephens to give the Obama Bear to Michelle Obama in hopes that the first lady would “feel my mind, my emotion.” When watching President Obama on TV, Joanne was moved to express her encouragement and support. She said that she wanted to “give a little power and energy to Obama.”
Asked if Ambassador Stephens personally delivered the gift, a public affairs officer at the US embassy in Seoul said, “Unfortunately US Embassy Seoul received the bear via our Protocol office after the G20 had ended and President Obama had already departed. The bear was forwarded to the Department of State Protocol office in DC for delivery to the White House.”

Little did she realize that on May 12, a letter, as unassuming as any other piece of mail, would arrive at her door from the White House. Upon opening the letter Joanne and her son were shocked to find an acknowledgement, not from the first lady, but from President Obama. Her eyes locked on the large characteristic “O” of Obama’s personal signature, and she was amazed.

Recalling this event, Joanne said “My heart stopped,” and with a gasp, “I did not expect it!” Soon after that, the story of the Obama Bear and the letter made the seven o’clock national news in Korea.
Joanne’s story is unique. Everything about her work, her creations, and her museum has been touched by her own hands.

She believes that her guests, 300 to 600 per day, have such emotional reactions to her museum because they can feel the characters that her bears embody and the passion that she puts into each creation. Joanne says that when she sees the excitement from her guests, “Every time is like the first time; I’m so surprised.”

Turning down offers to expand her museum to operations aboard, she wants to keep things simple.
“I don’t know about tomorrow. Today could be the last day. Today is very important. My energy: I don’t want to spread out . . . my concentration is here,” she said.
And it is here on Jeju Island where she hopes to augment her previous conservation work with Polar Bears International by launching the “Save the Crescent Bear” campaign. From her museum on Jeju’s southern coast, she donates 30 percent of the proceeds from the sale of her polar bear line of stuffed animals to victims of the recent Japanese tsunami.

Joanne has made her life’s work with teddy bears into something greater than creating toys. It has allowed her the chance to branch out into conservation and humanitarian fields and give something back.

Throughout our conversation Joanne kept repeating one phrase as she described her life, work, and all her accomplishments: “Step, by step, by step.” This is good advice from someone who has done so much with something they love; it’s definitely something to . . . bear in mind.


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