CHillie the Polar Bear gets her own love letter

by Rebecca Thornburgh
Posted 2/8/24

Editor’s note: Chestnut Hill’s beloved CHillie the Polar Bear is back on the Avenue, set for her unveiling on Saturday.

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CHillie the Polar Bear gets her own love letter


Editor’s note: Chestnut Hill’s beloved CHillie the Polar Bear is back on the Avenue, two years after being sent home for some much-needed love and repair. At the moment, she’s still shrouded in plastic, but she’ll get her big unveiling on Saturday, during the Chestnut Hill Business Association’s “Love, Chestnut Hill” celebration of Valentine’s Day. This time, she comes wearing an impervious layer of airplane-grade protection against would-be vandals. 

My love story with CHillie the Polar Bear spans 16 years and what feels like about a million hours of sketching, painting, inking, and thinking. After creating her first coat of many colors with wacky scenes back in 2008, I repainted her from head to toe twice: once in 2015, and then again in 2022-23, when after some troubling defacement, plus general wear and tear, it was clearly time to take on a second major facelift. 

Creating CHillie’s art required fistfuls of paintbrushes, scores of black fine point markers, countless cans of Diet Coke, and a boatload of ibuprofen – essential after long hours twisted into all kinds of weird and cramped positions to wield a tiny paintbrush.

CHillie's decorated world is all about being "Bearly Chestnut Hill." I gave CHillie her name because first, she's a polar bear, so she's chilly, of course, but mostly because she belongs here in Chestnut Hill. 

From left to right, she has gazillions of funny little details that evoke our community as it turns from spring to summer, then fall, and winter,  Look closely and you’ll see a suggestion of Pastorius Park with its performance space, picnicking, a pond, our two train lines, Morris Arboretum with its sculptures, swans, and wonderful handcrafted miniature railroad, plus more than sixty other individual quirky shops and locations that could be in Chestnut Hill. 

And because we’re part of the great big city of Philadelphia, CHillie’s "Off-Center City" island features a take on the Art Museum, Boathouse Row, and City Hall (with a statue of William Penn as a bear). 

Then there's general silly weirdness in details like the island with sheep having a book club discussion, Duane Allman driving a peach truck, a penguin painting two snow people in the pose of the classic 'American Gothic' painting, a crayon bus full of bears, Bilbo Baggins's round green front door, an alien planet, a dinosaur island, a field of growing pizza slices, and a whole bunch of bears and birds and lizards and bunnies and fish happily strolling through the neighborhood, chatting and drinking coffee while they walk their dogs, or sit and read. 

They’re doing all the things that make our neighborhood community such a special, friendly, and welcoming place to live.

As a storyteller for kids, It has been such a delight and thrill for me to create the world of "Bearly Chestnut Hill" on the landscape of CHillie the Polar Bear bench. I so hope that all these whimsical little scenes will continue to bring some delight and fun to people who stop on the Avenue to visit with CHillie – even if it's just for a minute. 

I've created a website for CHillie, which will include details about her art, and fun stuff for kids, along with the story – in her own words – of how she was made. I hope you take a look. She also has her own Instagram account (@chilliepolarbear) so you can tag her in your pix when you stop by.

Chestnut Hill resident Rebecca Thornburgh is a writer and illustrator of children’s books.