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June 11, 2024

Son of Berenstain Bears creators reflects on his and parents' time at UArts: 'That was the most important part of my life'

Mike Berenstain, who now writes and illustrates the books, shares how influential the shuttered university was to him and his family.

Arts & Culture University of the Arts
berenstain bears uarts Courtesy of/Mike Berenstain

The University of the Arts closed last week. Among its alumni are Berenstain Bears creators Stan and Jan Berenstain and their son, Mike, who now writes and illustrates for the franchise. Above, Mike and Jan are pictured in 2006.

The Berenstain Bears franchise has entertained and educated generations of kids and their families with wholesome tales of a cartoon bear family learning life lessons together.

Stan and Jan Berenstain, the Philly natives who created the cartoon, met as art students at the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts — most recently known as the University of the Arts. It was during their time there in the 1940s that they honed their illustration skills. The couple's son, Mike Berenstain, also attended UArts in the '70s, when it was known as the Philadelphia College of Art. He continues to write and illustrate Berenstain Bears books to this day and has hired a recent UArts graduate as his studio manager and assistant.

RELATED: UArts students, faculty grieve, rally and scramble to find a path forward

Given Mike Berenstain's familial, personal and professional ties to UArts, he said he was disheartened to hear of its sudden shutdown. The school officially closed Friday, as hundreds of staff members were laid off and more than a thousand students were left without a place to earn a degree. The school's closure was announced just a week prior to its shuttering, which set off outcries and protests in the days that followed.

"I'm really sad about it," Mike Berenstain said Monday. "In fact, I had a nightmare about University of the Arts closing last night. There was this kind of crisis conference in Philadelphia, and everybody who had ever been involved with the school was meeting and trying to figure out what to do, and nobody could figure it out. It was a very anxious dream. It shows you what a shock it is to people who have been involved with it over the years." 

It's not exactly a stretch to say that Papa Bear, Mama Bear and their cartoon cubs would likely never have existed were it not for the now-defunct arts university.

'They had great experiences in art school'

Stanley Melvin Berenstain and Janice Marian Grant were both born in Philadelphia in 1923. In 1941, Stan graduated from West Philly High School and Jan graduated from Radnor High School, and they both headed to the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Arts, nicknamed Industrial, on scholarships.

"They met, they said, on the first day of art school in 1941, in drawing class," Mike Berenstain said. "They instantly fell in love with each other's drawings and fell in love with each other."

jan berenstain philadelphiaCourtesy of/Mike Berenstain

Jan Berenstain began attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts, a former name of the University of the Arts, in 1941. Above, she is pictured in Rittenhouse Square that year.

After a few years, World War II "intervened" in their art school experience. Stan was drafted into the Army at age 20 and served from 1943 to 1946. He spent most of his military career at an army hospital in Indiana, where he used his two years of art school training to work as a medical illustrator. It was during his service that Stan began drawing cartoons and publishing them in magazines. 

For her part, Jan decided to take time off from Industrial, which felt like "a big tomb" since all of her male classmates had been drafted. She worked as a drafter for the Army Corps of Engineers and as an aircraft riveter helping to build sea planes for the Navy Yard. Despite their art school tenures being short, their time at the university was formative.

"They had great experiences in art school," Mike said. They had many close friends, people who they kept in touch with for the rest of their lives. They said that all their basic understanding of how to do art came from their work in art school, especially in Industrial. In fact, they said that they drew bears at the Philadelphia Zoo, that was one of the origins of their interest in bears because they were an interesting subject for them to draw."

After the war, Jan returned to Industrial and got a degree in art teaching, while Stan went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study painting. 

"Of course, it's sad the academy is closing its art school, too," Mike said, referring to PAFA's announcement in January to end bachelor's and master's degree programs.

They also got married, taught at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and began working as a magazine cartoonist team. Their work appeared in publications like the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's magazine, McCall’s and Good Housekeeping. Many of their cartoons were also published as book collections. 

