It wasn’t until Jeff Fleming began making more money with his hobby than his job that he realized he was in the wrong business.
A logger turned Marine, Fleming was returning to Montana and logging from a California military base when he saw a man carving with a chainsaw on the side of a road. “I thought, ‘You know, I could do that.’ I was always running a chainsaw and I’ve got big chunks of wood at my disposal,” Fleming said.
After spending his days wielding a chainsaw as a trade tool, Fleming started spending his evenings and weekends using the same instrument to craft art. He’d sell his caricature log bears at local art shows and farmers markets. Profits from the bears soon outpaced his salary. “At that point I had it made. I could take what I was doing for fun and make a living out of it,” Fleming said. “It’s not work anymore when you get that opportunity.”
Fleming made the move to full-time artist in 1985. The business took off: Fleming was quickly booked three years out with special orders. In order to meet the demand, he purchased a woodcarving machine for his gallery to reproduce his original work 12 bears at a time. And, in 1993, Fleming partnered with Big Sky Carvers, a Bozeman-based company, and started making clay bears called Bearfoots to be reproduced as resin figurines.
Now there are more than 1,000 different Bearfoot designs produced in several different forms – dishes and cookie jars, plush toys, ornaments, benches, coffee tables, wine holders, clothing and flower planters. Fleming’s bruins have made it well beyond his gallery on the highway south of Kalispell; galleries throughout the country, major catalogs and even Disney World sell the bears.
Fleming’s designs are whimsical; most bears sport a signature smirk and playful or human characteristics. “I like to tell stories with the bears,” he said. “A lot of them are based on outdoor adventures or stories people would have in common – fishing, hiking, playing with their kids.”
Being a member of Fleming’s family or his friend comes with a risk: They’re likely to end up as one of his bears. Fleming walks through the gallery and points them out, each in their bear miniature. There’s his youngest daughter Emily, his “ski buddy,” and him on top of Big Mountain. Fleming and his friend Tom fishing in a drift boat on Flathead Lake. His four kids rushing him when he comes home from work, hanging off his legs, arms and back. His brother Patrick lounging in front of a TV gorging on junk food and beer.
“I get so many of my ideas from events and recreation I enjoy with my family and friends or from people who come in and ask me to make a bear that represents something they enjoy,” Fleming said.
Fleming doesn’t fit any artistic stereotypes; clad in blue jeans, flannel and a camouflage baseball cap he looks as though he’d be more at home in the outdoors than an art gallery. And, Fleming’s never had any formal artistic training despite being able to switch easily from woodcarving to clay to, most recently, oil painting and bronze sculptures.
“When it comes to sculpture I could just always do it. I could see what was inside and create it,” Fleming said. “I think it’s just a gift. I can’t take much credit for that, just have to enjoy it and use it the best I can.”
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