Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

John Feodorov

Initiation, 2008, Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, Courtesy of the artist

John Feodorov, Initiation, 2008, Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, Courtesy of the artist

By Lara Evans

Artist John Feodorov works in multiple modes including assemblage, video and installation art, performance art, painting and printmaking. Early in his career, Feodorov focused on transforming toys and playthings into much more serious objects that addressed the, disconnect between pop culture and traditional Native cultures. His Totem Teddies series, begun while a student at California State, Long Beach (1983–92), brings together the wildly divergent cultural symbolism of bears.

The origin of the teddy bear is a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, published in 1902. In it, he depicted a moment when President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a captive adult bear at the conclusion of a day of poor hunting. Within just a few years, toy manufacturers were making Teddy Bears.[1] Feodorov was struck by the difference between the reality of an animal like the bear — large, physically powerful, and potentially dangerous to humans — and the infantilized and non-threatening form of the plush toy. He also wanted to consider the function of totemic animals. Many cultures revere particular animals as powerful spiritual helpers, employing a series of traditional tales, myths and rituals that maintain a beneficial relationship between the totemic entity and the group. Feodorov created the Totem Teddies specifically for a consumeristic society, emulating mass production with tags and accessories for each bear. He created a number of the bears, each identified with particular realms of spiritual influence, such as success at the casino. The casino bear clutches dice and wears a necklace of playing cards — all aces. It comes with a toy-sized fur robe painted with symbols of luck and wealth. Feodorov’s totemic teddies are not for cuddling. They need to be appeased in ritual fashion in order to maintain balance.

Other works that are based on toys are Feodorov’s Possible Healing Device #1 (an “Operation” game that has been modified with representations of important stars and planets that might effect health) and The Game of Good and Evil (a double-ended golf putting device with one end dedicated to Good and the other dedicated to Evil). With humor and whimsy, Feodorov’s assemblages introduce us to the serious consequences of play in a world of complex and contradictory cultural economies.

The Game of Good and Evil, 2001, Mixed media, 40 x 36 x 10 inches, Courtesy of the artist

The Game of Good and Evil, 2001, Mixed media, 40 x 36 x 10 inches, Courtesy of the artist





[1] Peter Tamody, “The Teddy Bear: Continuum in a Security Blanket,” Western Folklore 33, no. 3 (July 1974): 231–238.