The Power of Blue Ted

Amanda Newall, Blue Ted.

I woke up the other morning, started scrolling my phone, and landed on an image of a gigantic Blue Ted roaming the flaxen countryside. Blue Ted had an enormous head and a rotund belly, but from his bright blue furry arms protruded human hands and from his blue furry legs human shins and bare feet. The landscape looked rural and rustic, a bit The Power of the Dog. Otago? Or perhaps somewhere drier? I linked to the Stuff article titled ‘Canterbury Artist Amanda Newall Wins Olivia Spencer Bower Award’. Hey, that’s my cousin, I thought. No wonder I had warmed to Blue Ted.

Is art hereditary? I’m going to say ‘yes’.

In the 1990s, I went to Elam, Amanda went to Ilam. She still makes art, I still write about it.

I jumped on Facebook and wrote to her, ‘Blue Ted looks excellent.’

This prompted an enjoyable exchange about Gran, who gave Amanda the original Blue Ted. According to family lore, Amanda and I had a showdown about Gran when we were little. ‘She’s my Gran’, I said but Amanda was adamant that Gran actually belonged to her.

‘I had a Pink Ted’, I wrote in Facebook. Maybe that was why I contacted her. To let her know.

‘Can you send me a picture so I can authenticate if Pink Ted is in the same family?’, Amanda replied.

The next morning, she had sent a selection of retro teddy bears to my Facebook messages, along with pertinent questions: Do you still own Pink Ted? Can you draw it for me? I found the one remaining photo of me from the 1970s, in bed with Pink Ted, who wore a pink ribbon around his neck. I sent it to Amanda. No idea what became of Pink Ted. Amanda found the original Blue Ted in a black rubbish bag in her parents’ stable, disintegrating. Gran is now long since departed and buried in Waikumete Cemetery in Auckland. But good news—the new supersized Blue Ted is about to get an outing at the Gabrovo Biennial of Humour and Satire in Art, in Bulgaria.

Blue Ted is made of ‘the usual faux fur cheap teddy fabric’, with synthetic stuffing and lining. ‘Most importantly, it has a plastic tube behind the ears, so I can breathe’, Amanda told me. In 2021, she created the costume during a two-week residency at Joya: AiR in Andalusia, in Spain. Coincidentally, the local landscape was used for many spaghetti westerns including The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Amanda roamed the forty-eight–degree countryside in her tiger-print togs, sweating inside Blue Ted, wondering why she often makes costumes that are uncomfortable for the wearer.

In one image, she is dressed as Blue Ted and photographed from behind, tied to a tree. This image is her tribute to the origins of the teddy bear. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt, a big-game hunter, refused to shoot a black bear that had been tied with willow rope to a tree on a hunting trip near Mississippi. The incident was satirised in a political cartoon that depicts a cute little baby bear. The cartoon gave one wily Brooklyn candy-store owner the idea to make and sell a stuffed toy version. He called it ‘Teddy’s Bear’.

But I love the photo of Blue Ted tied to a tree for other reasons. Family is such a double bind. Memories of me and Amanda drinking feijoa wine at Auckland’s Verona, that bizarre vinyl golden-seal costume she once made and wore in front of the Auckland Sky Tower, her laugh, the way she tucks her brown hair behind her ears like Gran did, the logistical chaos of meeting her that day by Tate Britain years ago. She went to Tate Modern instead (or was it me?). It took an age for us to finally reconvene. But we did.

She will soon wear Big Ted in a parade in Gabrovo, the international capital of humour and satire and also the birthplace of the artist Christo. His father worked in a textile mill, Amanda told me. ‘It’s very evident in Christo’s work that he was from a textile background.’ She is in a group exhibition titled, Sensitivity Training, as part of the Humour Biennial. She drew my attention to the fact that Blue Ted has four black plastic teddy-bear noses attached to his chest like nipples. Now, I’m sure the original Blue Ted did not have nipples let alone noses instead of nipples!

On 1 June, Amanda has a show open in Stockholm. She will then return to New Zealand for the Spencer Bower residency. I can’t wait to see her and Blue Ted in person. She’s now thinking about making a Pink Ted. ‘I’m so excited about Pink Ted’, she wrote. ‘It’s like digging up a gold nugget.’ I know exactly how she feels.

Originally published for my Art News New Zealand column, The Listening Room, issue Winter 2022.