A Life's Story

January 26, 2019

Teddy Bear Lady's life stuffed with artistic flair

Gifted woman created amazing array of arts, crafts... and a big, loving family during her 90 years

By Ashley Prest

Vera McLean could “bearly” contain her enthusiasm for all things creative, so she shared it generously, widely and often.

McLean, who died at age 90 on Sept. 29, 2018, was known for her collection of 600 teddy bears, but was legendary because of her astonishing artistic abilities.

Vera McLean had an amazing collection of teddy bears and astonishing artistic abilities. (Supplied)

Vera McLean had an amazing collection of teddy bears and astonishing artistic abilities. (Supplied)

She was an expert in painting with oil, acrylic, watercolour, pastel and ink and in drawing. She was proficient in pottery, tole painting rosemaling, quilting, decoupage, weaving, knitting, crocheting, sewing, macrame, batik, stitchery and puppetry, her children say.

The Teddy Bear Lady began her collection in 1969. It included her own creations and others from places she visited with Bill, her husband of 42 years, and on her own around the world: England, Ireland and other European spots, Mexico, the Caribbean and China.

“She loved teddy bears right from when she was a child and she just followed her passion; she believed bears are love,” says Sara Best, McLean’s daughter. “It was really, really special having someone so unique and so talented in our lives.”

A vintage Schuco Yes No Teddy Bear, left to her in a friend’s will, became a treasured piece in her collection.

McLean who, along with Sara had two sons, David and Jeff, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, exuded artistic talent and creative abilities.

In Beausejour, where she and her husband retired, she would paint the town red... and other colours, too.

“At Christmas, she would paint Christmas scenes and themes on windows for some of the businesses in town,” Best says. “She was learning different genres all the way through her life and she was painting right up until about a year before she passed. All of us have significant artwork and quilts from her.”

Each home where the couple raised their family became something of an area attraction, says David, the eldest.

“She would paint nativity scenes on the front windows of our home in all the communities that we lived in. We used to have all manner of people just driving by just to look at the windows,” he says. “From the outside, it looked like a big stained-glass window.”

McLean's family held a huge celebration for her when she turned 90 in 2018. (Supplied)

McLean's family held a huge celebration for her when she turned 90 in 2018. (Supplied)

David and his wife Vickie got an abstract painting titled Two Nudes and a Dinosaur from his mother in 1976 as a wedding gift.

“It’s quite a large, amazing canvas; very cool,” he says. “We took the title off of it because it got people so wired up about (the word ‘nude’). It’s a beautiful picture.”

Best says his mother had a studio in an extension built onto her Beausejour home which she opened into a “boodle shop” in 1977 to showcase and sell her original arts and crafts. In 1980, she turned the space into a museum for her vast collection of teddy bears.

Children visited the museum on school field trips; she gave them colouring books with her drawings inside. She performed puppet shows at the library and at local schools.

Her children say she left a “strong legacy of a passion for fun in life” and was constantly giving away her art.

When she downsized from her house to an apartment, McLean donated about 300 bears and display cases to the Brokenhead River Regional Library, where they are a popular attraction. Family members kept some special bears and others were donated to local hospitals after her death.

Vera donated many bears to the Brokenhead River Regional Library where they are displayed in the children's section. (Supplied)

Vera donated many bears to the Brokenhead River Regional Library where they are displayed in the children's section. (Supplied)

As a teen, where McLean “lived and breathed” artistic talent, she submitted articles and drawings to the local newspaper in Kamsack, Sask., before her family moved to Winnipeg when she was 16.

“There was no favourite type of art; she did everything,” says Best. “She had a book from 1943 that was her home economics book when she was at Lord Wolseley Collegiate in East Kildonan. It’s a book of fashion with her drawings and she wrote about them.

“All of her creativity and her passion poured out in her work and it showed in all that she did.”

She met Bill when they were both working for the Royal Bank and they married in 1949. They lived in Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Rivers and Melita before settling in Beausejour.

Her children recall her enduring joy in spending time with her eight grandchildren, having tea parties, staging puppet shows, dressing up bears, doing crafts and pottery, playing at her cottage in Matlock, going for bike rides, sailing on the lake and watching the sun rise and set.

“It was everyday things but she made them special,” Best says. “When I was little, I had to wear dresses to school and I hated dresses, so she would sew me and my dolls dresses that matched.”

Sometimes, McLean's bears enjoyed hanging out on the beach. (Supplied)

Sometimes, McLean's bears enjoyed hanging out on the beach. (Supplied)

David says his mother and his son Rogan shared their birthday, June 23. On Rogan’s third birthday in 1987, his grandma had a special surprise.

“I remember Mom and Dad were coming out (to Brandon from Beausejour) and they arrived with this great big box. They put it up on our step and she got inside. My dad rang the doorbell and we all came out and there was this box,” David says. “We said (to Rogan), ‘open the box, open the box,’ and his grandmother popped out!”

Her vivacious personality and sense of humour were evident in her love of quotations, which always produced a laugh.

“When she lived in Concordia Village assisted living, she would always post downstairs a quote of the day, and it was always funny things,” Best says. “She would post things like, ‘I had a handle on life, but it got broken!’ or ‘I tried to be normal once; worst two minutes of my life!’”

David says she made each of her grandchildren feel special.

“She made a book for each of them. It was the story of that grandchild’s life. She illustrated them and wrote them, and it was all about the adventures they had,” he says.

Best says her mother made quilts in 2007 for her and her brothers’ families with their handprints on them.

“She put a little saying on the back of each of them: ‘I’ve lived, laughed, laboured and loved.’ That was her.”

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

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