Beth Cameron's studio is a chalet-style building a short walk
from her family's stone house in western Pennsylvania. The studio,
nestled on a wooded bank adrift with springtime fiowers and shaded
by a century-old pine, provides the contained environment within
which this extraordinarily talented and energetic artist works her
Inside, the rooms in which Beth crafts her Father Christmases
are loaded with treasures, mystery and fun. "To costume and
accessorize my work I collect everything-small-scale furniture,
antique fabrics, trim and buttons, miniature books, leather, old
fur coats-you name it and it's probably here someplace," Beth
laughs, "waiting to be used for a chiId doll or Santa costume,
to fill a pack or flesh out a vignette. Items I let pass me by I
always end up regretting" she added. "I solved that one
when I decided to let nothing pass me by!"
Thus, salesman sample chairs and rustic doll-size benches are
suspended from nails and hooks hammered and screwed into walls and
ceiling beams. Some chairs were found at flea markets and antique
shops. Others are commissioned pieces, like the signed Windsors
made for Beth by Richmond, Virginia-based master craftsman Fred
Laughon and by Gerald Headley of Williamsburg, Virginia. Drawers,
cabinets and an attic storage area up a twisting staircase from
the studio proper are all filled with the clutter of Beth's collections,
thousands of old and new buttons, bits of veiling and Victorian
handkerchiefs endless objects, each electric with creative potential.
Family members and friends who contribute cast-off clothing and
"findings" to the studio treasure trove are fascinated
by Beth's power to "magic" old objects into exciting new
ones. The artist, an ardent conservationist, has never consented
to wear a fur coat or purchased a new pelt for studio work. Instead,
the hair, moustaches and whiskers sported by her Santas, as well
as the beaver, mink and raccoon trim on Victorian robes or American
Santa jackets are cuttings from cast-off fur coats, flea market
fox stoles, rabbit fur glove linings, snippets cut from Persian
lamb coats, jackets and collars that date from the 1940s. "It's
fun!" the artist explained. "You learn to look at things
and see their potential for becoming other things. My Santas all
have real fur, hair and beards, usually goat or lamb, but the source
is always old fur."
An amusing story of old fur reused lies behind the bonny set of
whiskers worn by a recent Beth Cameron Santa, for whom his own beard
may well be the most bewildering object in his wide ranging experience.
As a child, Beth told us, she wanted a dog desperately. Her parents
did not share her longing, so in an unsuccessful effort to compromise
one Christmas, they gave her a toy dog whose coat was genuine goat
or sheep fur. Needless to say, that dog was not popular with Beth,
and it soon moved to permanent quarters in a remote corner of the
family attic. Beth's mother found it there a few years ago, a dismal
survivor of dust, time and moths, and turned it over to the Artist.
The dog was welcome as a "second-rounder since its real fur
coat made ideal Santa whisker material "So," Beth mused,
"does that particular Santa Claus have dog whiskers? Or are
they goat? Or lamb? It gets confusing sometimes!"
What is not confusing is that Beth Cameron is a supremely gifted
artist whose creative output is straight from the heart, so much
so, in fact, that years ago when the artist experienced a troubled
time in her personal life, her Santas, elves and one-of-a-kind fantasy
dolls echoed her inner distress, edging toward the grotesque creatures
that populate Tolkienesque woodlands or live in the shadowy depths
of a Brothers Grimm fairy forest. As the artist's troubles receded
and her private world became more settled, the change was reflected
in her studio art. It is almost possible to date Beth's work during
the 1980s by the degree to which it echoes dark elves-of-the-hills
elements or is a forthright statement of love within a cheerful,
open and exquisitely detailed composition.
"From the beginning, I wanted to be an artist," Beth
confessed then described her happy student days at Carnegie Mellon
University, from which she graduated with honors and a degree in
the fine arts. "it was while I was a student at Carnegie Mellon
that I saw a Christmas display at Kaufmann's Department Store in
Pittsburgh-a wonderful jumble of dolls and ornaments imported from
Europe. Among them was a German Father Christmas with a stockinette
head. He cost $80-the moon for a student in those days. I couldn't
buy him, so I resolved to make my own."
In the course of the next three years, Beth quietly put aside
fabric, trims and accessories to use for her Santa doll, then pulled
everything out of the drawers where she had squirrelled it. "That
first piece, with its funny cloth face, was a lark," Beth said,
"and since he had been such fun, I went on to craft elves and
For these, Beth turned her back on soft sculpture and used an
imported sculpting clay, a medium she has grown to love. "From
day one, I was fascinated by the waxy, translucent look of that
material,"these creatures were elves, drawn from memories of
childhood readings, an example being the Swedish folk elf she crafted
from recollections of the "tomte' who plays a definitive role
in Marguerite de Angeli's classic, Elin's Amerika.
Beth attended her first New York Toy Fair in 1985, where she displayed
one Santa Claus and a wide range of elves. She quicklv realized
that what was wanted was more Santas, and that her mid1980s "elves
with teeth" were overly realistic, even threatening to collectors.
"It was fascinating to witness people's response to my art,"
Beth said, "and I was quick to shift to Santas and to make
my figures less threatening."
Today, Beth's l4- 22 inch (36cm to 56cm) Santas are among the
most sought-after in the country, despite their four-figure price
tags. "I have to charge a lot because of the investment in
studio time that lies behind individually sculpted pieces. Also,
there is a pretty steep monetary investment behind the figures-their
antique accessories, the chairs, fabrics, beads, buttons, shawls
and trimmings are all costly," she explained.
Each one-of-a-kind Beth Cameron Santa begins as a sculptured head
and hands. "I think hands are as exciting as faces and just
as filled with personality," she admits. Beth applies color
to the clay directly, then fires the finished pieces. "I find
the lines and wrinkles of age fascinating," she said. "They
are character lines, the record of living. In fact, I'm intrigued
by old faces, old hands, and it kills me sometimes to cover up a
wonderful sculpted face with goat or lamb whiskers and a big moustache.
I've left out the moustache a lot recently and left some Santas
bald, just to avoid hiding the wrinkles. It's funny, but collectors
don't mind a bit. They know very well who the wonderful old gentleman
When finished, Santa's head, hands and feet are attached to a
body constructed from a positioned wire armature wrapped round with
cloth (in the old créche doll tradition) as well as coffon
batting, foam rubber-whatever gives the result the artist is striving
for. Clothing is nonremovable and stitched to the figure, since
the positioning of fabrics and accessories is an integral part of
each artistic statement. For the same reason. recent Santas seated
on chairs and surrounded by wide-eyed, wondering children have posed
problems for Beth who wishes to retain full control of the positioning
of components in her groups. "I want my pieces to stay where
I've placed them," she said, "but I hate putting dolls
into cases and cabinets, one sure way to fix everything permanently.
Since I want everything out in the open and free looking, I've got
a problem that won't be easy to resolve."
When Beth Cameron first began crafting Santas, she saw them as
just that, whimsical figures and holiday gift bearers. Over time,
her conception of this immortal gentleman has broadened and deepened,
until today she tries to embody in each Santa Claus everything that
is good, fine and joyous about Christmas as well as the visible
signs of a long, well-lived life. Her Santas have become less a
traditional symbol of the holiday and more a symbol of the beauty
of age, with its power to draw children-in fact all humanity-into
warm, meaningful, shared experience. "Love is up front with
my Santas, not packages with ribbons and tinsel," the artist
said with emotion. "I'm moving toward more and more individualized
faces," she added, "while at the same time the whole idea
of Santa Claus is expanding to become a very personal statement
of the universality of love and the beautiful interactions achieved
by the young and old among us."