Their son Leo was born in 1948 and their son Mike was born in 1951. Both kids were fans of Dr. Seuss, inspiring Stan and Jan to create their own children's book, "The Big Honey Hunt." It featured Papa, Mama and Small Bear, and was released in 1962 with Dr. Seuss himself as editor and publisher. Over the next five decades, Berenstain Bears books have sold hundreds of millions of copies and led to the creation of animated adaptations, toys, games and clothes. There have been changes along with way, including the renaming of Small Bear to Brother Bear, the addition of Sister in 1974 and youngest sister, Honey, in 2000.

'Art school ... sort of established who I am'

Mike's interest in art was sparked by his parents' work and his love of nature. An art history class at Cheltenham High School led him to gain an appreciation for Renaissance art, and his parents' art books and trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art further solidified that passion. He graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1969 and went on to attend PCA, another former name for UArts. He studied painting and illustration there for about three years before moving over to PAFA to study painting — a path reminiscent of his father's. Mike was soon "fed up" with school and had the opportunity to move to New York and become a children’s book illustrator in the 1970s. 

Regardless of his tiring of school, Mike said he still appreciated the life-changing experiences he had there. For one of his art classes, he even got the chance to follow in his parents' footsteps and draw bears that he saw at the Philly Zoo. 

"That came in handy later," he joked.

"Art school ... sort of established who I am as a person," Mike said. "... When I really figured out who I was — and what was going to be my values, my aesthetics, my sense of what's important — it was at art school in Philadelphia, those were the really most vivid, important memories. That was the most important part of my life, art school. So the fact that both these art schools are closing is incredibly sad to me. And I know that it had that formative effect on my parents as well. So it's a very, very, very sad passage in Philadelphia cultural history."

In the 1980s, Mike joined his parents in their magazine work and in 1992 he started illustrating and co-writing Berenstain Bears books. Stan died in 2005 and Jan died in 2012, and Mike continues to write and illustrate the books to this day. Many of the stories Mike tells through the classic characters offer a "slight variance" on situations or lessons the bears have already faced, but he's also found that audiences are "open" to some of his new, creative ideas — like having the family encounter a time machine or travel the world to meet their "real-life" bear cousins.

"The people still want new Berenstain Bear books," he said. "Since the characters have been around for so long, since 1962, people assume that they were only of the era when they encountered them, when they were kids or when they had kids. But the demand for new content is just constant. And we have hundreds of titles and people still want more. So I have to keep doing new ones. Because as long as people want them, I'll do new ones."

Mike, who now lives and works in the Fort Washington area, said that the lack of appreciation not only for arts education, but physical art forms in general, does make his job a bit more tricky — considering that he still manually paints the bears in traditional watercolor and delivers it to the publishers, who scan and digitize it.

"Of course, everything in the publishing process is in a digital form," he said. "I have a hard time finding art materials for physical art. Certain kinds of equipment, I bought samples of it years ago and I'm hoping it just lasts because you can't get it anymore. ... I've experimented with digital, but I don't enjoy it. I like the actual hand doing the painting or drawing. To me, that's part of the art experience. And if I couldn't do it that way, I think I just wouldn't do it."

Mike has three children of his own — who work as a farmer, teacher and nurse — and can't imagine himself or any of his kids ever facing such a "catastrophic, epic failure" as what the UArts community is going through. He hired his assistant, a 2024 UArts graduate, while she was still completing her final thesis, and he says that she is still in "great shock." 

He hopes some of the students who were still set to finish their degrees at UArts can get into other Philly arts programs, like those offered at Moore College of Art & Design or Temple University's Tyler School of Art. But he mourns for the students who won't get to experience UArts, or PAFA for that matter, in the way they had hoped.

"It's a devastating thing for these students," Mike said. "The fact that there's so little support and interest for art education now ... it's just a bad thing for Philadelphia."

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