A chocolate-brown pit-bull puff, reminiscent of Our Gang’s Petey, has a cute yet razor-sharp underbite. A fluffy albino lab rat has an unsettling third eye that contrasts with adorable pink ears and tail. Mr. Bones, a green-boned skeleton, has a slightly fractured skull. Indeed, Sarah Flake’s plush toys always come with a little angst.
“I call them ‘plush with issues,’” says Flake, busy in preparation for the First Friday on Nov. 4. “I tend to sew some of my own issues into them because it’s cathartic. We’re all a bit conflicted, like that pit-bull. He’s a softie but also mean sometimes.”
The 32-year-old claims to loathe commercial toy products because they’re “one-dimensional” and rarely fraught with common emotions. Instead, she imbues her plushies with vulnerability, giving them an “edge.”
“I want people to relate to my toys, to go through my toys and find one that reflects their own personality or that they can connect with,” says the Henderson wife and mother of two girls. “I try not to let the attitude get out of hand, though. I want the plushies bubbly, yet also acknowledge that life isn’t always roses.”
You might say Flake founded her toy-making enterprise on a thorny predicament. Her older daughter was driving her crazy in 2007. The toddler wanted a stuffed purple pony for Christmas and would accept no substitutes. Like any good mom, Flake dutifully searched toy stores on Christmas Eve but came up empty. Flake took it as a challenge and got creative. Really creative.
She busted out fabric, a needle and thread, and began making what would be her first of more than 3,000 plush toys. Sure, the purple pony Santa Claus ultimately delivered had a few problems, and Flake got flak for her then-lack of sewing skills. But using leftover material, she dared to imagine again. And again.
In June 2010, she joined the First Friday event, setting up a tiny table in the Funk House, a downtown antiques shop in the Arts District, and started hawking her cuddly creations. Her enterprise exploded—her platoon of tables overflowing with hundreds of plushies, so many that people often assume they’re mass-produced. (“Do you have SpongeBob?” is a regular question.)
“They’re all my characters,” she says. “Some are one-offs; others I end up revisiting. But if a plushy is precious and dear to me, I honor it by never making it again.”
Case in point, a recent and cute bunny with a hook for a paw called “Lucky Rabbit’s Foot/Unlucky Rabbit,” which she designed while doodling on fabric. Eventually, she parted with the one-of-a-kind bunny at First Friday for a song (her toys range from $4-$50), which despite successful website sales is how she really prefers to do things.
“Giving them to people in person is best,” she says. “At First Friday I can see how happy my toys make people when they hold them. Sometimes I think it isn’t art, just dumb toys I’m making. But then I see people get a ‘zing’ when they’re at my tables and pick up a plush.” Flake confesses to giving each toy a quick kiss before sending it off to a good home.
She says she arrived at toy-making relatively late in life (she was 28 when she sewed that first pony). Previously, she’d done every job—insurance, immigration, family services, online humor-writing—under the sun, after studying geology and sociology in college. Her sisters are “serious artists,” but Flake was always a doodler. Only now her doodles are 3-D. And her kids don’t play house; they play “shopkeeper.”
“I thought I was in a void until I found First Friday. My business has taken off ever since.”