▲ The Joanne Bear Museum was opened by Joanne Oh in 2009. All photos courtesy Joanne Bear Museum
For most adults, teddy bears were abandoned along with the need for a soft companion to keep monsters at bay at night, but for Joanne Oh this ubiquitous symbol of childhood naiveté is not simply a plush plaything, but a medium for multifaceted stories to unfold. Tucked within the narrow back-streets of the Jungmun Resort complex, the Joanne Bear Museum is a testament to Oh's artistry and her ode to the teddy bear.
Opened in fall of 2009, the Joanne Bear Museum is not your typical teddy bear exhibition, if such a thing exists. Housed in a beautiful two-story building designed by Pack So Childay, the combination art gallery and toy store tells Joanne’s tale and showcases her progression as an artist. Her story begins, said Kim Kwang, manager of the museum and also Joanne’s son, during the 1970s while she lived in Hong Kong. “She came into an antique store and she found this German teddy bear made more than a hundred years ago and she thought to herself that maybe this was her passion. She fell in love with it.”
Her creations are all handmade, materials included, and each one takes a month to complete, Kim said. Made from mohair imported directly from a farm in Germany, Joanne twines the thread and then fashions a yard of fabric with the use of a loom, which in itself takes two weeks. The next step is the dyeing of the material with the use of only organic pigments made from roses, jasmines and even onions. “When she first made them [the teddy bears]” Kim said, “the color used to fade and then we found a way to prevent that.” When asked how this deterioration was prevented, Kim said it was their “little secret.”
In one section of the museum on the ground floor Joanne employs teddy bears depicting herself to show important moments throughout her life that influenced her work. The first display shows Joanne “just sitting on the couch,” Kim said, pointing to the piece “and she started reading about Gandhi and she saw him with the weaving machine and she thought ‘maybe I can make a teddy bear with a weaving machine.’”
The second is of her “walking around in nature, taking a little stroll and she thought to herself, ‘Why do we chemically dye teddy bears?’ and then she started to do it naturally.”
The last display in Joanne’s tale is of her teddy bear standing in front of a miniature of F.A.O. Shwarz, the famous toy store in Manhattan. Her teddy bears were steadily becoming more popular, Kim said, but it was in 2002 that they really took off. Popular Korean actor Bae Yong Joon wanted to find a way to merchandise his character from a well known drama when he entered F.A.O. Shwarz and saw Joanne’s teddy bears. Kim said Yonsama, as he is known, was so taken with her work that his company commissioned a line of teddy bears that became very successful.
This was the first of many custom bears to be requested of Joanne by celebrities and they are frequently seen on Korean television shows. An entire section of the museum is dedicated to the celebrity-inspired toys.
Kim said his mother credits much of what has happened in her life to fate. As with the occasion of Yonsama coming across her teddy bears, discovering the location for her museum was preordained, she believes. “She came to Jeju for the first time in 1986,” Kim said, “and when she came here she fell in love with it, exactly this spot she fell in love with where the museum is right now.” At the time her business was not doing particularly well but, “she risked just about everything to get this spot about 25 years ago and always thought of having a museum here.”
▲ A display at the museum raises money to help save polar bears, above left, and the Yonsama bear is surrounded by photos taken by fans of Bae Yong Joon, right. All photos courtesy Joanne Bear Museum
The second floor of the museum houses a cafe and rest area where a life-sized white plush bear sits at the back of the room. The polar bear, Kim said, is one of Joanne’s environmental concerns and, in collaboration with Polar Bear International, she has created a line of teddy bears to help raise money for the conservation of the species. The toys are promoted by singer Sul Tea Gi, who Kim described as the “Korean Bob Dylan.” One of the foremost reasons for the museum's connection with PBI, other than the obvious tie-in, Kim said, is because it is a small foundation where all the work is done by volunteers who take no salary. “One hundred percent of the money [from the sale of polar teddy bears] goes to saving the polar bears,” he said.
Surprisingly, the majority of Joanne’s clientele are adults and it is a rare occasion when children visit the museum. Of the 150 to 200 patrons a day, roughly 90 percent are from Japan and this is due, Kim said, to the popularity in Japan of the Korean shows that feature her teddy bears. The effect the museum has upon those who visit is overwhelming. Kim recounted anecdotes of people crying on entering the museum. “A lot of people cry here,” he said. “I don’t even know why that is and Joanne cries with them, every single time.”
He suggested that her teddy bears have a way of simplifying life, that they recall the purity of youth, a time of idealism, before one becomes shocked and downtrodden by the unrelenting world. Speaking for his mother, he said, “Without teddy bears I don’t think anything would really mean much to her. That’s the reason she lives, I think, to make teddy bears.”
Joanne Bear Museum 1959 Daepo-dong, Seogwipo City Tel. 064-739-1024 Web site. www.joannestudio.co.kr Hours. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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